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April 26, 2006

Prospectus Today

Smart Ball

by Joe Sheehan

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I need to make a correction to last week's Jim Edmonds piece. It was pointed out to me that Jay Jaffe modified his calculation of the JAWS score, taking into account a longer peak that wasn't defined by consecutive seasons. I calculated Edmonds' peak using the original, five-consecutive-year definition.

Under the new method, the Hall of Fame vs. Jimmy looks like this:

NEW        BRAR BRAA FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Avg HOF CF  731  478    0  108.8   63.4   86.1
Edmonds     555  371  106   98.3   78.2   88.3

*JAWS: (Career WARP + Peak WARP) / 2
Edmonds is already comparable to the average Hall of Fame center fielder. If he retired today, he'd be a good candidate for induction. He's likely to add to his case over the next few seasons, and will retire as a clear Hall of Famer.

On to less enjoyable topics, this is how the Rockies helped themselves lose Monday night, clipped from the third inning of a game they trailed 2-1: Josh Fogg: Ball, Ball, Ball, Fogg walked.
Cory Sullivan: Sullivan reached on fielder's choice to pitcher, Fogg to second.
Clint Barmes: Barmes sacrificed to third, Fogg to third, Sullivan to second.
Let's put that into some exasperated copy. The Rockies were trailing, on the road, with a pitcher on the mound who had started the game by allowing two runs in the first inning. They were given a gift in the form of a leadoff four-pitch walk to that same pitcher, changing a likely out into a baserunner with the top of the lineup coming up. Against a pitcher who had just issued a four-ball walk. To the opposing pitcher. (I'm being repetitive on purpose.)

The first thing they do? Try to make an out intentionally. Cory Sullivan laid down a sacrifice bunt and was bailed out by Ryan Howard's lousy throw trying to get the lead runner. Wow, two free baserunners, 2-3-4 hitters coming up, big inning in the works, right?

On the very next pitch, Clint Barmes lays down another sacrifice. This time, the Phillies take the out. They go on to allow a single run on a wild pitch, and eventually win 6-5. Just an incredible waste of an opportunity by the Rockies and Clint Hurdle.

Sacrifice bunting is generally a bad idea, useful in certain clearly defined situations, almost all of which involve a pitcher or a late inning. It seems like the early part of the 2006 season, however, has seen a sharp uptick in the number of truly dumb bunts. Brian Roberts: Foul, Ball, Ball, Foul, Ball, Foul, Foul, Roberts walked.
Nick Markakis: Ball, Pickoff attempt, Pickoff attempt, Ball, Roberts stole second, Ball, Strike looking, Markakis walked.
Melvin Mora: Ball, Mora sacrificed to pitcher, Roberts to third, Markakis to second.
This came in the third inning of Saturday's Orioles/Yankees tilt. There was no score, and the Orioles were hitting off of Shawn Chacon. Now, the two shutout innings notwithstanding, how many runs does it usually take to beat the Yankees? They score a bit more than six runs a game, so you have to count on getting, well, more than two. Not only did this bunt cut the knees out from under a potential big inning--Melvin Mora, you should note, is the O's everyday #3 batter, and presumably someone they think can hit a little--but it did so in the hopes of acquiring runs that would almost certainly not be the difference in the game. And as the Rockies did, the Orioles gave an out to a pitcher who didn't seem all that certain of getting one on his own. Thirteen pitches, eight balls to start the inning for Chacon, and he started Mora out 1-0. Throwing Chacon an out in that situation is like throwing Richard Kind a residual check.

The Orioles didn't score.

B-b-b-b-b-but wait! It gets worse! Raul Chavez: Ball, Strike swinging, Bunt foul, Chavez singled to center.
Brian Roberts: Strike looking, Roberts singled to center, Chavez to second.
Nick Markakis: Strike looking, Markakis reached on fielder's choice to pitcher, Chavez out at third, Roberts to second.
Now, the Orioles are down 2-0 in the fifth, and they're again rallying against Chacon, who has been anything but dominant. It has been established, with certainty, that they will need at least three runs to win this game. Nick Markakis has cooled off, but Sam Perlozzo likes him enough to hit him second, and he's certainly not a player who's gotten a lot of reps laying down sacrifices. Which he shows by bunting the ball too hard and too close to the mound. The Orioles eke out a run on a hit batsman and a sacrifice fly, the only one they'll get in a game they would lose 6-1.

The first bunt was stupid, because it wasted a good hitter and let a faltering pitcher off the hook. At least, though, it set up a situation where you might take the lead. The upside of the second bunt was a two-run single that would have tied the game, with just 15 outs to get against a devastating Yankee lineup and a middle-relief corps that gainfully employs Jim Brower. Yeah, that might have held up.

The Yankees just bury the needle when it comes to this kind of thing. Let's go to the home opener against the Royals, game tied at four in the bottom of the fourth. Robinson Cano: Ball, Ball, Cano reached on an infield single.
Bernie Williams: Ball, Ball, Foul, Foul, Foul, Pickoff attempt to first, Foul, Williams singled to right, Cano to second.
Johnny Damon: Damon sacrificed to pitcher, Cano to third, Williams to second.
At the point Damon stepped to the plate, Mike Wood had faced 16 batters in the young season. Nine of them had gotten base hits. Damon is being paid about $20,000 a plate appearance, and you want to spend one of them having him intentionally make an out in the fourth inning against a minor-league team?

The Yankees didn't score, but being the Yankees, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to win anyway.

Maybe this is never going to change, and I'll just end up writing about it until they pry a keyboard out from under my stiff fingers. So be it; I just can't watch while teams so blatantly do things to screw themselves. These are just four exceptionally egregious examples I've come across in three-plus weeks; there have to be dozens more that I haven't seen.

For all the innovation that actually has taken place within the game, the practice of tactics remains buried in eras long gone. Frequent sacrifice bunts made sense in a time when fielding was very difficult, when forcing the defense to make a play was an approach unto itself that paid great dividends. That hasn't been the case for 90 years, however. Moreover, trading outs for baserunner advancement in non-game-critical situations hasn't been an effective tactic since the second dead-ball era. Sacrifice bunting with hitters in the top three lineup spots with two men on and no one out in the first five innings of a game is practically trying to lose, like walking Juan Encarnacion to get to Albert Pujols or putting Isiah Thomas in charge of transactions.

Think of it this way: if the notion of sacrifice bunting had never been invented, would someone bother coming up with it today? If they did, would they act as if the tactic represented all that was good with the world? See, laying down sacrifices is tied into the antiquated notion that there's some "right" way to play baseball, that "small ball" is somehow morally superior to other approaches. In fact, there is no right or wrong, and the optimal approach has changed over time, as rule sets, external conditions and the natural evolution of skills have developed. In the nine-plus run environment of today, bunting should be limited. Acknowledging that and folding that into decision making is "smart ball," not reflexively bunting because that's the way they did it when you were coming through the Dodgers' system in '66.

There's a book in the idea that so much of the stagnation of baseball today is the inability for people both inside and outside the game to get past the 1960s. There was a seven-year period when the physical conditions--high mounds, big strike zones--changed the relationships among outs, bases and runs. That game is long gone. (The idea also extends to the notions of pitcher workloads, and a handful of other areas.) Today, everyone can hit for power, outs are incredibly precious, and throwing them away in the fashions described above is incompetence.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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