Sunday, October 28, 2007

Nerd fight!!! (The Dangers of Momentum)

Anyway, what started the whole ‘controversy’ was a section of my weekly Hardball Times column I entitled “The Whine Cellar” which was little more than a blog within a blog where I inflicted my insights on the Jays’ fortunes in 2007. I noticed the Jays were leaving a significant number of runners on base; oftentimes they would have a leadoff double, men on first and second/nobody out when the mess known as the bottom the lineup was due up. In May I went on the record as saying :

On to more current matters: I know J.P. Ricciardi is loath to give up outs for runs or to sacrifice. I hope John Gibbons realizes he has to be pragmatic. Right now, due to injuries, the Jays may have as many as three major out-producers at the bottom of lineup. If Troy Glaus’ legs are being rested it’s entirely possible that your 7-8-9 hitters could be some combination of Jason Phillips (78 OPS+), Sal Fasano (27 OPS+), Royce Clayton (78 OPS+), Jason Smith (44 OPS+) and John McDonald (67 OPS+).

Thus far this season (as of this writing), this quintet has drawn just 19 BB in 322 AB and struck out almost as often as they get a hit (77 K/ 78 hits). Occasionally there will be runners at first and second with none out and one of these five players coming to the plate. Suffice it to say, the odds of a popup, strikeout or double play ball are much more likely than that of a hit or walk.

What Gibbons should do in this scenario is try to bunt the runners over. Every day, Gibbons should be giving these guys bunting practice. When the odds of an out (and possibly two) are so strong, a double play more probability than possibility, the Jays would be better served in making sure that the almost inevitable out (the aforementioned five players have an aggregate OBP of .292) at least moves runner along. That way a groundball or ball hit to the outfield at least gets you a run.

The Jays' offense has been struggling for a while now and they should look at doing whatever it takes to gets runs across even if it means making an intentional out.** (this will be referenced below--just look for the symbols Bud Selig wants to use on home runs 73 and 756)

The situation continued through the summer months and I finally decided to see how much it was costing the Jays. I went through every box score and wrote my conclusions here. Since I had a word limit on the column I had a second part that would go a little deeper into the matter depending on the feedback I received. Suffice it to say, many folks took exception. While I wasn’t overly surprised by this, what did amaze me that so many missed completely where I was coming from. I decided to submit the follow up.

Same response. Since the word limit (which is wise considering that momentum and keyboards are often an explosive mix with me) on Sympatico.MSN wasn’t allowing me to go into the depth I wanted to on the subject, while I had expanded on it a bit earlier on THT, I felt I should do part 3 on the Hardball Times and 3000 words later I felt I had explained my thoughts on the 2007 Jays to my satisfaction. If folks still didn’t understand where I was coming from, then there was little I could do about it.

Of course that wouldn’t stop me from answering some of the objectors either through e-mail or on the blogs themselves. I limited myself to the blogs that I often read since I felt their general level of insight was the worth the time to understand where they were coming from. This of course led me to Drunk Jays Fans who are quite insightful. You just have to get past their fondness for Victorian police blotter acronyms regarding prostitution.

The good folks at DJF--who are big John Gibbons supporters--felt I was saying that Gibby should be fired for not bunting more. So I stated:

For the record, I don’t write the headlines for my MSN column and never said that Gibbons should be fired for not bunting more although I did write: “That’s how costly the Gibbons-Ricciardi approach has been in 2007. If the manager won’t change a losing approach, then it’s time to change the manager. If the general manager refuses to tell his manager that his in-game tactics are losing games, then it’s time to lose the general manager.

I was faulting the organization’s approach in general for not doing a mid-season re-evaluation regarding the offense and sticking with the status quo despite evidence that the Jays 2007 strategy wasn’t working due to injuries, slumps and counting on well below league average batters to execute a plan that they were incapable of executing. The lack of a re-evaluation was the point of my critique, not that guys like Frank Thomas weren’t bunting. I felt strongly that Ricciardi/Gibbons should have taken a step back and said: “O.K. this is our current circumstances, what can we do to maximize the offense with the talent on hand.”

