Montemurro: Is small ball strategy still vital?

The White Sox desperately needed a run in the bottom of the 10th.

They cleared their first hurdle June 6 against Oakland in getting a man on base when leadoff hitter Alejandro De Aza singled to right field off Grant Balfour. Trailing 5-4, Alexei Ramirez dug in at the plate, having already driven in two runs. The Sox, with Mark Parent acting as manager, decided sacrificing an out with the heart of the lineup due up was the best choice.

Although Ramirez managed to lay down a bunt to advance De Aza to second, the move didn’t pay off. Alex Rios grounded out and Adam Dunn flew out to end the game, dropping the Sox eight games under .500. Ramirez’s sac bunt was the Sox’s fifth of six this season, which are the fewest in Major League Baseball. Some people within the game argue that’s a good thing.

Utilizing small ball strategy is a concept many believe is still a vital tool in winning games. Small ball is a combination of getting on base by any means and manufacturing runs without having to hit home runs. But as sabermetrics take on an increasing importance in analyzing statistics and evaluating in-game situations, the differing philosophies of deliberately giving up outs to try to score a run has created two factions.

“[Small ball] is always going to have a place in the game,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “There’s been more emphasis in the last 10, 20 years about not giving up outs, but I think it helps challenge a defense.”

Sacrificing outs

The most scrutinized small ball component, sacrifice bunting, often is used to put pressure on the defense and help manufacture runs or, in the National League, as a way to advance runners when the pitcher is batting.

“If you actually study sacrifice bunting when you factor in what actually happens when you try to bunt, the fact that the defense can misplay the ball, the bunt is actually a good play more often than people think,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “If you have a poor defensive [infielder], it’s actually a better percentage play than you would think despite looking at run scoring expectancy tables.”

Sabermetrics doesn’t mix well with the concept of sacrifice bunting because a team is giving up one of 27 potential outs in a game to hypothetically score one run. NL teams have executed more than double the number of sacrifice hits (454) than AL teams (226) this season.

“I still think the game is built around execution, and execution with every aspect of it, including the so-called little things,” Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. “Without that, you better be really good.”

Based on data analyzing previous seasons, ESPN’s Keith Law, who used to write for Baseball Prospectus and was an assistant to the GM with the Blue Jays, suggests too often teams give away an out for the prospect of scoring just one run instead of trying to score one-plus runs in an inning and put up a crooked number. In most situations, the outcome isn’t worth surrendering an out.

“We have way too much data that says this is bad, this is not how you run an offense,” Law said. “We have many managers often considered successful in the majors who still employ these strategies way more often than they should.”

One of the more outspoken opponents of using sabermetrics to evaluate players and in-game situations has been White Sox TV broadcaster and former general manager Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. In April, Harrelson came up with the phrase “the win to win” to refer to attributes that can’t be measured by metrics and ultimately the desire to win. During that April TV segment with MLB Network, Harrleson said sabermetrics has caused mangers and GMs to get fired for relying on them too much.

“TWTW is going to supersede anything sabermetrics brings in,” Harrelson said on MLB Network.
“ ... Numbers are the most overrated thing in baseball.”

Home ballpark matters

The post-Steroid Era still is producing some of the best offensive numbers in baseball history, and home runs remain firmly entrenched as the most efficient way to score runs.

But that isn’t the case for every organization, depending on its payroll, which can limit the money it can spend on a top-tier power hitter, and its home ballpark. While a team’s payroll has the ability to be restricted based on what market it is located in, ballpark adjustments have become a way to help an offense.

San Diego’s offensive futility was a factor in the organization’s decision to move in the fences at Petco Park. The Padres moved in the outfield walls 11 to 12 feet before the season, with the biggest adjustment coming in center field (402 feet decreased to 390 feet).

The dimension changes have
begun to pay off. Although the
Padres ranked 29th in home runs
at home last season with 47 (0.58
a game), through their first 43 home games, they have hit 36
homers (.83 a game). The Padres are on pace to easily hit more
homers at Petco Park in 2013
than last season.

“The run scoring environment has changed,” Padres GM Josh Byrnes said. “We play in a division and ballpark where there’s a lot of low scoring, one-run games, so the ability to score one run or prevent the run probably dictates the wins and losses more. I never believe it’s either or. You have to be able to manufacture runs and you also have to be able to hit a homer.”

The Mariners also adjusted their fences before the season, moving in the wall as many as 17 feet in left-center field. Like the Padres, Seattle’s offense needed a boost. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said small ball “is still a prevalent part of the game and it always will be,” but he conceded player personnel and the home ballpark must be taken into consideration.

