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April 26, 2007

Schrodinger's Bat

Stretching It Out

by Dan Fox

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"Youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope."
--Aristotle

With a lineup that features youngsters Carl Crawford, Delmon Young, Rocco Baldelli, Elijah Dukes, and B.J. Upton, plus Japanese import Akinori Iwamura and a pitching staff led by Scott Kazmir, it's no wonder there is plenty of buzz about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This probably explains why I've been spending more time watching their condensed games on MLB.com than I should. While they may not yet be in a position to contend for a title in a very tough division, they've made some major improvements this season, and with developing pitchers in their system, may be on the cusp of competitiveness.

That youth was on display last Saturday night in Minnesota when the Rays took on the Twins. With two outs in the top of the fourth inning and the score already 5-2 in the Twins' favor, B.J. Upton hit a fly ball over the head of Michael Cuddyer off the right field fence. As the ball bounded away from Cuddyer, Upton never broke stride, racing around second before Cuddyer's quick recovery-followed by a strong throw and cutoff-nailed the sliding Upton at third. With youth, of course, comes mistakes. Upton's decision to try and stretch a double into a triple was a poor one, but conveniently for us, it provides the perfect segue to today's topic.

Stretching it Out

Back in January, reader Tom Maccarone offered some thoughts in response to my two columns on triples. Specifically, Tom wondered whether, in addition to slower players and/or park effects, the historical reduction in triples might be accounted for simply by teams taking fewer chances trying to stretch doubles into triples.

While we'll get to a regrettably incomplete answer for Tom shortly, I wanted to know which players had been thrown out most often trying to stretch singles into doubles or doubles into triples; my data set shows no examples of a player thrown out trying to stretch a triple into a home run. Since 1970 (and excluding 1999) your leaders are shown in the table below. S+D are the total number of singles and doubles during the time frame, tracking the opportunities each player had to get thrown out. Next is the number of times they were thrown out stretching a single into a double (BX2), a double into a triple (BX3), the total number of times they were thrown out, and finally how many hits per time thrown out stretching that equates to (OA/S+D).

Name                    S+D      BX2     BX3   Total  OA/S+D
Hal McRae              1824       36       9      45    40.5
Bill Buckner           2492       39       4      43    58.0
Buddy Bell             2257       35       5      40    56.4
Ted Simmons            2174       33       4      37    58.8
Dave Winfield          2557       29       8      37    69.1
Chet Lemon             1599       29       7      36    44.4
Cesar Cedeno           1828       29       6      35    52.2
Dave Parker            2298       30       5      35    65.7
Pete Rose              2761       26       6      32    86.3
Albert Belle           1181       28       4      32    36.9
George Brett           2700       27       5      32    84.4
Vladimir Guerrero      1263       23       8      31    40.7
Tony Fernandez         1937       18      12      30    64.6
Jeff Kent              1676       24       6      30    55.9
Roberto Alomar         2279       26       4      30    76.0
Enos Cabell            1531       21       9      30    51.0
Eddie Murray           2716       26       4      30    90.5
Jose Cruz              1992       16      13      29    68.7
Tony Gwynn             2792       25       4      29    96.3
Garry Maddox           1623       25       3      28    58.0

Hal McRae takes our top spot, getting nailed 45 times, good for once every 40.5 singles and doubles hit. Incidentally, this trait apparently ran in the family--Hal's son Brian McRae, although not on the above list, was thrown out 25 times, or once every 44.0 opportunities. That was good for fourth-worst by batters with over 1,000 singles and doubles. However, in terms of ratio, Albert Belle topped him and all others by being thrown out once every 36.9 opportunities. The leaders by rate are shown next:

Name                    S+D      BX2     BX3   Total  OA/S+D
Albert Belle           1181       28       4      32    36.9
Hal McRae              1824       36       9      45    40.5
Vladimir Guerrero      1263       23       8      31    40.7
Brian McRae            1101       21       4      25    44.0
Chet Lemon             1599       29       7      36    44.4
Jose Cardenal          1133       23       2      25    45.3
Fernando Vina          1067       17       5      22    48.5
Mike Scioscia          1051       19       2      21    50.0
Reggie Smith           1263       20       5      25    50.5
Enos Cabell            1531       21       9      30    51.0
Cesar Cedeno           1828       29       6      35    52.2
Keith Moreland         1144       14       7      21    54.5
Jeff Kent              1676       24       6      30    55.9
Buddy Bell             2257       35       5      40    56.4
Aurelio Rodriguez      1198       16       5      21    57.0
Rick Burleson          1328       21       2      23    57.7
Bill Buckner           2492       39       4      43    58.0
Garry Maddox           1623       25       3      28    58.0
Ted Simmons            2174       33       4      37    58.8
Lou Piniella           1440       22       2      24    60.0

It's notable that the two active players on this list are Vladimir Guerrero at 31 outs and one every 40.7, and Jeff Kent at 30 and 55.9. Guerrero was thrown out stretching six times in 2006, "good" enough to lead all of baseball, while Kent wasn't thrown out at all. Guerrero's current manager Mike Scioscia ranks eighth on the list (50.0) of those most frequently thrown out stretching, and Royals manager Buddy Bell ranked 14th (56.4). Cubs manager Lou Pinella ranked 20th (60.0).