I wrote back in May on the Hardball Times that: [**check above]

The MSN columns were an outgrowth of that. I made the mistake of assuming that folks reading my MSN columns also read the Hardball Times. Pretty stupid on my part admittedly.

Oh well, I like the Jays chances in 2008 and I think the Jays won’t have to scratch out runs anyway.

Now momentum has taken over. I expand on the above thought:

My view on bunting is based on a word that rhymes with it--punting. In football, why do you punt? You still have a down to work with and all punting does is give the other team the ball. Why not go for it on every fourth down? You have to have possession of the ball to score so why give it up? Alternatively, why bunt since that particular at bat likely won’t end up creating a run?

We know why. It isn’t about this series of downs, it’s about the next one. Punting puts you ideally in a better position to score next time around.

That’s partly my view on bunting. When you’ve got a player at bat with men on/nobody out and next guy up is a Sal Fasano level hitter, a bunt/punt puts you in a better position to score next time up--in this case the next hitter. Yes, you’re giving up something; in football its possession, in baseball it’s the out. Letting a Fasano hit in that situation is a lot like going for it on fourth down from bad field position. Sure you might convert/get a hit but odds are higher that you’re out on downs or you give up an out (and possibly two), without getting anything in return.

If you punt/bunt there is a chance of recovering the ball/legging out a hit or forcing an error. In both cases you’re trying to pick up field position and making it easier to score next time up--in the case of baseball the field position of your base runners goes from first and second to second and third.

In both cases, you’re conceding the circumstances: Chances are good that your quarterback won’t convert on fourth down just as Fasano is unlikely to get a hit/extra base hit/walk. Therefore, you give up the out/possession to improve your next scoring opportunity. Rigidly holding to a philosophy of not giving away outs in any and all circumstances strikes me as somewhat akin to never punting on fourth down.

To use an extreme example, it’s the bottom the 13th inning at Rogers Centre in game seven of the World Series. The game is tied 4-4 and the first two hitters have reached base and you’ve got Sal Fasano up.

Your bench is empty. Do you (a) have Fasano bunt to move guys to second and third and one out or (2) do you let a slow-footed .219/.293/.394 career hitter take his cuts since you’re not supposed to give away outs?

The answer is obvious. The circumstances at hand dictate what you must do.

So, we see that a rigid, dogmatic philosophical approach isn’t always the best thing.

That was my gripe about Gibbons this year: He stuck with the ‘don’t give away outs’ regardless of whether it was Alex Rios up with two on/nobody out in the second or Jason Phillips up with two on/nobody out in the eighth. He (or J.P.) never seemed to adjust to the evolving state of the roster. The Jays had 10 guys (Royce Clayton, Adam Lind, John McDonald, Hector Luna, Jason Phillips, Sal Fasano, Jason Smith, Ryan Roberts, Curtis Thigpen and Howie Clark) with an aggregate OBP/SLG of .275/.325 getting a lot of at bats (often consequently and even in interleague games where the trio would be followed by the pitcher) plus injury hampered slumps in Troy Glaus, Reed Johnson, Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells and never wavered with a strategy that was conceived based on the assumption that Johnson, Overbay, Wells, Rios, Thomas, Glaus, Hill and Zaun would be healthy and hitting close to their career norms.

That scenario never came close to transpiring and despite all that they stuck with their original plan. Gibby/J.P. to the best of my knowledge didn’t have a Plan B or a fallback.

That’s why I was so critical of the offensive philosophy--not that there was a problem with the philosophy per se but in refusing to acknowledge that they lacked the personnel to execute that philosophy with the circumstances of the 2007 season and try to be more flexible and creative. A station-to-station ball club is easy to defend against which is why you need lots of lumber and high OBP to pull it off since there’s no pressure on the opposing defense. If you lack the firepower to do it but still attempt it then you’re doing the other team a huge favour since in those circumstances where you get men on they can focus exclusively on the double-play ball. The pitcher doesn’t have to worry about hold runners close, the infielders doesn’t have to worry about what base they have to cover in case there’s a play on. All they have to do is find out where a given hitter puts the ball in play when he’s ahead/behind in the count and set up for the twin-killing, often against a struggling/poor hitter. Had the Jays mixed it up a bit more and realize that every so often that they might have to “punt” then you’re adding one more factor to the equation that the defense has to account for.

