Monday, January 14, 2008
In 1996, Bill Clinton wanted to make a clean break with the Democratic Party’s tax-and-spend past and he was largely successful: his second term saw record fiscal surpluses and a dearth of federal spending. Bill Clinton became the most conservative Democratic President since Grover Cleveland held office in 1893 – 1897. But events like 9/11 and the primacy of conservative, evangelical voters in the political calculations brought about big changes in the governmental landscape. You could see emerging trends in 1996 that never achieved fruition in 2006.
So too I see emerging trends in the game of baseball and in the Phillies approach to it, but I am loathe to go out on a limb and make a definitive declaration about what baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies will look like in 2017. I think the trends I see are significant, but we shall see.
Specifically, I see a definite trend towards small ball in 2008, based on what I saw in 2007, and I think you’ll definitely see teams change their strategies in the coming years.
What is small ball? Well, basically small ball is the strategy teams employ to score runs by means like bunting, base-stealing, sacrifice flies, aggressive base-running, etc. I’ll be referring to Bill James section on Manufactured Runs contained in the 2008 Handbook. James divides Manufactured Runs into two categories: the bunting / base-stealing kind (Type-1) and the sac fly / base-running kind (Type-2). Managers and old school-types love the idea of the manufactured run – the grit, the toughness shown. Clay Davenport has a nice bit entitled “Durocher’s Obsession: Static Versus Dynamic Offenses” in the new book from the writers of Baseball Prospectus called It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over. Davenport sums up the appeal of the dynamic, small ball offense thusly: “Managers have often preferred the active teams, the dynamic ones, partly because these teams let the manager do something.” Managers like Leo Durocher, the skipper of the 1951 New York Giants, and modern managers like the Angels Mike Scioscia like to utilize these tactics. Scoiosca, for example, has seen his Angels lead the American League in stolen bases attempted the last five seasons and lead the A.L. in runners moving at the pitch the last four.
The reason why sabremetricians, and the rare manager like the Baltimore Orioles Earl Weaver, dislike small ball is that teams need home runs to generate offense. Davenport (page 267):
The trouble is that you can’t get a really good offense without home runs. It’s like trying to lose weight without exercising, or running for office without raising money. The gain from home runs is so enormous that any other way requires exceptional – and unsustainable – performances.I see the trend towards small ball in part because of the focus on steroids in the game of baseball has tainted the home runs records of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and countless other players. The era of the home run was done in by Barry Bonds chemically enhanced body. The sight of Bonds jacking a 455-foot home run has left teams with a bitter taste in their mouths. Steroids don’t make you a better base-stealer, so teams are moving in that direction, I believe.
What’s my proof? Well, I’ll cite to three pieces of evidence:
#1 – Manufactured Runs are up. According to Bill James (see, 2008 Handbook), Manufactured Runs were up 2% over 2006. It’s not a smoking gun – and hey, it might be statistically insignificant – but it is there and it is worth considering;
#2 – The total number of home runs were down in 2007. MLB hitters bopped 4,957 home runs in 2007, the first time since 1997 that the total number of home runs did not exceed 5,000.
#3 – The Phillies ran a lot in 2007 and seemed to embrace a hybrid fusion of small ball with big ball. Maybe the Phillies are unique, but they might be a barometer for the rest of baseball. If the team with Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell (two classic big ball slugger types) moved towards small ball in 2007, can the rest of the major leagues be far behind?
Let’s start with Manufactured Runs: the Phillies ranked twelvth in 2006 in MR, with 148. The break-down was rather interesting. The Phillies were dead-last in all of baseball – not just in the N.L., but in all of baseball – in Type-1 MR with 33. Even American League Small-Ball allergic teams like the Toronto Blue Jays (42), the Boston Red Sox (39) and the Oakland A’s (37) had more. Given that the Phillies boasted one of the finest base-stealers in baseball in Jimmy Rollins on the roster, this was a mild surprise. Simply put, the 2006 Phillies tried to bash their way to the pennant and came close when teams actually pitched to Ryan Howard. The Phillies were actually third in the N.L. with 115 Type-2 MR, which suggests that the team was aggressive in many respects.
The 2007 Phillies were quite the change from the previous season. The ’07 Phillies were fourth overall in Manufactured Runs with 169. They were fourth in Type-2 MRs with 106 in 2007, but they doubled their output of Type-1 MRs with 63, ranking them sixth in the N.L. James includes individual data on MRs in 2007, so we can see that two Phillies ranked in the top ten of Manufactured Runs. Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 N.L. MVP ranked fifth in MRs with 32 (15 are Type-1, 17 are Type-2), while Shane Victorino tied for ninth with the Rockies Troy Tulowitzki with 26 MR’s (13 each). The MLB and N.L. leader in Manufactured Runs, by the way, was the Mets Jose Reyes with a whopping 52. Reyes had 35 Type-1 MRs alone.
… As an aside, Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand, surprisingly, ranked third on the Phillies roster in MRs with 14 each. Interesting, Rowand had all 14 of his MRs as the Type-2 “hustle” variety. Burrell split his 7 each for Type-1 and Type-2. I thought this was a misprint, and I might be right: Pat Burrell had zero sac bunts in 2007 and zero stolen bases attempted. That has to be wrong.
Let’s look at the Phillies numbers next. On stolen bases, the Phillies ranked second is successful steals and third in attempts in 2007 with 157, a change over 2006, when they ranked eighth in successful steals and ninth in attempts with 117. With Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn helping J.Roll, the Phillies took 138 bases and were caught just 19 times, the fewest in the N.L. and possessed the best success rate of any MLB team: 88%. The average N.L. team was successful 76% of the time.
What about bunting? Well, the Phillies attempted 84 sacrifice bunts in 2007, a slight increase over 79 in 2006. Clearly the sacrifice is not a major weapon in the Phillies game-plan. The Phillies also had the runners moving 90 times, 3 under the N.L. average, but significantly more than the 69 they tried in 2007. My conclusion is that the Phillies incorporated some more small ball into their plans in 2007, but they chose to emphasize speed. Here I credit former Milwaukee Brewers manager and current Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes, who worked with J.Roll, Bourn, Victorino and other Phillies to improve the team’s speed. Certainly the uptick clearly shows that the Phillies are running more, but aren’t bunting runners over.
Incidentially, for the second year in a row the Rockies led the N.L. in sacrifice bunts. I’m continually surprised that the Rockies are such aggressive practitioners of small ball.
That’s the Phillies small-ball index. As I said earlier, I see emerging trends in the game towards speed and small ball tactics, but I could be very wrong. Time shall tell.