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March 20, 2008

Schrodinger's Bat

Clearing the Decks

by Dan Fox

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"When I came up, you couldn't play if you couldn't bunt, but home runs have pretty much taken over the game today... Bunting has become a lost art."
--Kirby Puckett

Good things come in threes--or is it bad things? I can never keep those kinds of aphorisms straight. In baseball at least, threes are certainly very good: three strikes, three outs, three outfielders, three-squared players per side, runs/hits/errors, AVG/OBP/SLG, the Triple Crown, 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, and on and on. This week we'll clear the decks a little with three vignettes dealing with subjects that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks.

To lead off, we'll take a look at bunting for hits in the minor leagues, and we'll also take a quick peek at how well that particular skill ages. From there we'll move on to the recently introduced concept of "free bases" and how it plays at the major league level. Finally, we'll take a look at the recently released scout's best player rankings from, you guessed it, a quantitative perspective. Let's go.

Bunting in a Minor Key

Several weeks ago, Nate Silver, Christina Kahrl, and I had the pleasure of talking baseball with a group of fans at the Tattered Cover bookstore in downtown Denver. As you might expect, the discussion turned to the Rockies, their surprising 2007 performance, and the outlook for various players for 2008. While Nate handled the PECOTA questions with characteristic aplomb, I was left to discuss at length (or what passes for length in these kinds of exchanges) the bunting exploits of Willy Taveras, whom the Rockies re-signed at $1.975 million for one year, avoiding the messiness of arbitration.

Some readers may remember a two-part series of columns last July where Taveras' run at the Retrosheet-era bunting record was discussed at length, both from historical and strategic standpoints. While injuries decimated the second half of his season and he fell short of Brett Butler's 42 bunt hits in 68 attempts (61.8 percent, where Taveras had 37 of 52, good for 71.2 percent, and did record the highest success rate of any hitter with more than 37 attempts), he'll be set to take another run at it in 2008. And who knows, if Taveras can also learn to push balls to the right side (out of the 147 bunt hit attempts recorded for Taveras only five have been fielded by the first baseman and none by the second baseman) he may just smash Butler's record.

But in discussing the relative merits of Taveras, Christina threw out a question as to who might be the up-and-coming bunters in the Taveras mold. I had to admit that I hadn't looked into that, but that the topic would certainly make it into a future column. The future is now, and so without further ado, Table 1 shows the top and bottom 15 bunting seasons for minor leaguers with 20 or more attempts from 2005 through 2007:

Table 1. Best and Worst Bunters in the Minors, 2005-2007 (20 or more attempts)


Name                   Year     Att       H    Pct
Hernan Iribarren       2005      21      18   .857
Christian Quintero     2006      20      17   .850
Brandon Roberts        2006      30      25   .833
Luis Durango           2007      30      25   .833
Ivan Ochoa             2006      22      18   .818
Bradley Coon           2005      26      21   .808
Steven Sollmann        2005      20      16   .800
Hancer Vargas          2007      20      16   .800
Alex Requena           2006      23      18   .783
Antoan Richardson      2006      21      16   .762
C. Fernandez-Oliva     2007      25      19   .760
Carlos Leon            2006      20      15   .750
Nyjer Morgan           2006      23      17   .739
Brett Gardner          2006      33      24   .727
Kent Gerst             2006      22      16   .727
---------------------------------------------------
Derrick Robinson       2007      20       8   .400
Jeremy Reed            2007      26      10   .385
Denard Span            2007      21       8   .381
Anton French           2005      29      11   .379
Adam Stern             2006      22       8   .364
Jerry Owens            2006      28      10   .357
Esix Snead             2005      28      10   .357
Charlton Jimerson      2006      31      11   .355
Kennard Jones          2005      20       7   .350
Davy Gregg             2006      23       8   .348
Joe Thurston           2006      38      13   .342
Callix Crabbe          2006      21       7   .333
Trent Oeltjen          2007      22       7   .318
Sean Danielson         2006      22       7   .318
Kennard Jones          2007      22       5   .227

What should be remembered as you look at this table is that the attempts shown here are all of those bunt attempts where the batter has been charged with an at-bat. Therefore, while it excludes all successful sacrifices and most sacrifice attempts, this measure still includes plays where a lead runner is forced out, and so is not "pure" in the sense of recording only attempts where the batter's intent was only to get a hit. In addition, there are attempts included where the batter attempted to sacrifice but ended up being credited with a hit. As mentioned in the previous series, we'll have to live with these ambiguities, because if we exclude attempts with runners on, we'll also miss plays on which the batter was credited with a hit when the intent was to do so. However, bunts that result in force outs and attempted sacrifices that go for hits are both reflective of bunting ability, and should cancel each other out to some degree.

