baseball history, bunting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, productive outs, strike zone

My Strategic Line-Up: Moneyball + Situational IQ

I haven’t gotten used to Mike Trout and Manny Machado batting second… and then Snitker decides to slide Freddie Freeman into the Number Two slot.  It’s insane!  Or is it?

Proponents of the new line-up claim that you should want your best hitters to have the most plate appearances in the course of the afternoon.  As far as I know, no skipper has yet advanced Brian Harper or Cody Bellinger into the lead-off spot… but I grasp the general principle.  It is said (not always accurately) that yesteryear’s manager wanted a scrappy get-on-base hitter to lead off, a good bunter to follow who would sacrifice him over, and then the team’s best all-round hitter coming third.  The big bruisers wait to get their licks in the fourth and fifth positions, Six has some power but a rather anemic average, and then the bottom third… well, with the pitcher occupying Nine, the only remaining decision is the difficult Eight assignment.  You need somebody there who’s aggressive enough to go out of the zone successfully and do damage in front of the pitcher, but not so aggressive that he’s getting himself out with the same consistency as the .035-batting Slim Moundsman.

To cut to the chase, the old-school system pretty much conceded that one third of the line-up was virtually good for nothing.  Weak hitters were concentrated there.  Better to go three-up-and-three-down every second or third inning than to have rally-killers stitched throughout the batting order.

Yet even with the jettisoning of the pitcher’s turn at bat (and I suspect that the DH is now here to stay in both leagues: might as well be, since pitchers take no interest whatever in offensive preparation today), the New Way doesn’t seem to me all that different.  It may even magnify the effect I just identified: best hitters crowded toward the top, weaker hitters—elbowed to the bottom—told to take a lot of pitches in hopes of copping a walk or at least elevating pitch count.  Or stroke a homer.  Everybody now strokes homers… once in a while.  Even the humblest big-league second baseman hit 22 last year in Triple A, while batting .231.

So… what do you think of all this?  Again, the claim made by the talking heads is that the classic strategy played for single runs here and there, whereas today’s strategy is to keep betting Seven because you enjoy such a big payday if the bead stops at just the right place in the dish.  Is that really a fair statement of the contrast: playing for one run in the first, third, fifth, and seventh vs. tallying six runs in single innings every third game?  How many of those four-run games are losses?  How many losses are nestled between those nine-or-ten-run victories?

The sabermetrics guys could answer such questions with minute precision.  The problem is that we have no control group—no team legitimately going Old School to compare with the overhauled offensive strategies.  Even if a manager tried to resist the trend (and I don’t watch enough baseball now to propose a specific example… the Cardinals, maybe?), he would still inherit Emiliano at second base with his 22 taters, .231 BA, and .294 OBP.  You can’t play any hand but the one you’re dealt.

If I were granted king-for-a-year powers, there are lots of things in our confused, decaying society that I’d attempt to mend before undertaking to manage a ball club; but were I to be given carte blanche as a GM/manager, I’d strive to produce Moneyball, Part II.  That is, I’d select role-players rather than guys with eye-popping but contextless stats.  My roster would be filled with Tommy La Stellas and Bryan Reynoldses.  And here are some of the criteria which I would apply in making my selections.

Lead-Off: takes a lot of pitches, at least early in the game.  Lets everyone in the dugout see what Fireball Frank has today.  Hits to all fields, and keeps his drives low.  Good speed; can steal a base when needed.

Two Hole: very similar to lead-off, in that he takes close pitches before two strikes, hits to all fields, and doesn’t elevate his contacts.  Left-handed, so that he can exploit the gap when the lead-off man reaches and also give himself a better chance of frustrating a double-play attempt.  Notice I say nothing here about bunting.  Moving a runner from first to second with a sacrifice has a rather low probability of producing a run later, even when the bunt comes with no outs.

Third Spot: yes, my best all-round hitter.  High average, also show power (especially up the alleys for extra-base hits), can go out of the zone—especially on the outside corner—effectively and drive the ball; very high contact ratio; very confident in his abilities.  Again, I stress doubles and not home runs.

Clean-Up: Mighty Casey steps to the plate.  I’m certainly not waging war on four-baggers—we need Casey to hit his 35 per season.  But we need other, more subtle contributions from him, as well.  Hold on to your chairs: I’d like Casey, even more than the first or second hitters, to know how to bunt!  There will be many late-inning situations during the year when two outs have already been recorded against us and the Great One simply needs to get that one run home from third, or when no outs have yet been logged and the tying or winning run is on second.  Sure, I’m paying Casey a Cadillac salary (as Fritz Ostermueller would say) because he hits bombs… but at just this moment, a bomb is statistically improbable, whereas the infield is playing so deep that a bunt hit should be a given.  I don’t need a clean-up T-Rex who also kays twice a game and pops up when he isn’t clearing the fences.  I need a little humility and common sense to go with that energizing confidence.  I need Mike Schmidt, not Bye-Bye Balboni.

