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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Small Ball Index 

I thought I might look at the Phillies small-ball index today …

A little while ago I wrote that a new deadball era is emerging in baseball. No, baseball isn’t going back to the days prior to World War I, when the Philadelphia Athletics were the best team in baseball and hitting twenty home runs eclipsed what most teams did in a season, but the game is being deadened a little. I credit not only the increased scrutinty on steroids, but also the backlash against the book Moneyball and the success of small-ball teams like the Anaheim Angels. Let me talk a little about the influences on the game before turning to what the Phillies are doing:

Sports Illustrated’s piece on baseball’s second-half of the season labeled the Angels as a contender for this season – noting their impressive pitching staff – and also named them as a potential powerhouse into the future – noting their aggressive and savvy owner, their robust payroll and their well-stocked minor league system. Don’t underestimate the influence that an Angels pennant this season could have on baseball’s future. Baseball is like any sport – success breeds imitators. After the San Francisco 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX in 1994, every team suddenly was enthralled with the West Coast offense and jumped to employ it in their offensive sets. Like many who read this blog, Moneyball was a major influence on my thinking, as were the writings of Bill James. I’ve always admired people who have ideas that change the world around them. Walsh has always been a hero of mine because his West Coast offense has utterly changed the way NFL teams approach the game of football. Teams adopted the 49ers short-passing style and now virtually every team in the NFL runs some sort of variation of the West Coast offense.* There isn’t a single team in the NFL who hasn’t felt the effect of the spread of Bill Walsh’s philosophy through the league.

* Moneyball author Michael Lewis has a book out entitled The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, where he traces this evolution, which really was a product of the AFL, the upstart league that challenged the NFL in the 1960’s. According to Lewis, the true author of the West Coast offense was Sid Gillman, the coach of the San Diego Chargers, who utilized the vertical passing game to stretch the field when he coached the Los Angeles – later San Diego – Chargers. Guys like Don Coryell and Bill Walsh took Gillman’s ideas and fleshed them out. Coryell and the Chargers of the 1970’s and early 1980’s tried to stretch the field vertically, while Walsh and the West Coast offense stretched the width of the field, utilizing the short passing game to spread the defense out.

Same thing with baseball. The success of the Oakland A’s and the spread of the gospel of Moneyball has had tremendous effect. Teams moved to embrace On-Base-Percentage (OBP). The A’s philosophy to employ the home run as a team’s primary offensive tool has had tremendous effect throughout the league.

The Angels are the anti-Moneyball team. They bunt, they steal bases, they hit-and-run. They thrive on doing “the little things” that apparently Moneyball teams don't do. They draft high school players rather than college players like the A’s. An Angels triumph in 2007 will shape the thinking of teams for years to come. Suddenly, the A’s are no longer the blue-print for success.

Don’t under-estimate the anti-intellectual backlash against Moneyball. While many embraced the book and suddenly discovered the writings of Bill James, others covered their heads in the sand and embraced what was familiar, what they were taught. I’ve compared the differences between the Moneyball and anti-Moneyballers as being akin to the Protestant / Catholic split. The Protestant Moneyballers questioned the dogma of baseball’s Holy Church and the Catholic anti-Moneyballers clung more aggressively than ever to their faith. We are today at the beginning of baseball’s counter-reformation. Expect to see the writings of Bill James lose influence in the minds of baseball executives. All the counter-reformists need is a writer to crystallize their own beliefs in print. (Calling Joe Morgan?) Buzz Bissinger’s Three Days in August comes the closest, and could still becoming the bible of Anti-Moneyballers if a much-discussed movie ever gets made.

(In the interest of full disclosure I am a Catholic. Not to ignite a religious war here, but I am going to say that I’ve found that the Catholic Church, for all its faults, is a more progressive and intellectual institution than most fundamentalist Protestant Churches. I note that so that my foregoing comments aren’t perceived as being anti-Catholic.)

