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We've Got The Smallest Ball of Them All!
2005-10-12 10:11
by Mike Carminati

Tonight the White Sox and Angels locked up in an old fashioned pitchers duel. Both starters, Paul Byrd for the Angels and Jose Contreras for the Sox, pitched well. The game came down to a handful of plays and to a little term that has become baseball's version of Intelligent Design, Small Ball, or as Ozzie Guillen, Chris Myers reminds us, terms it "Smart Ball".

You are going to hear mentioned oftentimes by Tim McCarver that the Sox lost this game because they didn't "execute", but I contend that their failure was in omission not commission (or words to that effect). The White Sox had five small ball mishaps in the game. They failed to get a bunt down three times and had two men caught stealing (one on an apparently busted hit-and-run play), and leadoff hitter Scott Podsednik was involved in one of each type of play. All of them came with the Sox trailing by a run, 3-2.

In the Fifth with one out Podsednik was caught stealing with one out and the Sox down by a run.

To lead off the sixth, Jermaine Dye, the number three hitter who hit 31 home runs in the regular season, bunted to lead off the inning. The number three hitter bunted for a hit!?! He popped up to the pitcher instead.

In the seventh, A.J. Pierzynski was on first with one out. Scott Shields had just relieved Paul Byrd (prior to Pierzynski reaching on a fielder's choice). With Joe Crede up, the slow-footed catcher, who was 0-for-2 in steal attempts this year and hasn't successfully stolen a base since 2003, two franchises ago for him, took off for second on an apparently busted hit-and-run play (or "run-and-hit" as McCarver will constantly remind you or "hump-or-death" as Mel Brooks termed it in "The History of the World, Part I"). He was way out.

The piece d'resistance was Scott Podsednik's failed bunt attempt in the eighth. Number nine hitter Juan Uribe, who had singled, was at first, and none were out. The top of the order in Podsednik was at the plate. Podsednik flailingly failed to get the bunt down in fair territory twice. He then was called out on a back-door change on the outside corner. Iguchi flied out to second before Dye singled to right, and Uribe lollygagged his way back to second after rounding the base and came very close to getting himself tagged out. The inning ended with cleanup hitter Paul Konerko flying out to center.

Finally, in the ninth, after Carl Everett reached on a Chone Figgins misplay, Aaron Rowand bunted way too blatantly, and Figgins redeemed himself by getting the lead runner at second. The White Sox failed to score, and the game was done.

Let's use Baseball Prospectus's tool, run expectancy, which they create based on the actual results for a given year, to determine how well conceived these small ball plays were given the real results for all similar situations for the 2005 season.

For the Podsednik caught stealing: One out and a man on first has a run expectancy of 0.5487. One out and a man on second has a 0.6911 run expectancy. It's nice to set up the runner in scoring position, but given that Podesnik was successful just 72% of the time this year on stolen base attempts, I think the risk is too great and the payoff too little.

For the Dye leadoff bunt in the sixth, had he succeeded, he would have increased the runs expected from 0.5165 to 0.8968 or 0.3803. However, given that Dye hit 21 homers in 309 at-bats with the bases empty, batted .298/.352/.576/.928 with none on, and has not had a successful bunt attempt for a sacrifice—I know this was for a hit—since 2001 in Kansas City, I would say the bunt was a bad bargain.

Next, the busted hit-and-run in the seventh: the goal is to get the slow moving runner to third on a hit, the result being first and third, one out, or at least to get them out of the double play. They got bases empty, two outs. The run expectancy before the play was 0.5487 (one out, man on first). Of course, had it been successful, the payoff was big—a 1.1830 run expectancy on a hit (first and third one out). However, the payoff for a ground ball isn't so hot: 0.3502 (man at second two outs). And the end result was equally crippling (0.1075—two out, none on).

Let's break it down two ways: 1) Crede gets a single or 2) he grounds out. If he flies out, likely the results are the same (or maybe the runner is doubled off). If he strikes out, the hit-and-run is the worse call because of a potential doubleplay. OK, let's say Crede gets a hit, the hit-and-run improves the results from first and second one out to first and third one out (plus it may clear a hole by diverting a fielder increasing the likelihood of a hit). The end result isn't really so great when you look at the run expectancy—1.1830 for first and third as opposed to 0.9143 for first and second. Basically it sets up the sacrifice fly. Next, on a ground ball, let's say the hit-and-run results in a man at second two out as opposed to a fielder's choice getting the lead runner at second or worse yet, a double play. The run expectancy for each of those scenarios is 0.3502 for a man at second two out, 0.2370 for a man on first two out, an of course, zero for an inning-ending double play. So really, the big payoff is in avoiding the double play grounder but at the same time, it may set up the strike-him-out-throw-him-out double play. It is nice to have a man on second as opposed to first on a two-out single, but it doesn't significantly increase your likelihood of scoring.