The finest single season was turned in by Hernan Iribarren, a second basemen in the Brewers organization, in 2005 while playing for West Virginia in the South Atlantic League. Kevin Goldstein put Iribarren on his "Just Missing" list in his recent look at the Brewers top 11 prospects. Although he's had trouble stealing bases with any efficiency (91 stolen bases and 53 caught stealing in his career) and he's blocked at second base, Iribarren has continued to do well in the bunting department, racking up 12-for-14 in 2006 and 8-for-17 in 2007.

Also on this list we find the Pirates' Nyjer Morgan, who had great success in 2006, with 17 hits in 23 attempts in the Carolina and Eastern Leagues. He continued that success in 2007, going 8 for 12 during his stint at Indianapolis and 3-for-6 at the major league level. Morgan is in a battle for the starting center field role with Nate McLouth, in what GM Neal Huntington has called a "dead heat." In addition to Morgan's bunting, SFR likes him, and rated him at +4.9 runs in just 25 adjusted games while McLouth rated a -1.3 in 55 adjusted games.

Finally, you'll notice outfielder Brett Gardner, acclaimed by Baseball America as the fastest runner in the Yankees organization (a fact commented on by Brian Cashman several weeks back) and also their number-eight prospect. Gardner was successful almost 73 percent of the time in 2006, and was 5-for-7 in the Eastern League in 2007 before his promotion to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he was just 4-for-11.

While we've looked at the individual seasonal leaders, it's also interesting to look at those who have tried to bunt for hits most often over the past three minor league seasons. Table 2 shows the list of players with 75 or more minor league bunt hit attempts since 2005:

Table 2. Most Bunt Hit Attempts in the Minors, 2005-2007 (75 or more attempts)


Name                    Att       H    Pct
Pedro Powell            154      75   .487
Eric Reed               127      68   .535
Joe Thurston            105      49   .467
Emilio Bonifacio         95      66   .695
Brandon Watson           93      58   .624
Ovandy Suero             91      55   .604
Bernie Castro            90      42   .467
Wayne Lydon              88      43   .489
Rich Thompson            87      43   .494
Chris Walker             86      44   .512
Bradley Coon             85      55   .647
Darren Ford              83      44   .530
Jerry Owens              83      35   .422
Ruddy Yan                79      37   .468
Josh Anderson            78      41   .526
Trent Oeltjen            77      46   .597
Gregor Blanco            77      37   .481
Adam Greenberg           76      41   .539

By far the most attempts belongs to the Pirates' Pedro Powell, who tried 154 times and who possesses plenty of speed, but has struggled in his attempt to move past High-A ball. Meanwhile, Diamondbacks number-eight prospect Emilio Bonifacio not only bunts frequently but also had the highest success rate of those in Table 2 at 69.5 percent, and was equally successful as he climbed the ladder from A-ball through Double-A since 2005.

From these tables one might get the impression that bunting for hits at the minor league level is in some sense easier than it is at the major league level. One would be right. Throughout all the minor leagues in 2007 hitters were successful 48.4 percent of the time (4234 of 8751) while in the majors the success rate was just 35.6 percent (549 of 1542). As you might guess, the primary reasons for this are likely both the inferior quality of defensive play and the fact that minor leaguers are generally younger and therefore faster than major leaguers.

But while this may be true in general, that latter point may not strictly hold at the major league level. To see if this was the case, I constructed the graph shown in Figure 1 that shows both bunt attempts by age (the blue line) and success rate (the red line) by age for all major leaguers from 1959 through 2007.

