Why have Cincinnati’s pitchers done poorly? The ball-strike count plays a big part. In a previous column, I noted that the Reds’ strike rate was tracking with their wins and losses. This is an essay about the importance of strike rates, but let me get the caveat out of the way: Strike rates play a big part, but of course they don’t explain everything. High strike rates don’t necessarily mean success. Brian Anderson rarely gives up walks, but he gets hit hard. That said, strike rates have a big influence on outcomes. Pitchers and batters alter their approach to an at-bat on where they are in the count. Whether or not a pitcher works ahead in the count and can use his whole repertoire matters, and it matters whether a batter has to protect the plate because he’s behind in the count. Strikes reflect how well a pitcher controls a game.
What might surprise a lot of people is that there is no official method of scoring balls and strikes, just as there is no official way to publish a box score. You won’t find anything in chapter 10 of the official rules on box score formats or ball-strike tabulations. There is no official method, but for both box scores and pitch scoring there is a customary, standard way of doing things.
Under the standard, swinging strikes, called strikes, foul balls on full counts, and balls in play are counted as Strikes. All balls, including those thrown for pitchouts and intentional walks, are counted as Balls. As strikes are recorded now, a called third strike is no different than a 500-foot homer. An intentional ball is no different than a wild pitch.
So far, this column has been a day-by-day review of factoids. That’s a fun and profitable way to review box scores, but this week I have re-oriented Box Lunch toward a topical focus, using Earl Weaver’s maxims to introduce a variety of subjects. There’s little worth knowing about baseball that Weaver hasn’t already covered, and so far I have found more than 40 observations in Weaver on Strategy that are relevant to things we can study using box scores as the primary source. This week the emphasis is on how managers select and use their rosters.
“When a manager has been pushing the same buttons day after day and losing, he’d better start pushing different ones.”
Alan Trammell is doing the drunkard’s walk. On Wednesday he started Bobby Higginson in center field. It was the first time Higginson played the position in the majors, and he hasn’t played there since. And then on Saturday, with his team sniffling along at 1-14 and losing its 16th game 9-2, Trammell had Craig Paquette pinch-hit for Higginson. It was the eighth inning and Royals reliever Albie Lopez was working on his fifth consecutive scoreless inning, so maybe it was despair, and maybe it was the managerial equivalent of Brownian Motion, but the move had no strategic justification. Removing your best hitter is the worst way to start a rally. Paquette is Trammell’s de facto designated pinch-hitter, so maybe he was trying to keep Paquette fresh. Pinch-hitters come in cold and they can’t really be kept fresh, but even if you could crisp them up with two or three swings every other day, what would be gained by wasting one of your stars’ turns on a bag of sand like Paquette? It wasn’t a platoon decision. Higginson is a lefty and Paquette and Lopez are righties. If Higginson was injured you can’t tell by the box scores; he had played the previous inning and was back in the lineup the next day, and there was nothing in the next day’s news about an injury to Higginson. All I can think of is that Trammell was either conceding the game by giving him a breather or–this has to happen sometimes–a leisurely bathroom break.
In response to one of last week’s Box Lunch articles, one reader asks: “I see the intellectual interest in all the detective work of reconstructing an inning from a box score, but in this day and age, who would do that instead of clicking on the game log provided right next to the box score at ESPN if you really want to know what happened?”
Maybe some of the same people who think it’s still worthwhile to cook their food on a stovetop. Also, newspapers don’t publish game logs. Box scores are portable, foldable, markable.
A box score’s value is greater than the sum of its roto points. Weather, crowd size, umpiring crew, pitcher abuse, baserunning blunders, ball/strike and groundball/flyball ratios, substitution patterns, clutch hitting, clutch pitching–with enough time and a high enough geek quotient, you could nearly recreate an entire game from a box score.
Last Thursday night Minnesota beat Detroit 3-0 in front of less than 9,000 customers, a quick, two-hour game that produced a nice line for Kyle Lohse but not much else for the highlight reels. It’s a box score you could scan in seconds if you were looking for roto events. But if you spent some time with it you could figure out nearly as much of what happened as if you had been there.