Fifth Hole: Here is where I turn everything conventional on its ear.  I know the accepted wisdom well: you have to protect your best hitters.  Maris is protecting Mantle, so you have to protect Roger with Elston Howard or Moose Skowron.  Tony Kubek was a fine hitter, but… protection means a power threat.  McGwire protects Canseco; so, to keep the chain of protection strong, you have to follow Mark not with Carney Lansford—who, while a one-time batting champ, was no heavy-weight—with Dave Parker or Dave Henderson.  Yet I say, give me Lansford in Slot Five.  Give me Kubek.  Essentially, I want to repeat the previous cycle: I want a lead-off hitter batting fifth.  Why?  Well, if my clean-up hitter is pitched around, then it’s probably because runners before him have reached base.  If he has the discipline that I need of him, he accepts the walk.  Now several base-runners are waiting to come home—and I send a guy to the plate who makes the pitcher throw strikes and hits low liners.  So let the pitcher, with runners all over the place, choose to work to this fellow instead of another who’s not quite strong enough and dependable enough to bat fourth.  Would you rather deliver the situation into the hands of a .241 hitter who bags 28 homers a season, or into those of a .312 hitter whose on-base percentage is over .400?  I’ll take the latter, or whoever is as close to him as I can get.  To be sure, in a given season, Elston Howard would likely bat higher than Kubek and Dave Parker higher than Lansford… but you follow my intent, hopefully.  Most teams aren’t loaded with superstars, and I would like my fifth hitter to have a high OBP and three homers rather than a high home run total and a .298 OBP.

Sixth Spot: Just as few teams would have a fifth-slot hitter of Dave Parker’s quality, so too would few have a sixth-place hitter as good at working counts and putting the ball in play as their Number Two hitter.  Still, this is ideally the kind of guy I’d like: knows the strike zone, doesn’t strike out or pop up, possesses the potential of moving along whatever base-runners he inherits.  The tradition has the Punch-and-Judy types rounding out the line-up at seventh and eighth, preceded by fellows with a little more sting in their bat.  I would flip-flop those selections.  Put guys at Five and Six who get on base (and will move up those who have preceded them on base).  Let the higher-caliber guns who haven’t yet learned to hit a target reliably make their noise farther toward the bottom.

Seven and Eight… and Ninth?: If we’re going to assume the presence of a Designated Hitter, then I would have the same little speech prepared for all three of these bottom-dwellers; viz., “You guys are in the line-up mostly because of your gloves, but also because you show promise with the bat.  Offensively, you’re works-in-progress… and I hope you get there sooner rather than later.  You have potential, but you’ve displayed too little situational sense.  You roll over low breaking balls when you know the pitcher is looking for a double play.  You can’t get out of the habit of pulling everything.  Then, to snap your slump, you take the first pitch right down the middle… or you start guessing, and give up on a two-strike pitch that’s not exactly where you expected it… or you chase something at the letters because it looks very pullable.  Sometimes you’ll hit me a solo home run.  Thanks.  But I need for you to be thinking about why you’re so low in the order, and what you need to do to climb higher.”

Again, the misery of the manager’s job today is that the cards in his hand are all a bunch of One-Eyed Jacks.  They all look the same, and they all have the same objective.  The game has made them so, in the process of greatly impoverishing itself… and I doubt that a big-league manager, paradoxically, has as much ability to reshape his material as a Single A skipper.  Once you’ve made it to the top by pulling hangers over the left-field wall, why should you listen to this mother hen who’ll be replaced by next spring?

So… yeah, why not just let Goldschmidt lead off?

baseball history, Deadball Era, mental approach, productive outs, Uncategorized

Baserunners Advanced: The True Key to a Successful At-Bat

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Last week I found myself comparing the career stats of 1961 rookie standout Jake Wood with those of the second baseman who immediately replaced him in Detroit, Dick McAuliffe.  Afterward, I was started down a chain of thoughts that I knew well—leading to a kind of statistic that doesn’t currently exist in baseball, as far as I’m aware.  During this protracted and enforced lull in our lives, I might as well share those thoughts with you and see what you think.

Let’s take as our point of departure my observation that Jake and Dick both advanced about one base around the diamond per every three plate appearances throughout their career.  That sounds a lot like an on-base percentage of .333… but I was going for something deeper.  Why?  Because not all “bases made” are equal.  Say that two top-of-the-order guys have six plate appearances on a long afternoon.  Say, further, that they advance two bases in that span.  One of them might have walked twice and gone 0 for 4 officially; the other might have gone 1 for 6 with a double.  Who made the higher contribution?  Player A was eligible to score twice thanks to his two walks—but he couldn’t have driven anyone home unless the bases were loaded.  Player B, on the other hand, might have connected for his one hit when the sacks were full and driven home three runs.  Wouldn’t you rather have had B’s afternoon than A’s?