Figure 1. Bunt Hit Attempts and Success Rate by Age

bunt hits by age

Somewhat paradoxically, the red line shows an increase from ages 25 through 31 before declining relatively quickly, while at the same time the number of attempts decreases steadily from age 21 through age 37. To ensure that the red line isn't simply reporting selection bias (worse bunters are selected out of the league, thereby raising the aggregate success rate of those who remain), I also computed the green line which shows the success rate for a set of 299 players who played continuously from ages 25 through 35. Indeed, just as recorded in the red line, the success rate peaks at age 31 (at 52.7 percent) before declining rapidly as players reach their mid-30s. I assume that the increased success is both a function of refined skill and, perhaps more importantly, bunting at more opportune times, as tracked by the blue line.

So what does this all mean? For one, in our discussion at Tattered Cover we bandied about the idea of whether a projection system should account for bunting frequency. Both the high success rates in the minors relative to the majors and the decreased attempts (somewhat offset by the higher success rate as players age) argue that, for some players, this could make a bit of a difference. However, other factors like speed are also already acting as a proxy, so the effect would likely be pretty small.

The Free Base Philosophy

Having a plan is a wonderful thing, and for baseball teams those plans sometimes come in the form of "organizational philosophies." One such example was discussed last week by Rangers farm director Scott Servais, who was quoted in an MLB.com article as saying:

We want that to be the identity of our organization, being good at not allowing the free base. That's something we talk about with our players every day. Oakland's identity is high on-base percentage. The Angels are known for their aggressiveness and putting pressure on the other team. This is what we need to be known for.

The article also mentions that in tracking their farm teams during the last half of 2007, the Rangers discovered that when those teams gave up fewer than five "free bases" in a game--defined as walks, hit batsmen, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, errors, and stolen bases--they won 91 percent of their games.

Curious minds want to know how well that formula for success holds up at the major league level, so that indeed if the Rangers philosophy is successful, we have an idea of what to expect. Figure 2 shows the winning percentage for each of the seven categories, as well as the total of all seven at specific numbers of events, taking into account all games from 1960 through 2007:

Figure 2. The Cost of Free Bases

free bases, not freebasing

If a team doesn't give up any free bases, they win over three-quarters of their games. With each free base, that winning percentage drops precipitously to where it levels off at around a winning percentage of .375 when you reach nine or more free bases in a game. To be honest, I was somewhat surprised by the steep slope of the orange line, expecting it to be remain high for 0-3 before stabilizing at around .500, before plummeting when the number of free bases reached seven or eight.

From an individual component perspective, you can see that almost all the components mirror a similar slope--although giving up zero walks leads to a much higher winning percentage--while errors and stolen bases are grouped at around .550, with the remaining four bunched up around .500. The reason walks are not close to the other lines is both because of their relative frequency and their hidden relationship to events not shown in the graph. Since walks are much more common than the other events (more than seven times more common in 2006) giving up zero or only one walk is also a relatively rare feat that greatly increases the probability of victory. For example, in only eight percent of all games did teams not give up a walk, while the percentages of zero event games for the other six categories ranges from 52 percent (errors) to 96 percent (balks). In addition, giving up few walks is also strongly correlated with fewer hits allowed and therefore fewer baserunners and runs, resulting in more wins. The same can probably be said to a much lesser degree of stolen bases.

As a shorthand way of thinking about Figure 2, you could say that avoiding walks, errors, and opponents' stolen bases leads to winning games, while avoiding hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks, and passed balls leads to not losing them. Time will tell how successful the Rangers are in implementing their philosophy.

They're the Best, Scout's Honor

Finally, we'll take a quick look at MLB.com's recently released "2008 Scouts Honor Results" where a panel of scouts rated players in variety of categories, with most everything coming up Ichiro. Of course, as is typical of this column, we'll attempt to balance the scales of baseball's Hegelian Dialectic and take a look at the quantitative side of just a few of the scouts' selections.