And steroids. I already talked about them enough yesterday in reference to Barry Bonds. Let’s move on …

I think there is ample evidence to show that the home run is in decline. According to The Sporting News, at the start of the season 33.3% of all runs scored in baseball games came via the home run, a decline from 36.9% in 2004. According to The Sporting News, home runs accounted for all of the runs scored in baseball games:

1957: 30.6%
1961: 33.7%
1967: 28.9%
1968: 27.2%
1976: 23.4%
1977: 30.8%
1987: 35.3%
1997: 33.9%
2004: 36.9%
2007: 33.3%

Notice the evolution here: ’61 was the year of Roger Maris and expansion. The home run declined in the 1960’s with the rise of the pitcher, but teams were still adjusting. In the 1970’s teams had adjusted to the end of the pitchers era with an embrace of bunting, base-stealing and the hit-and-run. Notice how home runs had declined in 1976. The rise of steroids, smaller parks and the like shows in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The year 2004 is the apex of the home run. Any coincidence that this was also the year that the Red Sox won the World Series? The year after Moneyball was published?

Now let’s look at the Phillies. If there was ever an N.L.-Moneyball team it is the Phillies of the recent past. (The availability of the DH in the A.L. helped to facilitate the rise of the Moneyball team.) The Phillies bashed home runs, worked counts, and were a powerful offensive juggernaut in their cozy little ballpark. Last season the Phillies hired Davy Lopes to be their first base coach. Don’t underestimate the impact Lopes is having on the Phillies. With the team’s current struggles placing manager Charlie Manuel on the hot-seat, Lopes would be an easy replacement option should the Phillies decide to make a change this season or next in the dugout.

Lopes was a speedster when he played baseball in the 1970’s, back when teams had reacted to the end of the home run era by emphasizing small ball. That clearly has weighed on Lopes mind as he has sought to reintroduce the Phillies to the joys of small ball. Lopes blames the Moneyball revolution for this calamity. Says Lopes:

Those people [i.e., the Moneyball types, sabremetricians] that came into the game and said the stolen base is a negative part of the game and took the running game out of it have just made it more boring. Too many teams are sitting back waiting for the three-run homer. You’ve got a bunch of guys who are slow afoot, go one base at a time, clog up the bases, and that’s pretty much
what the game has become. A nonathletic-type game. We’ve got too many DHs.

Lopes can’t control what the team’s overall strategy is – Charlie Manuel is the manager and makes the ultimate decisions about bunting, and the like – however, Lopes clearly is having an impact in that he’s getting the Phillies to run more. Thus far in 2007, the Phillies are averaging 0.91 attempted steals a game. Last year they averaged 0.72. His encouragement has seen Michael Bourn go 14-for-14 in steals this season, Shane Victorino go 28-for-31, and J.Roll go 16-for-20.

So are the Phillies actually playing small ball? We are going to look at three major categories: stolen bases, hitting with runners in scoring position and sacrifice hits (i.e., sac bunts).

Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position. This is not an area of the game that the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies excelled at. The ’06 Phillies had a .255 BA/RISP, below the .264 N.L. average. Only the Astros (.253), the Nationals (.250), and the Reds (.243) did worse. Naturally, defenders of Moneyball, like myself, note that this is a somewhat irrelevant stat because the Phillies led the N.L. in runs scored in 2006 with 865. When you can sting the opposition with a 400-foot home run at any moment of the game, relying on getting runners on base is pretty much irrelevant.

The ’07 Phillies are doing pretty decently at this: .266 BA/RISP, fifth in the N.L., and better than the N.L. average of .260. Aaron Rowand is leading the way at .348 (32-for-92, with 36 RBIs), followed by Chase Utley (.311) and Ryan Howard (.309). The much-maligned, much-unloved Pat Burrell is hitting .279 with 31 RBIs in 68 At-Bats. Wes Helms (.197) and Rod Barajas (.111) are, quite frankly, terrible at moving runners this season and are really dragging on the Phillies offense.

By the way, the L.A. Dodgers are once more leading the N.L. in BA/RISP at .291, which is what they did last season (.286). Over in the A.L. the Angels are hitting just .275 with runners on, only .005 better than the A.L. average. The Moneyball teams are predictably not doing well:

BA/RISP (A.L. rank of 14 teams)
Boston: .267 (9th)
Toronto: .266 (10th)
Oakland: .234 (14th)

Moving on … Sacrifice Hits. The Colorado Rockies led the N.L. in them is 2006, with 119, which is surely a shock to those who remember the 1990’s, when the Rockies had four or five guys in the lineup who could hit 40 home runs. The ’06 Phillies ranked dead-last in sac hits with 57, well off the N.L. average of 74.

