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Imagine There're No Sac Flies-It's Easy If You Try
2003-08-27 16:30
by Mike Carminati

Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give,
And in the light of truth thy bondman let me live!

- Ode to Duty by William Wordsworth

Fly, dotard, fly!
With thy wise dreams and fables of the sky.

- The Odyssey of Homer by Alexander Pope

How many times have you seen a line drive that is snared by an outfielder as a the runner from third tags up and scores a meaningless run late in a lopsided game? The batter gets a sacrifice fly though the last thing he was trying to do was sacrifice himself to stymie a possible rally. So why award his lack of success with a sac fly without an at-bat instead of a plain, old out? Because it's how the rule reads:


e) Score a sacrifice fly when, before two are out, the batter hits a fly ball or a line drive handled by an outfielder or an infielder running in the outfield which (1) is caught, and a runner scores after the catch, or (2) is dropped, and a runner scores, if in the scorer's judgment the runner could have scored after the catch had the fly been caught. NOTE: Score a sacrifice fly in accordance with 10.09 (e) (2) even though another runner is forced out by reason of the batter becoming a runner.

My friend Murray and I started an email conversation on the inanity of the sac fly rule in response to an item in Joe Morgan's chat this past week, in which Joe chastises the small-ball-foregoing modern batters for not going for the ever-valuable sac fly. Quoth Murray:

Don't you think sac flies are stupid? Whatever you think about it as a tactic, at least a bunt is a discrete skill. A flyout is a negative outcome that has the positive effect of sometimes advancing runners a base. On occasion, a club is lucky enough to score a runner from third because of one. But otherwise, it's just an out, and batters aren't supposed to make outs deliberately. Most of the time, the batter isn't trying to make an out when he hits a sac fly. I think it should be accounted for the same way that a ground out that advances a runner home is handled.

Major League Baseball itself has equivocated many times on the sacrifice fly issue. Even though the rule is almost one hundred years old, MLB has had a love-hate relationship with the sac fly. Here are the highlights of the rule's history:

1908: The sacrifice fly rule [10.09] is introduced. The original rule is very similar to today's version: If a runner scores on a caught fly ball, the batter is credited with a run batted in and is not charged with an at-bat. Unfortunately, the sacrifice flies are not recorded as a separate statistic: they are recorded under sacrifice hits (i.e., bunts).

1909: The rule is expanded to include fly balls dropped for an error if the runner would have scored in the official scorer's judgment.

1926: The sacrifice fly rule is expanded to include any plate appearance in which a runner advances to the next base on a caught fly ball. The batter is not assessed an at-bat and, of course, gets an RBI only if the runner scores.

1931: The sacrifice fly rule is abolished. (Apparently, batters still are credited with an RBI though since RBI-to-runs scored ratios remain the same, about 92-94%, from the 1920s on).

1939: The sacrifice fly is reinstated only if the runner scores. No at-bat is recorded and the batter gets a run batted in.

1940: The sacrifice fly rule is again abolished after only one year. A batter still gets an RBI if runner scores on a fly out but he is again charged with an at bat.

1954: The sacrifice fly rule is reinstated to stay in basically the 1909 form.

1975: Foul flies are included in the rule.

1984: On-Base Percentage is adopted as an official statistic and includes sacrifice flies (even though unofficial versions of the stat did not include sac flies).

That's a lot of shifts back and forth on the issue over the yeas. For proof of baseball's still-existent hypocrisy on the sac fly rule, keep in mind that they negatively impact one's on-base percentage whereas bunts do not. Also, a hitting streak (consecutive game or consecutive at-bat) may be ended by a sac fly (Rule 10.24: "The streak shall terminate if the player has a sacrifice fly and no hit.") but not by a base on balls, hit batsman, defensive interference or a sacrifice bunt.

Sacrifice flies are the second-class citizens of the sacrifice world. To quote Yukon Cornelius, "Even among misfits, [sac flies] are misfits!"

So what has the sacrifice fly done to baseball. Well, before 1954 (i.e., 1908-30 and 1939, the first attempts at the sac fly) there is no statistical record of occurrences of sacrifice flies. The at-bats were reduced but they just did not record the sac flies (they were lumped with bunts).