  • Best Hitter: Ichiro Suzuki. Hard to believe that Albert Pujols doesn't win, although at least Alex Rodriguez finished second. Pujols finished ninth in VORP in 2007, his lowest finish since he came in 15th in 2002 (he finished 12th in his 2001 rookie season).
  • Best Clutch Hitter: David Ortiz. Not that I take much stock in the concept, but it is still the case that in four of the last six years Ortiz has been neutral or negative in clutch hitting as defined by measures like Win Expectancy including in 2007.
  • Best Bunter: Juan Pierre, with Ichiro Suzuki runner-up. Near and dear to the first topic discussed this week. While Pierre is the most prolific bunter over the past six years (320 attempts), his success rate ranks 16th out of the 18 players with 75 or more attempts during that span, with a success rate of 41 percent. Suzuki doesn't bunt nearly as often, but does succeed more frequently at 59 percent in 59 attempts. No, Willy Taveras would clearly be the better choice with Luis Castillo (54 percent in 84 attempts) and Corey Patterson (51 percent in 128 attempts) undoubtedly better as well.
  • Best Infielder: Jose Reyes, with Yuniesky Betancourt runner-up. SFR rates Reyes at +12 and +18 runs in 2006 and 2007, agreeing that he's excellent, although Adam Everett (+64 over the past three years) is the hands-down winner. Betancourt, on the other hand, rated at -4, -3, and -6 from 2005 through 2007 while the Plus/Minus system has him at -1, -3, and -10; clearly the scouts are seeing something different from the stats.
  • Best Outfielder: Ichiro Suzuki, with Torii Hunter runner-up. While SFR liked Suzuki in right field, giving him ratings of +20 in 2005 and +7 in 2006, it did not like him in center where he rated at -5 in 2007 (not including throwing arm). The Plus/Minus system felt similarly, although he still rated at +4 in 2007. While that choice can certainly be forgiven, the selection of Hunter is probably based more on reputation than anything else at this point. SFR has Hunter at -7 in 2007, -1 in 2006, and +0 in 2005 while Plus/Minus is at 0, -2, and +7 in those same seasons. Better choices could have clearly been made in Carlos Beltran, Grady Sizemore, or Coco Crisp.
  • Best Arm: Ichiro Suzuki, with Jeff Francoeur runner-up. For those who've read my essay "Expanding the Cannon: Quantifying the Impact of Outfield Throwing Arms" in BP2K8, it will come as no surprise that both choices here are pretty good ones. In EqThr (Equivalent Throwing Runs) per 550 opportunities Suzuki ranked second (+4) behind only Ryan Freel from 2005 through 2007, while Francoeur ranked third (+9) among right fielders, behind Delmon Young and Shane Victorino. Other candidates in this category would include Michael Cuddyer, Alex Rios, and Alfonso Soriano.
  • Best at Defending the Bunt: Adrian Beltre, with Ryan Zimmerman runner-up. As discussed in a previous column, one of the components of SFR for infielders is how they defend bunts. On that score, Beltre doesn't come out looking too good, and rates at -1 on 48 bunts fielded from 2005 through 2007. Zimmerman, on the other hand, ranks seventh-best in baseball at +3 runs on 58 fielded bunts. The clear leader, however, is Pedro Feliz, who racked up +6 runs on fielding 63 bunts over that span. At first base Sean Casey (+3, 41) and Adrian Gonzalez (+3, 50) rate very well.
  • Best Baserunner: Ichiro Suzuki, with Jose Reyes runner-up. A topic close to my heart. Both Suzuki and Reyes are fine runners, but both are second-tier when compared to Juan Pierre and Chone Figgins, who both contributed over 26 runs with their legs from 2005 through 2007. Incidentally, Suzuki is a much better base stealer than baserunner, and derives most of his value on the bases from stolen base attempts. The reverse can be said of Grady Sizemore, who is an excellent baserunner (+19 runs in categories other than EqSBR) but not a stolen base threat.
  • Best Base Stealer: Jose Reyes, with Ichiro Suzuki runner-up. The reverse of the previous category, and while Suzuki does indeed top baseball in EqSBR for 2005-2007 with +11 runs, Reyes comes in 13th at +5 runs (and he ranked 20th in 2007 despite his 107 opportunities, by far the most in the majors). In between are a whole host of runners, including Jimmy Rollins at +11, Carl Crawford (+8), and Juan Pierre (+8) that probably deserve it.

Yes, there are more categories, including some related to pitchers and the pitches they throw, but the quantification of those will have to wait for another day.

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