The ’07 Phillies aren’t trying the sacrifice more. They have 33 sacrifice hits, which puts them in a four-way tie for eleventh in the N.L., five off the N.L. average. This is one area of the team where Charlie Manuel’s mind appears to be made up and he’s resisting change.

Stolen bases … the Phillies rank third in the N.L. with 74 steals, just behind the Dodgers (81) and the Mets (115). What is interesting to me is how successful the Phillies are: an 86% success rate. The Mets aren’t far behind at 82%. The ’07 Phillies should easily surpass the ’06 team in terms of stolen bases. The ’07 Phillies are on a pace to take 126 bases, while the ’06 team took just 92. Here is where you are seeing Lopes influence being felt.

At the end of the season I’ll be curious to see two things:

1. How the Phillies did in terms of Manufactured Runs
2. How the Phillies did in terms of base-running.

In his 2007 Handbook, Bill James tried to define Manufactured Runs and figure out which teams did it the most. James delineated between Type-1 Manufactured Runs (a run coming directly or indirectly as a product of a sac bunt, a stolen base, a bunt hit or a hit-and-run), and Type-2 Manufactured Runs (all others, including runs scored on doubles or triples, sacrifice flies). After James ran the numbers on the ’06 campaign he determined that the Phillies ranked dead-last in the N.L. in the pure small-ball Type-1 runs with 33, 1/3 that of the Chicago Cubs with 99. Overall the Phillies had 148 Manufactured Runs, enough to rank them 12th in the N.L. The ’06 Angels ranked second in the A.L. in both the Type-1 Manufactured Runs (80, four less than the Twins), and in overall Manufactured Runs (190, 34 less than the Twins).

Obviously I don’t have the ability to pour through the stat sheets and get a rough idea about how many Manufactured Runs the Phillies will have in 2007, but I strong suspect it will be greater than what they did in 2006.

James has also sought to quantify base-running in the ’07 Handbook too. Unfortunately he didn’t rank teams, but he did rank players and we got to see that while Chase Utley is terrific (James ranked him the second-best base runner in 2006), the Phillies had a lot of slow-footed plodders on the team (Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell), those DH-types of player that Lopes was complaining about.

I am very curious to see how Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn change the Phillies numbers. Bourn is completely new. Victorino barely played in 2006 and still ranked as one of the top base-runners. The Phillies are trying to bench Burrell more and more. The Phillies have to be a speedier team and I hope that Bill James ranks teams as well as individuals in the 2008 Handbook.

Alright, tomorrow expect a far shorter opus on the Phillies minor leaguers.

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Interesting thoughts about the Phillies as compared to the Angels.

A few weeks back there was an article in the LA Times about the Angels and how they were one of the best in baseball at going from first to third on singles. It seems that this is something which is taught starting in the minor league system and stressed throughout a players time with the Angels. Players who came from other teams remarked on how much emphasis was placed on this and how valued it was from manger Mike Scioscia on down.

Also of note was a listing of all teams and how well they did at going from first to third. Guess who was near the bottom -- the Phillies. This was a bit surprising but it seems while we have some "hares" (Utley, Rollins, Bourn and Victorino) there are also plenty of "turtles" (Burrell, Howard, Barajas). It's also interesting that the two groups seem to be bunched together in the lineup Charlie uses -- the "hares" at the top and the "turtles" down below. I wonder if more "smallball" will be utilized with the likes of Rollins et al. as well as the influence of Lopes as you mentioned.

You don't need to have lightning speed but good baserunning skills -- something which can (and should) be taught from day one when a player is signed. John Kruk is the classic example of this in my mind -- he may have been big but he knew how to run the bases and was quite good at going from first to third.

The Angels have the right philosophy and I can only wonder what the Phillies are doing with their minor leaguers -- is the teaching consistent throughout the minors or does it vary from level to level as a player is exposed to a new manager and coaches?
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