Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Baseball will likely be torn in the holy war between the game’s “small ball” Catholics and its “big ball” Protestants for some time to come. The split, which has been a long time in coming since Bill James began his path-finding work in the 1970s, has worsen of late with the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which hit the baseball world like Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis hit the medieval Catholic Church. Since then baseball’s Catholics have struck back with the incoherent, poorly formed musings of Joe “I Didn’t Have to Read Moneyball to Hate It” Morgan, and with the smug, self-congratulatory thoughts of the Braves GM John Schurholtz (See, Built To Win). The split is argued and debated with the ferocity of the Catholic-Protestant split which led to the Reformation. On one side are the critics who argue with reason and information and on the other are the passionate conservatives who hold true to the beliefs of their fathers and their fathers.
At the moment the Protestants have the upper hand in this fight. With the DH, which removes many incentives for teams to bunt, and with the A’s in the American League, the American League has emerged as the stronger of the two leagues. Don’t trust the St. Louis Cardinals win in the World Series, the A.L. has been crushing the N.L. in inter-league play because the DH and the A’s have encouraged fellow A.L. teams to adopt Moneyball tactics, in whole or in part, to survive. The Blue Jays and Red Sox are currently managed by G.M.’s with ties to Moneyball movement, which has helped the A.L.’s embrace. The stodgy old N.L. has stuck with bunting and base-stealing.
All of this got me thinking: if the Phillies had to choose sides in this holy war, would they be backing the holy church of small ball, or would they be a part of the big ballers rebellion against the old ways of doing things? Well, lets look at a couple of factors:
-The Phillies were eighth in stolen bases attempted with 117.
This team has a lot of speed on it, with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Bobby Abreu having played three of the eight position spots on the team, yet the Phillies showed a real reluctance to run compared with their N.L. brethren. In the NL East alone Frank Robinson’s nats ran 185 times, Willie Randolph’s Mets ran 181 and Joe Girardi’s Marlins ran 168.
-The Phillies were fifteenth in sacrifice bunts attempted, with 79, just two more than San Diego.
Teams sacrifice more in the N.L. because the pitcher batting ninth is a powerful incentive to attempt to surrender an out for a chance to move a runner. The Kansas City Royals led the A.L. in sacrifice bunts in 2006 with 70. That would have put them last in the N.L. where the Padres sac’d 77 times. Teams that aggressively played small ball, like the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers had more. In the case of the Rockies, they had many more: 155. While the Rockies were obsessive about sacrifice bunts (they tried 32 more than any other team, and they were just one of four to have 100+), generally speaking the N.L. teams were more disposed towards the sac bunt. The Mets sacrificed 100 times.
-The Phillies were fourteenth in having runners moving with 69, just 13 more than Atlanta.
Again, small ball teams led the way: the Dodgers had 137 runners moving, the Cubs had 134, the Rockies had 109 … The team that led the N.L. were the Nats with 144. This was less of a league-specific tactic though: the Anaheim Angels, the kings of small ball, led the majors with 163.
-The Phillies were eleventh in Manufactured Runs with 148, just 13 more than the sixteenth-place Reds.
Now this gets us into an interesting area. One of the bigger parts of the new Bill James Handbook is James section on “manufactured runs”. When I review The Handbook tomorrow I’ll talk a little more about this because it is the big new item James includes, but in the here and now this is a quick primer: to figure out how a team “manufactures” a run, James divides them into two categories, runs produced by base-stealing and bunting (MR-1), and runs produced by infield hits, advancing extra bases on singles, scoring on sacrifice flies, etc. (MR-2) Add MR-1 and MR-2 together and you get MR. In theory a team that gets a lot of MR’s, and especially MR-1’s, is a small ball team.
How did the Phillies do? Overall they finished eleventh in the N.L. in MR with 148. The Phillies were third in the N.L. in the MR-2 category with 115:
1. St. Louis: 121
2. Colorado: 117
3. Philadelphia: 115
4. Arizona: 113
5. Pittsburgh: 109
The MR-2 is sort of the aggressiveness run. The true small ball run is the MR-1, of which the Phillies finished dead-last:
12. San Francisco: 53
13. Atlanta: 50
14. Milwaukee: 44
15. St. Louis: 43
16. Philadelphia: 33
The Chicago Cubs led the N.L. in MR-1 with 99, followed by the Nats (85), and the Rockies (81). As I noted before, tactics that produce the MR-1 – like bunting and base-stealing – are less common in the A.L. The Phillies actually weren’t just last in the N.L. in MR-1 runs, they were dead-last in the major leagues. The only A.L. teams to come close to the Phillies 33 MR-1’s were the Texas Rangers (36), the Oakland A’s (37), and the Boston Red Sox (39). If those stats don’t shock you, then they should. The A’s and Red Sox are teams that have definite Moneyball / Sabremetric influences on their management and composition, so in a way the Phillies out big balled the big ball teams.