I also wondered which players have been thrown out advancing the least. This table shows the twenty players who accumulated 1,000 or more singles plus doubles with the highest ratios:

Name                    S+D      BX2     BX3   Total  OA/S+D
Jason Kendall          1555        1       0       1  1555.0
Robin Ventura          1432        1       0       1  1432.0
Darin Erstad           1231        1       0       1  1231.0
Jeffrey Leonard        1161        2       0       2   580.5
Garret Anderson        1644        3       0       3   548.0
Chris Speier           1597        3       0       3   532.3
John Olerud            1817        4       0       4   454.3
Dan Driessen           1288        2       1       3   429.3
Ichiro Suzuki          1243        2       1       3   414.3
Edgar Renteria         1494        4       0       4   373.5
Walt Weiss             1094        2       1       3   364.7
Danny Tartabull        1082        2       1       3   360.7
John Kruk              1036        3       0       3   345.3
Jim Sundberg           1362        4       0       4   340.5
Dale Murphy            1674        2       3       5   334.8
Joe Randa              1211        3       1       4   302.8
Brian Downing          1796        5       1       6   299.3
Juan Pierre            1171        3       1       4   292.8
Bret Boone             1363        5       0       5   272.6
Alan Trammell          2125        7       1       8   265.6

... which tells us that Jason Kendall, Robin Ventura, and Darin Erstad stand head and shoulders above the crowd, as they each were only thrown out once. Ventura's retired, so his place in history is secure; Erstad and Kendall can only go down from here. The same goes for the other active players on the list: Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Renteria, and Juan Pierre. Some of the players on this list score well because they took very few risks because of their slowness afoot. John Olerud, Dan Driessen, John Kruk, Jim Sundberg, Joe Randa, and Brian Downing fit that profile rather nicely.

As you may have surmised, therein lies a problem. While we can tell who was thrown out, we cannot tell how often a player attempted to stretch a single into a double or a double into a triple. Clearly, some players will both have more opportunities based on their distribution and vectors of ground balls and fly balls, and will be more aggressive in trying to take the extra base. As a result, two players could have the same number of singles plus doubles, but vastly different opportunities for stretching. When a stretch is successful, it winds up recorded as something of a statistical non-event from the perspective of our play-by-play codes; hence singles plus doubles is the best we can do in terms of gauging opportunity.

One of the interesting things revealed in the first table is that some players seem to only take risks stretching doubles into triples, or are simply worse at gauging those kinds of plays. Jose Cruz and Tony Fernandez were both thrown out at third a dozen or more times, accounting for 81% and 67% respectively of the total times they were thrown out. Andy Van Slyke (9 out of 14), Ray Durham (8 of 14), Ron LeFlore (9 of 18), Ray Lankford (8 of 16), and Joe Carter (6 of 11) also fall into this category. Tim Foli, on the other hand, was thrown out stretching a single 17 times, but was never gunned down trying to stretch a double.

Finally, we're ready to tackle Tom's question. By aggregating the individual numbers we can present the graph that illustrates a decreasing frequency of batters getting thrown out stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples; the yellow line has an upward slope since we're measuring the number of stretches per single plus double.

image 1

The graph reveals that Tom's intuition was correct--in recent years, batters have been thrown out stretching less frequently. Runners were thrown out once every 90 to 110 singles plus doubles from 1970 through the early 1980s. At that point we can begin to detect a general rise in slope that seems to have continued through to 2006.

I didn't separate singles from doubles because when doing so, both lines follow the same slope, and the line for singles follows the aggregate line very closely, since there are so many more singles than doubles. The cause of that trend, however, is a little more elusive. As Tom suggests, it could be the case that the graph is recording the fact that teams are simply taking fewer chances these days, which would result in fewer triples. This could be for a number of reasons, including slower players, smaller ballparks, players intuitively responding to an expanding offensive environment where the risk is relatively higher than it was previously, or as a response to a general increase in defensive excellence (faster fielders, better positioning, and stronger outfield arms) that make it more likely they would be thrown out.

The graph could also be telling us that batters are taking the same or even more risks, but are succeeding more often through their better judgment. The fact that we don't really have a good measure of opportunities makes us unable to know for sure what's going on. Based on my previous articles on triples and the fact that they have indeed declined, I would side with Tom, and agree that batters are indeed being more cautious. From my previous work it doesn't appear that the changing run environment, ballparks, or bulkier players are primarily responsible for that decrease. My guess remains that players are increasingly wary of stretching doubles into triples (and singles into doubles) because the overall quality of outfield defense has improved; this graph records that wariness.

Related Content:  Brian Downing,  Jose Cardenal

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