Saturday, February 24, 2007

Smallball, con't

There are a lot of good points/counter-arguments being brought up, and it's hard to address all of them directly. But there are two interesting statements that I think provide the best opportunity to dilineate how I see baseball.

St said: 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.

Ryan said: 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.

St's point is that runs are more valuable than outs, and Ryan's is that a team need only concern itself with scoring more than the opponent, as opposed to as many as possible. I believe both points, while well-considered, are ultimately flawed because of the specific circumstance of baseball; namely, that there is no independent, moving clock that restricts opportunity as time goes on.

The relationship between outs and runs is what creates the imbalance in value; one cannot score runs (which a team needs to do in order to win) without any remaining outs. Thusly, the only way a team can hope to maximize its run-scoring opportunities is to treat not making outs as its primary goal. When you cease approaching outs in that fashion, or start trading them for runs, you ultimately undermine your goal of scoring as many runs as possible, because every out in a game decreases a team's scoring expectancy.

But, of course, the goal of baseball is to score more runs than the other team, which is the point Ryan makes (which would support St's argument as well). Well, sure. When it's all said and done, there's no real difference between a one-run nailbiter and a five-run romp as far as the W-L ledger is concerned. But what Ryan is arguing for is a completely outcome-oriented approach to baseball strategy, and that's not how it works during games. Managing a baseball team is a predictive exercise, which means in every situation a manager should make the decision that is most likely to produce the most positive outcome. And the most desirable outcomes of every situation are, in order of importance, preserving outs and scoring runs.

Using Herzog's success with KC and St. Louis, again, as an exemplar of smallball, the idea was that his teams were so good at inducing attrition on the part of opponents through excellent defense and pitching, he could afford to employ hitters who were not particularly good hitters themselves. Without getting further into the vagaries of Whiteyball, this is a perfectly acceptable strategy, statistically speaking, provided one has the right type of players. But, again, how many teams in baseball today actually boast that kind of defense and pitching staff? Truly, none, and even if there are a few, there are far more teams with meddling, "smallball" managers than there are teams with rosters that would suit such a philosophy.

But, most importantly, how is restricting one's potential to score runs ever a good idea? Just because you can do it doesn't necessarily mean you should.

I will say this, not necessarily apropos of anything but important nonetheless: In conversations like these, baseball strategy begins to sound like it's binary. Smallball vs. Moneyball, stats vs. guts. It's really not that way, at all. If I managed a team, I would do whatever was best for the players I have. If I have Carl Crawford, you're damn right he's got the green light whenever he wants it. My point has always never been that the stolen base is bad, my point is that trying to steal bases with guys like Juan Pierre who get thrown out close to 1/3rd of the time is incredibly dumb and self-defeating. My point has never been that there aren't good times to bunt runners over, it's just that it's a much better idea with your pitcher in the batter's box than it is with your No. 2 hitter, unless that No. 2 hitter is Neifi Perez, in which case it really doesn't matter what he does because he's definitely making and out, so he can swing at the fucking ball with a fungo bat jammed halfway up his ass for all I care, it's my own goddamn fault that he's in the lineup anyway (not to mention hitting No. 2 [!]) and I deserve to be fired and replaced by Dusty Baker who looks a little like a lizard and clearly wants his son dead.

Take that, Bill Safire.

There is no good time for a hit-and-run. Or rally caps. Or the wave.

In case you can't tell, this post is the product of roughly 30 5-minute sessions. It was impossible to keep focus. I hope it makes even a little sense, because I'm not even going to bother editing it.

1 comment:

St said...

I feel like this post is a microcosm of all the baseball talk on this blog -- I agree with a lot of what you say, but you're clearly taking your argument too far. There's absolutely no way to justify saying that anything is more valuable in baseball than a run. In essence, by saying that an out -- an opportunity to score -- is more valuable than actually scoring, you're saying that a possibility is more valuable than a certainty. Which doesn't make any sense. If outs were more important than runs, the score would be measured in outs.

You're also still ignoring the entire defensive side of baseball with your statement that the two goals of managing are to preserve outs and to score runs. Which, I think, is what Ryan was getting at with his defense/pitching argument. Obviously half of baseball is making outs and preventing runs. Your argument oversimplifies the issue by neglecting that altogether.

Is the hit-and-run stupid? Yes. Is stealing with Juan Pierre stupid? Definitely. But outs are not more valuable than runs, and defense and pitching are probably the two most important aspects of baseball. Lots of teams with great offenses miss the playoffs every year. Just look at my Phils for an example.