So I think where the Phillies stand is pretty obvious: I wouldn’t identify Charlie Manuel or Pat Gillick as being true believers in Moneyball / Sabremetrics, but, intentionally or not, they’ve constructed a team around some of the central tenets of Moneyball / Sabremetrics, the idea that the three-run home run is king and that bunting and base-stealing don’t get you too far.
I think you also have to call the Phillies philosophy a success as well. I know that this isn’t the most scientific reasoning, but look at the teams that didn’t play small ball, the Braves, the Phillies, the Cardinals, the Giants and the Brewers. The Phillies led the N.L. in runs scored. The Braves were second. The Cardinals were sixth. Okay, the Brewers and Giants were fourteenth and eleventh respectively, but the best teams were the ones that shied away from small ball. The Cubs led the N.L. and the majors in MR-1 but ranked fifteenth in the N.L. in runs scored. Big Ball works better than Small Ball. I think that much is clear, though I will allow that there is an argument to be made in the other direction (the Dodgers and Rockies were fourth and fifth respectively). My thoughts are that small ball teams need a lot of pieces to snap together. It is a little like launching a missile from a submarine: everyone has to turn their keys together. The Big Ballers can score a run or two at will.
For the Dodgers to score a run they need this sort of a sequence of events: Rafael Furcal leads off with a single, then steals second base. Kenny Lofton bunts, advancing Furcal to third. Nomar Garciaparra strikes out. Jeff Kent walks. J.D. Drew singles to center, scoring Furcal. Kent advances to third on the play. Russ Martin singles to left, scoring Kent. Marlon Anderson flies out to center. Seven batters to score two runs. Many links in a chain need to be forged.
How do the Phillies score a run? Jimmy Rollins singles to center, Chase Utley hits a two-run home run. Two batters, two runs.
That ability to hurt you every time a guy is at the plate is what makes the Big Ballers so dangerous and why the Small Ballers are so streaky. Any coincidence that the Dodgers dropped thirteen of their first fourteen post-All Star games and then proceeded to win seventeen of their next eighteen games? During their losing streak the Dodgers scored just 32 runs in those fourteen games, scored four or more runs just twice and were shut out three times. The Phillies were shut out three times all season. The Dodgers were shut out nine times in the 2006 campaign. The Rockies were blanked twelve times. Mind you, we are not talking about bad offensive teams. The Dodgers and Rockies were #4 and #5 in runs scored in 2006. Big Ball teams score runs more easily and more consistently than their Small Ball counterparts. And avoiding a shut-out is vital in baseball. After all, when you score nothing, you have no chance to win, whereas a team that scores a run could win 1-0.
But nevertheless, you’ll hear a lot of shouting and complaints from the Holy Church of Small Ball. “Moneyball never won a playoff series!” (That one actually has to be amended now, but …) “You need to manufacture runs to win championships!” No doubt Joe Morgan will continue to hold court on this matter, but in my mind there are two central truths that I think the data supports:
-Intentionally or not, the Phillies are a Big Ball / Moneyball / Sabremetrics team.
-Big Ball / Moneyball / Sabremetrics works.
I’ll talk on the Handbook tomorrow …
Baseball Between the Numbers
by baseball prospectus? This book rather clearly shows that stolen bases are quite meaningless, statistically speaking. i dont read a lot of baseball websites (mainly yours, as an ex-pat phillies fan), but i must say in general that while your work is excellent, i do see what i pereceive to be you often falling victim to analyzing things (meaningless statistics) that Baseball Between the Numbers has rather thoroughly debunked. maybe i am putting too much faith in that book - i dont know. but i was quite convinced by its analysis (i am not a baseball stats nut, but know good mathematical reasoning when i see it). The book was particularly impressive to me as its authors seemed to genuinely understand not only the data, but the limitations of the data as well.
maybe you reviewed it already and i missed it. sorry in that case.
i bought that book in a baseball buying frenzy this summer while in the US for a few weeks. Baseball Between the Numbers far and away outclassed most of the rest in terms of analysis. i am not associated with the makers of the book in any way (though i guess at this point it may seem that i am)
thanks again for the work on the site.
i just noticed that i am an ex-pat phillies fan. this was not supposed to be a burrell comment! actually, i like the guy quite a lot, and think the phillies will be a worse team without him. never mind..