By the same token, a 2-for-6 with a pair of singles is better than an 0-for-4 with two walks: a walk is not as good as a hit.  Why not?  Obviously, because a single drives home a run from third, and usually from second—or it advances a runner from first to third, quite possibly.  So the ideal metric wouldn’t be one that simply notes how many bases the hitter typically advances per PA (plate appearance); it would be one that also acknowledges how much advance he makes possible for other runners on base.

And to that end… shouldn’t our 0-for-4 guy, if he placed three ground balls that moved a runner up from second to third with fewer than two outs, be credited with something productive?  I’m not a big fan of penalizing hitters for grounding into double plays, as the sabermetric designers of WAR like to do; but to the extent that we can fault a hitter for stroking a hard grounder right to a waiting shortstop with a runner on first, I suppose we should also be applauding a hitter for smacking a dribbler to the right side which advances runners while producing only an out at first.  I’m not sure how much intent is involved in either case, especially as today’s game is played.  But let’s try to be consistent in our logic.

One of my pet gripes is also addressed by these considerations.  It’s commonly said nowadays that a home-run king who bats .250 is more valuable to his club than a .358 marvel who logs six homers all season.  Is this necessarily true?  Doesn’t it depend heavily on when Big Bruno clubs his steaks?  Good pitchers will often serve up gopher balls in the late innings with a comfortable lead if Sasquatch steps to the plate surrounded by empty sacks.  For my money, a guy who can double with the bases loaded is worth a lot more than a guy who homers routinely for just one tally.

Again, the sabermetricians like to treat the number of men on base when a home run is struck as a matter of arbitrary circumstance—no more under the hitter’s control than whether or not the sun dipped behind a cloud just before he made contact.  Runners just happen to be on base sometimes, the way a cloud just happens to look like a camel. And yet, the same analysts want us to believe that batters deserve blame for hitting into double plays!

What I’m edging toward is a statistic that would reward the hitter for advancing runners besides himself, however his plate appearance is scored in the books.  On the flip side, the hitter should also stand liable for runners removed from base, whether or not he reaches safely: this would be my concession to the “double play” police, and also a reasonable admission that grounding into a fielder’s choice isn’t really a neutral outcome, since it costs the offense an out.  In fact, I’d go even farther along this line.  I would lobby for the hitter’s having something subtracted from his metric when he strikes out or pops up with runners on first and second.  I think he should take two deductions for that.  Two runners were not advanced: that’s not the result of a successful plate appearance.

If you see how this is tending, then the following scenario will make sense.  Runners on first and second, batter hits weak grounder, one runner reaches third but the other is forced at second, batter safe on fielder’s choice.  The award of points for this effort is one.  The forced runner is a subtraction, but the batter was able to beat the relay to first—restoring the subtraction and setting his total to zero.  The runner who moved to third shifts him one point into the “credit” column: not a great AB, but not a total wipe-out.

I’d really like to see how a metric of this kind would work over an entire season.  I wish I’d thought it up during my coaching days.  It not only would have given me a much more objective picture of my players’ offensive productivity than I could create from hunches; it would also have handed me a number I could use to perk a kid up who kept grounding out but didn’t whiff and reliably moved runners along.  Did you go 0-for-5 but moved six runners up a total of six bases without producing any outs except your own at first base?  Then you’re six up on our Baserunners Advanced Index.  You had a good day!

N.B.: We’re not going to deduct anything for your failure to advance yourself.  You get a point if you each first safely but don’t lose one if you fail. You weren’t actually on base to start with, so the value added for the groundout, in and of itself, is a mere 0.

Note, too, that the hapless hitter who comes to the plate with nobody on base, over and over, isn’t penalized for having unsupportive teammates.  Sabermetricians rightly bring RBI totals into question for this reason.  My metric would make the “lucky” guys who keep striding into the box with ducks on the pond responsible for whether the duckies swim farther.  Suddenly your heralded RBI leaders aren’t necessarily so lucky any more.  If they do their job, they get a boost in the stats; if they don’t, they take a hit.  A strikeout with the bases loaded is a Minus Three.

I’d love to see how a professional hitter like Nick Markakis would fare in such a measurement against, say, the lovable but often struggling giant, Aaron Judge (or anyone else who better resembles the late great Adam Dunn).  Those of you who are fans of the movie Moneyball and of the idea behind it would share my enthusiasm, I’m sure.