Since 1954, the obvious result of the sacrifice fly rule is to positively affect batting averages since the flyout at-bats were converted to sacrifices that did not enter into the batting average calculation. Slugging averages, since they are derived from at-bats, were similarly affected (and in turn OPS). Sac flies also directly affect runs batted in. On-base percentage, as we already discussed, includes sac flies. No other offensive stat was affected. The runs still score. The pitcher's and fielder's stats stay the same, an out was recorded and a run (ostensibly earned) was scored.

Well, how much are the affected, well, affected anyway? Here's a table from 1954 with the batting average, slugging average, and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) per league. Then the adjusted averages had sac flies counted as at-bats appear next (with the "+" designation). Finally, the yearly differences between the actual and adjusted averages appear (except OPS which is increased the same as the slugging) along with sacrifice fly occurrence (SF/PA) and the percentage of sacrifice flies to runs batted in (RBI%):

Tot (since 1954).258.392.718.256.389.714-.002-.0030.74%6.89%

How about individuals? Are some affected more than others?

OK, for starters here are the all-time leaders in sac flies, first the seasonal leaders and then the career leaders:

Gil Hodges195419
Andre Dawson198318
Roy White197117
Bobby Bonilla199617
Juan Gonzalez200116
Don Mattingly198515
Albert Belle199815
Bobby Bonilla199015
Howard Johnson199115
Magglio Ordonez200015
Gary Carter198615
Ron Santo196914
Albert Belle199314
Dave Kingman198414
Dave Parker199014
J.T. Snow200014
George Hendrick198214
Jose Cardenal197114
George Bell198914
Eddie Murray128
Cal Ripken Jr.127
Robin Yount123
Hank Aaron121
George Brett120
Rusty Staub119
Andre Dawson118
Don Baylor115
Brooks Robinson114
Ruben Sierra109
Paul Molitor109
Mike Schmidt108
Tony Perez106
Joe Carter105
Carl Yastrzemski105
Gary Gaetti104
Al Kaline104
Amos Otis103
Frank Robinson102
Frank Thomas101
Will Clark101
Ted Simmons100

Now let's look at the men who have had the highest percentage of career runs batted in attributable to sacrifice flies (min. 100 RBI):

Bobby Valentine2715717.20%
Nelson Santovenia1711614.66%
Mario Guerrero2417014.12%
Tim Corcoran1812814.06%
Paul Dade1510714.02%
Tom Poquette1913613.97%
Mike Phillips2014513.79%
Jim Norris1511013.64%
Reno Bertoia2317113.45%
Gerald Young1511313.27%
Bob Meacham1511413.16%

Now here are the lowest percentage of RBI attributable to sac flies:

Phil Cavarretta19200.11%
Walker Cooper18120.12%
Andy Seminick15560.18%
Pete Suder15410.18%
Hank Majeski15010.20%
Johnny Pesky14040.25%
Dale Mitchell14030.25%
Willard Marshall26040.33%
Hoot Evers25650.35%
Phil Rizzuto25630.36%
Les Moss12760.36%
Wally Westlake25390.37%

As far as batting titles being affected by the sac fly rule, I can find one since 1954 that would change hands if the sac flies were counted as outs and therefore, at-bats. That was the 1970 AL batting title in which Alex Johnson edged Carl Yastrzemski after both officially ended at .329. Johnson's .32899 gave him the nod over Yaz's .32862. However, Johnson's three sacrifice flies compare to Yaz's two would have given the title to Yaz, .32746 to Johnson's .32739.

So what kind if stat are we talking about here? It only affects batting and slugging averages minimally (historically. two and three points respectively). It only occurs less than one percent of all plate appearances (0.74%). The main beneficiary of the sac fly are weak-hitting middle infielders/center fielders and pitchers. The only real affect is on runs batted in, comprising 6.89% of them historically.

So I propose that sacrifice fly rule be eliminated. If a player flies out and a run scores as a direct result, by all means credit the player with an RBI, just as he would be assessed if a ground out had plated the runner. However, charge that player with an at-bat. Baseball made a mistake fifty years ago rewarding players for possible unintentional results and it is about time that we reversed that mistake.

I see three arguments against the elimination of the sacrifice fly rule:

1) History-Baseball is a very slow-turning ocean liner obeying Newton's First Law of Motion religiously staying in its current motion. It has now accumulated fifty years of sac fly history and that momentum outweighs any possible reason to change things.

2) Statistical inaccuracies-The statistical record for the past fifty years will not jibe with the future's.