Basically, Crede homered earlier in the game and 22 times in the regular season. Why take the bat out of his hands or at least force him into a contact-hitter role?

Next, the Podsednik bunt attempts: With none out and a man on first, the run expectancy is 0.8968. Had Podsednik been successful, the result would have been one out and a man on second, which has a run expectancy of 0.6911. That would be lower. I know we are told to get our men into scoring position, but when you are down to six outs to score at least one run, why throw one away especially when the top of the order is up?

Finally, the ninth inning bunt: Run expectancy for none out and a man on first? 0.8968. For a man on second and one out? 0.6911, which would be lower. And that's assuming that Rowand can get a successful bunt down, something that seemed highly unlikely with the way he was telegraphing the bunt and the way the fielder's were creeping in. And the run expectancy for the result—one out and a man on first—0.5487, is not significantly worse than if the bunt were successful. The big issue is the way that the offense freely gives up the out.

If you want to play "smart ball" as Guillen apparently terms it, why not take the bunt off at the last minute and poke a ball over Figgins' head? That would result in at least first and second none our (or possibly first and third), which has a run expectancy of 1.4693 (and 1.8228). Basically, the White Sox were rusty and impatient at the plate from the time off, and the issue was compounded by their manager giving away outs to the opposition from the fifth inning on. This hampered their chances of bunching a couple of hits and actually scoring runs. How's that smart?

You'll also hear that Chone Figgins' successful small-balling bunt in the third helped push the Angels over the top. At the time the Angels led, 1-0. The first two batters singled. Figgins came up with runners at first and second none out. He laid down a successful bunt and an infield single and fielder's choice later, and the Angels led, 3-0.

Well, those were the last runs that the Angels would score on the night. I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned with none out, runners on base, and the top of my order up, I don't want them bunting.

Come to think of it, I don't even know if I want any of may batters giving themselves up so easily unless they are the pitcher or Christian Guzman. Looking at BP's run expectancy matrix for 2005, one would expect that a team with runners at first and second and none out would produce 1.4693 runs. After the bunt, the Angels had men at second and third with one out. They run expectancy for that situation was slightly lower at 1.4144.

OK, you say what's the big difference? Five one-hundredths of a run?!? Big deal. The Angels did exceed expectations—they scored two runs.

Well, the one thing the run matrix does not speak to is the success rate of the bunt itself. Figgins did successfully bunt, but that's not a given. Ask the White Sox.

If Figgins didn't get the bunt down or the Sox got the lead runner on the bunt, that would leave the Angels at one out and men on first and second. The run expectancy for that situation is under one run (0.9143), and of course, the Angels won by just one run. If you respond that it's very unlikely, given the third baseman is playing in for the bunt, that the lead runner is thrown out at third, OK, let's say the runner at second is thrown out. That leaves first and third with one out, which has a run expectancy of just over one (1.1830). So the expected result is about the same.

Basically, even if bunting were an automatic like an intentional walk, a trade of an out for an extra base for any baserunner, bunting does not buy you anything.

So while the Timmy Macs of the world will bloviate—am I overusing that word?—that the Figgins bunt won the game for the Angels, I submit that the Angels had a chance to break the game open and the bunt helped keep the game close. Yes, they did "execute" and were able to score enough runs to win, but the bunt helped change the complexion of the game.

2005-10-12 13:56:40
1.   Humma Kavula
Nice rant.

Question... are there any situations in which total run expectancy goes down but the expectancy for a SINGLE run goes up? I know somebody did a study like that somewhere, but I can't remember where. BP?

I'm thinking in particular of the man-on-first, nobody-out situation, which is where I'd guess we see most sac bunts. Run expectancy goes down because the chances of scoring multiple runs goes way, way down. Do the chances of scoring at all go up? If not, how have generations of baseball men been so blind?

2005-10-12 16:42:43
2.   regfairfield
Runner on second, no out.

Bunting with a 90% success rate in this situation creates a greater expectancy for one run.

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