Here is where my foil pointed out that such a strategy is a gamble and poses risks. To which I replied:

Agreed, it’s a gamble. However, so is expecting 2-3 consecutive .275 OBP/.325 SLG level hitters to get a hit/walk/extra base hit. The ten players I mentioned had an aggregate line in 2007 of .233/.275/.325 that is actually worse than they were hitting in late May when I first made the observation. The numbers tell you, regardless of what sample size you care to use, that they can’t hit/walk/hit for power so why entrust the scoring opportunity to them? A man on third/one out can score in a number of ways unrelated to the abilities of the player at bat. He can come home on a passed ball, wild pitch, balk, a slow grounder on the infield, a reasonably deep fly ball (fair or foul), an error on a foul ball, a sac bunt etc.

That’s why the occasional use of the bunt can be helpful to a team like the 2007 Jays. When your outmakers come up with men on first and second/none out, a successful bunt increases the chance of getting a run in since a hit isn’t automatically needed to drive in a run. Also, most likely if a member of the “.233/275/.325” crew does manage a hit chances are good it’s going to be a single (.325 SLG) which opens up the possibility that the runners on both second and third can score.

The thing is, I’ve heard criticisms regarding my use of sample-size and not understanding run expectancy; however these things are based on a couple of assumptions. One, they’re based on league averages and the Jays often had 2-3 guys that were slightly better than half of league average. The second is that sample-size/run expectancy/regression and progression to the mean etc. follow a strict March 31-October 1 parameter. They don’t. Some of these things may have begun in the previous season or continue into the next one--none of which helps you when a decision is needed right now.

This decision that has to factor in such things as the player’s physical health (whether nursing a minor injury--come back from a major one or even a cold-flu), how he has been hitting of late (is he hot or is he slumping), or his mental state (is he brooding over a contract, or a bone-head play the last inning etc.) , how he fares traditionally against this style of pitcher (power pitcher, sinkerball, junk-baller, lefty/righty, flyball/groundball pitcher, is he fresh or fatigued etc.)

The numbers will reach certain norms over a certain period but that’s not much help in the eighth inning of a one-run game. The fact that he (or the team) will eventually perform according to norm isn’t really helpful at this point in time. That’s why there’s advance scouting, strategizing, analysis and the like since the factors at play are always in flux. Using three seasons worth of data charting run expectancy to decide what to do with Sal Fasano up with men on/nobody out won’t work, because what he’s done in the past is a single data point among many.

Sometimes in those situations you have to simplify things: Is Sal Fasano likely to hit? There’s men on first and second/nobody out. Fasano is hitting .178/.229/.311 at the moment. He took a foul tip off his lead elbow in the previous half inning and there’s a bit of swelling plus he thinks he might be coming down with a flu bug.

Do you look at run expectancy over a full season to make your decision or do you simply ask yourself what is most likely? He’s facing a sinkerball pitcher ergo a ground ball double play is a possibility. Do you gamble he can stay out the double play? What is the most likely outcome of this at bat: A strike out (creating a first and second, one out with Hector Luna on deck), a ground ball (creating a man on third, two out with Hector Luna on deck), a pop fly or medium depth fly ball (creating a first and second, one out with Hector Luna on deck), a warning track fly ball (creating a first and third or possibly a second and third, one out with Hector Luna on deck), a walk (loading the bases with Hector Luna on deck), a single (creating a first and third, none out run in with Hector Luna on deck or bases loaded/nobody out with Hector Luna on deck), a double (creating a man on second, none out, two runs in with Hector Luna on deck or men on second and third, a run in W.H.L.O.D.) or a home run (three runs in, none out W.H.L.O.D.)

