Thursday, February 22, 2007

On "smallball"

My soccer-centric friend has asked a very legitimate question in re: Manny Acta not "helping" his likely mediocre offense this season by trying to move runners along using strategies like bunting and hit-and-runs.

First of all, I don't think bunting is a completely useless exercise, nor is the stolen base. However, I think both tactics are abused like crazy in baseball, because they're conceptually easy to teach and, as Acta alluded to in his quote, create action on the field, which makes it look like the team is trying harder. But statistics have borne out that making liberal use of sacrifice bunts and hyper-aggressive baserunning actually lowers a team's chances of scoring runs, for one simple reason: There is nothing more valuable in baseball than an out.

Part of the reason baseball is the most beautiful sport, in my mind, is that there's no clock. The action moves along at a variable pace, which creates a situation for each game to have a distinct personality of its own. Every situation in a game can result in a team losing 1/27th of its opportunity to win. A bad pass in soccer can lead to a goal by the other team, which is certainly no small deal. But scoring, or bad passes, or flops don't change the opportunity for the teams; the clock is sovereign, and it keeps ticking no matter what happens, which means that every passing minute is 1/90th of each side's chance to score. Conversely, in baseball, every mistake on defense is compounded both by the prospect of the opponent scoring, and the knowledge that the opponent still has as many opportunities to score as it did before the mistake. This is no small difference.

Similarly, what statistical analysis has shown us when it comes to offense is that the most damaging thing a baseball offense can do, in any given situation, is concede an out, or 1/27th of its total opportunity to score. As Acta said, analysis using millions of individual samples has proven that a team has a better shot of scoring with a runner on first and no outs than it does with a runner on second and one out. But Bryan's question had less to do with the "facts," as they were, in general, and more with the specific situation relating to the Washington Nationals, a team that promises to make all other teams in the NL East feel good about themselves.

Bryan contends that the nature of the Nationals' lineup, which promises to feature the worst positional player in the major leagues (Christian Guzman, who also has the honor of owning one of the worst individual offensive seasons in major league history for a full-time player, in 2005) and few valuable ones around him, would dictate that Acta's approach will actually worsen the expectancy of the offense. Intuitively, he's got a point: If your hitters are not good at getting hits, doesn't it make more sense to take what few baserunners you have and advance them aggressively by trying to steal bases or bunt runners ahead? Isn't the "station-to-station" approach better-suited for slugging teams like the Yankees, who have good-to-great hitters at every spot in the lineup?

The answer is still no. And the reason is simple: For a team like the Nationals, which will make outs with relative ease when not trying to make outs, things will only get worse if the manager decides to start adding guaranteed outs to the mix.

Thems some good sentences, there.

Anyway, the "smallball" approach does have some historical support for its efficacy, most notably with Whitey Herzog's "Whiteyball," which stressed pitching, defense and speed on the basepaths. What people tend to miss about Herzog's approach was that, when his teams did well, he had excellent, slugging hitters in the middle of the lineup, and that the "speedy" guys around those sluggers were high-percentage base stealers who also got on base a lot. In short, when "Whiteyball" was truly effective, it was because he had composed lineups (and pitching staffs, and defenses) that were perfectly suited to the task. Very, very few teams in our lifetimes have looked anything like those assembled by Herzog, for myriad reasons.

I could go on like this for hours -- one of the French benefits of getting into sabermetrics is you become a de facto expert on shit like smallball -- but the point is that the Nationals are no re-incarnation of the '82 Cardinals. As Bryan pointed out, the Nationals defend as if struck with polio. The team's pitching staff, save the oft-injured John Patterson and closer Chad Cordero, promises to be as rancid as a morgue after a two-week power outage. The vast majority of the hitters in the lineup ... they're just going to be bad hitters. The point is, the Nationals will likely be bad at baseball this season, because very few of the individual players on the team are any good at baseball. Herzog's teams, on the other hand, had many good players, even if they were only good at a few specific things, like playing good defense, being fast, or getting on base a little better than the average bear. So, let me change the word "good" into "players of utility." That sounds rather noble, considering I'm talking about Tom Herr.

(Interesting side note, at least for me: Herzog may have actually stumbled on the first conceptual relative to "Moneyball," which is often misconstrued as being an anti-smallball philosophy. Herzog put together his rosters the way he did because he found that he could find fast, good-glove guys a lot cheaper than trying to get great "hitters" at those same spots. His was as much a market-based approach as it was a strategic one [not unlike the totally misunderstood gambit the Mets are taking this season by passing on the starting pitching market and attempting to build the best bullpen in the major leagues], much the same as Beane's OBP-centric approach was.)