“In Safeco, when it was a big cavernous ballpark we were big on defense because we didn’t have the thumpers,” Zduriencik said. “To go get one you’re in an arms race or dollars and cents race and you have to evaluate what we’re investing … in our case we always wanted to have hitters, but we always had to have defense because we had no other choice.”

For some teams, such as Oakland, relying on a combination of well-executed fundamentals and timely homers yields the most success. Oakland and GM Billy Beane are well known for adopting the philosophy of finding any way to get on base, whether by walks or getting hit by a pitch. The book and subsequent movie “Moneyball” highlights the A’s using small ball to fuel their success as a low payroll team and inspired other teams to try and execute the same philosophy.

This season’s A’s, sitting in second place in the AL West and a 1/2 game back of Texas, have hit only 31 home runs at Oakland Coliseum, but their 150 walks, tied for second most in the majors at home, and .326 on-base percentage, which ranks in the top half of all teams, has been a good enough combination to put them 13 games above .500 at home. Their 313 total walks lead the majors while the A’s 28 HBP and 41 stolen bases rank eighth and 16th, respectively.

“Every little thing counts, but you have to move a lot of runners over to make up for a guy that can hit one over the fence,” Beane said. “It’s a pretty efficient way to score runs.”

A balancing act

It would be easy to assume Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein relies heavily on analytics when assessing how to construct a team. After all, Epstein was one of the first to embrace the concept of sabermetrics during his time with the Red Sox. But Epstein looks at more than just sabermetric-related statistics when determining the value of an out versus a run every game. Those factors include the weather conditions, the starting pitchers and the ballpark.

“If you’re playing in a league environment where you expect to score a ton of runs or expect the opponent to score a ton of runs, you don’t want to necessarily give up outs for the chance to score one, and you’ll certainly take outs from your opponent,” Epstein said.

Eighty-one times a season Cubs manager Dale Sveum arrives at Wrigley Field to prepare for that day’s game.

Of all the items on his to-do list, from filling out the lineup card to meeting with coaches, checking the direction the wind is blowing is always one of Sveum’s top priorities.

“A lot of times it’s hard to just play for one run,” Sveum said. “Obviously, here [at Wrigley] you can play for one run or play the infield in because when the wind is howling in, you’re not going to get certain things. You know it’s going to be a low-scoring game.”

The Cubs are no strangers to playing in games in which runs are at a premium. Fifty four of their 78 games (69.2 percent) this season have been decided by three runs or less. In comparison, the St. Lous Cardinals, which have the second-best record in the majors, have had 42 of their 79 games (53.2 percent) decided by three runs or less.

“Outs are our most valuable commodity as an offense, so we’re not looking to give away outs,” Epstein said. “But there’s a time to use it and you don’t always give away an out. Sometimes you can actually make things happen that way if you do it in the right situation.”

White Sox director of amateur scouting Doug Laumann said there has been emphasis in scouting, particularly the past few years, to scout players who exude power at the plate or exhibit athleticism, especially speed on the basepaths.

“We’ve certainly seen a deterioration of people being able to play small ball,” Laumann said. “To be honest with you, we typically do not see much of that because those are the types of things kids don’t do anymore – those aren’t the types of things that get kids drafted or signed. The last thing a kid wants to do is lay down a bunt or hit the ball behind the base runner.”

Aluminum bats in the high school and college levels also deter those players and coaches playing for one run. Because runs are rarely at a premium, it wouldn’t make sense for hitters using aluminum bats to lay down a bunt.

However, there has been a slight shift in philosophy this year at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. TD Ameritrade Park, which has hosted the CWS since 2011, has featured a dearth of runs. Through 12 CWS games this year, 74 total runs were scored marking the lowest total in CWS history, which eclipsed the previous low of 76 runs scored through 12 games in 1973.

Since aluminum bats were first used in 1974, the lowest run total entering this year’s CWS was 91 runs in 2011 and 2012.

“The ballpark is so big and the bats aren’t as juiced up as they used to be, teams are playing for one or two runs now [in the CWS] rather than playing for big innings,” Laumann said.

How Epstein and other teams build their roster impacts the flexibility a manager has in choosing to sacrifice an out for a potential run. But finding players who are capable of advancing a runner by hitting to the right side or purposing trying to hit a fly ball to set up a sacrifice fly through the draft is rare. The onus is on organizations’ development programs to teach prospects the tools and techniques involving small ball tactics.

“Small ball to me is you’re playing for one run typically. You’re trying to ‘manufacture’ the run, and it’s stupid,” Law said. “In an environment where you’re scoring five runs a game, that one run especially early in the game, that’s not how you play. You go for the big inning.”

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