Since its Sal Fasano (career .219/.293/.394 and currently hitting .178/.229/.311) you decide that chances are a negative outcome in this instance is more likely than a positive outcome. So you “punt” in an attempt to try avoiding the double play and improve your field position since and open up a chance to get a run without needing a hit since gosh darn it--Hector Luna is on deck and if does hit, it might score two. It’s a gamble, sure but what would you call expecting a guy currently hitting .178/.229/.311 who is as slow as Rita McNeil on a treadmill to come through with a big hit?

Unfortunately, this resulted in getting hung up on the Sal Fasano example used above. Since I’m now at full throttle, going down hill with the wind at my back it’s difficult to put on the breaks. But hey, so what? We’re two Jays fans talking baseball over a beer (I had one in hand and the name of blog suggested strongly that he had one as well):

Fasano was just one example; they had a bunch of outmakers with men on. Strictly speaking altering the philosophy wouldn't be as dramatic as you might think because you need the following scenario:

1) 1st and 2nd, none out outmakers due up.

2) Lead off double, none out outmakers due up.

You wouldn't do it all the time simply because it makes it predictable. You also use scenario 1 and 2 occasionally with somebody who might be struggling a bit (while generally a potent hitter) simply to keep the defense and advanced scouts guessing. You can’t let them assume that a play like that is on just when your .275/.325 guys are up.

It's like Nolan Ryan's changeup. Ryan made his living with the overpowering fastball and the bladder-loosing slider. However, he had his best starts when the changeup was working. He didn’t have to throw it often but once other teams knew it was there and working, it made his fastball/slider that much more potent.

The Jays build their offense around power and OBP--however to supplement it (especially when it’s struggling) with the occasional play like above, it gives the defense one more thing to consider. How many double play ground balls might have become singles if the opposing infielders were in motion?

There is more to “manufacturing runs” than stealing and bunting. It’s also done by creating holes for ground balls to get through--you create holes by creating uncertainty. The best part is, if you execute your offensive “changeup” successfully the worst situation you end up with is two men in scoring position with one out.

You have to remember, guys like the Jays were forced to utilize in 2007 are at the point in their careers where they realize they’re not going to be big bombers or OBP guys. To keep their jobs in the big leagues they have to focus on the little things: taking the extra base, not missing the cut-off man or throwing to the wrong base, calling good games, keeping the ball in front of them and being able to move runners along either with a bunt or a short swing ground ball on the right side.

It’s not like players like Luna, McDonald, Fasano/Phillips (especially in the NL) aren’t unfamiliar with the bunt. To get any kind of playing time it’s a skill they need to have.

Even in the minor leagues, there’s more emphasis on player development rather than winning games and with a lot of old school baseball men managing and coaching down there you can be sure that the great majority of players are taught how to bunt--especially if they’ve spent any time in a NL affiliate. Yeah, it’s pretty silly to ask a Glaus or a Thomas to play that way however most guys in the minors will never reach that level so the rank and file try to develop as wide a skill set as possible to maximize their value to the parent club. Unless they’ve got an all-world bat they will have had a lot of practice in the art of bunting.

At this point, fearing another outburst of bandwidth, he ended the discussion but implied he could still prove me wrong were he so inclined. Again, the point was missed. I thought we were talking baseball, I’m guessing he was involved in a competition requiring a winner and a loser. I have always been quite content to ‘agree to disagree’ and enjoy the discussion for its own sake. Since I wasn’t willing to surrender and admit defeat, he saw no point in continuing.

He’s still a young guy and I’ve been there and done that already. He’s pretty sharp and after a few more years of experience in life he’ll learn to sit back and simply enjoy an exchange of ideas. He’ll come to understand that if you’re getting involved in a debate, there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand somebody else’s point of view without trying to get to the point where he can spike the football or admire his home run.

Ah to be in my 20’s again.

Best Regards


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