Looking at the components that make up the Nationals, there aren't many good gloves, only a few guys that are above league-average base stealers (both in terms of total SBs and success rates), no strong pitching staff that will do a good job of shortening the game for opponents, and two "sluggers" in Austin Kearns and always-injured Nick Johnson. Needless to say, on the off chance that anyone in the lineup actually makes it to first base, it would be absolute suicide to then give away 1/3 of your chances of actually scoring that poor, lonely, soul.

p.s. -- I learned today that the Spanish press is ripping Ronaldinho after the loss to Liverpool in the First Leg for being fat. I wonder if internationally renowned Spanish football analyst Dustino Bakerio will accuse Rondalinho of "just clogging up the passing lanes."

p.p.s. -- That's much less funny that it sounded in my head.

p.p.p.s. -- Fuck Chelsea.


Anonymous said...

It should be noted that Manny said that Guzman "may be the ideal player" to advance runners to set up Zimmerman. This is due to his low OBP.
Here we have a manager professing disdain for smallball, correctly IMO, but then states his intention to bunt with his likely #2 hitter.
What is really at issue is how he is judged, by fans and sportswriters. The probable scenario, which Diesel alluded to in his original post, is that Acta will be run out of town, through no real fault of his own.


St said...

I agree with most of your post, I guess, and am mostly just appalled that you're wasting so much time discussing the Washington Nationals.

A couple questions, though:

1. What does "conceptually easy to teach" mean? That the concepts are easy to teach, or that the idea of teaching it is easy? Either way, I don't get it: stealing bases well is not a particularly easy thing to teach, as evinced by the few people who do it.

2. Runs are actually more valuable than outs in baseball. I say that only half-sarcastically -- it's a valid point and one that I think is often overlooked in intricately-statted arguments.

3. What the fuck is a French benefit? I feel like I should know what that is.

4. In what way is the Mets' gambit misunderstood. I hope you don't agree with what the Mets are doing. Actually, I hope you do, so I can disagree. Please elucidate.

Ryan said...

Very well-written post, Doyle.

Still, I think you omitted one common-sense point:

All good teams design their offensive strategy around what kind of pitching staff they expect to have. Teams are most comfortable playing small ball do it because they have the pitching staffs that can allow for it. There's no need to change their offensive strategy.

Like a basketball team that's content to run down the shot clock every possession or a football team that runs the ball 60 times a game because it has a dominant defense, small-ball teams don't necessarily need to score 8 runs a game. They're often content, in fact, to trot out subpar offensive players because they don't feel that scoring a ton of runs is a priority.

My point is that — and you'll kill me for this — THE GOAL IN BASEBALL IS NOT TO SCORE AS MANY RUNS AS POSSSIBLE. It's to score more than your pitchers allow.

Acta shouldn't bunt. Ever. He shouldn't steal a base. Ever. You know why? Because an extra base or a moved runner won't hide the fact that the Nationals can't fucking pitch. Why move a runner if you're either down 8-0, or assured that even a brief one-run lead won't hold?

DC's team enters spring training with just one starting pitcher, temperamental jackass John Patterson. There is a very real possiblity that Mike Bacsik and Jason Simontacchi will make the rotation. Remember Tim Redding? Meet your No. 5 starter.

So you're right, but not for the reasons you think you're right. The only way Acta can have any success in DC to score as many runs as humanly possible and hope like hell his rotation can chug through the season.

Texas Tech's football team throws 60 times a game because its defense can't stop anybody. The Phoenix Suns score 120 points a night because they can't play man-to-man in halfcourt situations. And so it should be for the Nationals, who will need — conservatively — six runs a game to do anything on most nights.

If Washington fans or the all-powerful media run Acta outta town, it's because Jim Bowden didn't give him enough pitching to be competitive.

Whether that's "through no fault of his own", as Mark alludes, is really irrelevant. As Billy Beane reminds us with every firing, managers aren't that important anyway.

Bryan Rosenbaum said...

I'm throwing out a topic I'd like to see on TGWNA in the upcoming months: Mike Stoops is commiting career suicide by bringing in the Air Raid offense.

But anyway Diesel, I get and understand all of your points, and actually agree with many of them (the main fundamental difference is that, being the Washington Nationals are terrible, it doesn't have a chance in hell at working). It would be like me saying it would be refreshing to see Italy abandon their defensive shell approach and open up the offense. It would be great, but probably not successful.

And your Dustino Bakero comment made me giggle.

listening: Fu Schnickens' "La Schmoove"


football tickets said...

i don't blame Ronaldinho for Barca's loss against liverpool.What were other Barca's players doing.Is it a rule that only ronaldinho should preform.

What happened deco,saviola and other great players that barca stock.

if you ask me i would site the recent eto incident has taken a toll of barca's morale and it implicated in the match against