3) We'd be dissing "small ball"-Baseball is rife with Joe Morgan's intangibles that make up small ball. Eliminating the sacrifice fly would dissuade players even more from sacrificing themselves and their personal stats to help the team.

Let me answer them one by one. History: If the history of the sac fly rule teaches anything, it's that the rule has been modified often and it has yet to cause the downfall of Western society. Why keep something around just because of inertia?

Statistical inaccuracies: First, the statistical record for the year's prior to 1954 in which the sac fly rule held sway are completely hosed. It appears that all sacrifice flies were recorded under bunts. Sacrifice bunts occurred about 3% of all plate appearances during the Teens and Twenties and had an all-time high of 3.72% in the 1917 AL season. With the original introduction of the sac fly rule, sacrifice hits increased about 25% in each league. They shot up 18% in the AL and 39% in the NL when the sac fly rule was expanded in 1926 to include all flyouts after which runners advanced. With the 1930 elimination of the sac fly rule, sacrifice hit rates dropped by 50% in the AL and 38% in the NL. The one-year revitalization of the rule caused sacrifice hits to shot up by over 50% (54% in the AL and 68% in the NL). 1940 witnessed a similar decrease of 42% in sacrifices per plate appearances in each league as the rule was again abolished. The statistical history, at this point, for all sacrifices is completely beclouded.

Second, the years in which the sacrifice fly rule did not exist cause enough inaccuracies on their own to thoroughly muddy the water. Eliminating the rule now would be consistent at least with a greater amount of baseball's history.

Small Ball: My first answer to this comment is a question. Did small ball originate in the Fifties, because that's as far back as the current sac fly rule goes? If not, then were batters in the Thirties and Forties dissuaded from hitting sac flies to help the team?

Besides, if we want to reward a player for sacrificing himself to the strategies of small ball, the sac fly stat is a poor compensation. Why not record the sacrifice fly as an out and an at-bat, but record it along with a number of other sacrifices under a new stat, which I would call "Out with Consequence" (call it Indifferent Sacrifice, I don't care). I propose that an Out with Consequence would include the following and would record an RBI if a run scores (same as today):

- Sacrifice Flies

- Flyouts that advance a runner

- Groundouts that score a run

- Groundouts that advance a runner

- Strikeouts on a busted hit and run

There are probably others that I couldn't think of. However, I would keep sacrifice bunts out of the mix. The reason being that bunts are obvious and intentional but the sacrifices that I list above are not. You know that someone is bunting if he squares to bunt. If someone hits a fly ball to left with a runner at third, is there any real way to be certain that it was what he intended to do? No, there isn't. Also, he may be trying to lift a ball out of the infield to score a runner and popup to short or strikeout. With a sac fly, it's the results not the intention. Baseball itself segregates sacrifice flies from bunts by including the only former in on-base percentage.

I would propose that bunts still be recorded separately and suggest that failed bunts (either by strikeout or a force out of the lead runner) be tracked as well. How many times are we told that a bunt is the correct strategy? Well, if you know that a player only bunts successfully 10% of the time, wouldn't that change your mind? Wouldn't it be nice to gauge the success of bunts empirically? Does their success rate merit their use in the middle innings of a close game? If the opposition fields the bunt well (i.e., their opponents have a low success rate), shouldn't we consider a different strategy? Well, we can't answer those questions now because we just record successful bunts. Unsuccessful bunts are just plain outs.

I think that the Out with Consequence would best capture what baseball was originally trying to record and as Wilfred Brimley said, it's a tasty way to do it. It would not arbitrarily choose the sac fly strategy and ignore a boatload of others. And most importantly it wouldn't reward a player with a free plate appearance for an unintentional consequence.

I propose adopting it and retroactively subsuming sac flies under its heading. Also, the sac flies from 1954 to today should become at-bats. The previous sac fly eras (1908-30 and 1939) would still be slightly off but unless retrosheet can differentiate between bunts and sac flies, I'm willing to live with it.

The end result would be that the small-ballists would then have a real stat from which to pontificate. "Jones may only get on-base 30% of the time, but he leads the league in Outs with Consequence. He is a real team player." And we of the sabermetric bend would have a means to refute their argument ("But Smith gets on base 37% of the time with about the same number of Outs with Consequence. And he is successful in 90% of his bunt attempts. Isn't that more valuable?") It's not the final answer in the "small ball" debate, but it at least allows us to conduct a more substantive discussion of the matter.

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