Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mini Me


I was reading a couple of articles over on the fire Joe Morgan blog today and I just have to throw my two cents in about the new catch phrase that seems to have swept over baseball. That phrase is "Small Ball". For some reason people seem to believe that the best way to have a successful team is to scratch out runs. The part of small ball that every team is in line with is solid pitching and defense. Those are not new concepts. I don't believe that any team goes into the season thinking that their pitching and defense suck but because their offense is so potent they will still carry the day. Everything starts with pitching. Every team knows that if they don't have decent starters that their season is going nowhere. You could have the ' 36 Yankees lineup but if you combine them with the '05 Royals pitching staff you will get a lot of 12-9 losses.

When people talk about "Small Ball" what they really mean is a fundamentally sound team that has good pitching and defense and timely hitting. Writers and commentators talk about "small ball" as if that is the preferred way to score runs. They talk about manufacturing runs as if a run driven in by an extra base hit just magically happens. Every run is manufactured. It's one of the more idiotic sports clich├ęs. The new poster boys for SB are the Chicago White Sox. Apparently they "manufactured" every one of their runs last year. Of course they did hit 200 home runs, but there's no need to talk about that. And what did they do this off-season? Did they give up on Paul Konerko and trade for David Eckstein? No they re-signed Konerko and traded for Jim Thome. Does Thome add to their SB credentials? Not unless you consider the 414 home runs he has hit in his career as just a pre-curser to his new role of hitting behind the runner and bunting.

"Small Ball" prinicples are always going to be important, but there is a limit to how much that will get you. Bunting, advancing the runner, stealing bases are important factors in the game, but they simply are not as important as on base percentage and slugging percentage. Stolen bases are good but only if you're successful about 75% of the time. Otherwise you are taking away from your team and losing runs, not creating them. Bunting and moving a runner into scoring position likewise is important, but it will never be as important as an extra base hit that drives the runner in from first base.

The bottom line is that winning takes a combination of factors. The Red Sox won with great pitching from Schilling, Pedro and Foulke and a great lineup. The White Sox won with great pitching from their four starters and timely hitting (including, get this, some extra base hits) from their lineup. The White Sox won last year because they had better pitching, not because they could scratch out a run better than other teams (The White Sox hit more home runs than the Red Sox did last year, by the way).

If you would like to test this theory, I'm sure there's a computer program somewhere that can show what would happen if a team of David Ecksteins (the poster boy for small ball) played a full season against a team of Arods. As long as the pitching staffs were equal, I would guess that the team of Arods (probably scoring in the 7-8 runs a game range) would have a significant advantage over the team of Ecksteins (probably in the 2.5-3.5 runs a game range). There are times when a sacrifice or a stolen base makes sense, the problem is that for some reason that has now taken on Holy Grail status. I ask you would the White Sox rather have Konerko or Thome bunting or swinging away? It seems a ridiculous question to pose, but according to the pundits who are writing today, it would appear not to be so.

When writers and announcers use the term "small ball" they are just being lazy. Rather than point to the real reason that teams win (pitching, hitting and defense), they point to the catch all phrase "small ball" or the teams' ability to manufacture runs as the reason. Manufacturing runs is not the issue, producing them is. Perhaps saying that pitching wins championships is just not sexy enough. Perhaps they feel that the public is too stupid to understand a complex equation like pitching + hitting + defense = winning. I would give the public more credit, but perhaps I'm giving the sports commentators too much credit. The last really successful team that lived and died by "small ball" was the St. Louis Cardinals of the 80's under Whitey Herzog. They stole 250 - 300 bases had only one person on the team hit over 15 home runs (Jack Clark), usually hit under 100 home runs as a team and still managed to be successful. They also had great defense and solid pitching.

There are no real "small ball" teams in baseball today. If they are, it's certainly not by choice. "Small Ball" is situational. Some situations do require a sacrifice or hitting behind the runner. And while some teams are better at doing those things than others, no team could survive on those things alone. I know that we are never going to get rid of the term, but could we please stop referring to entire teams that way. It's simply not true, however the people who should know better seem hell bent on perpetuating it. Maybe i'm crazy but I'll take my team of Arods (and his 1.031 OPS) versus a team of Ecksteins (.758 OPS) any day of the week.

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