I'd seen the same exact play and heard the same subsequent commentary hundreds of times, so I'm not sure why this particular sequence peaked my curiosity. But it did.
The Atlanta Braves trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-2 in the bottom half of the fourth inning Monday night when Dan Uggla hit a leadoff double. Chipper Jones followed with a weak groundout to second, moving Uggla to third base with one out.
The Braves' announce team—Chip Caray and Joe Simpson—lauded Jones for his "really good" at bat. Complimentary analysis of such plays is commonplace in baseball, and I had never given the conventional wisdom a second thought. I'm not even sure why I did tonight, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the Pirates weren't being fooled by much of Braves starter Mike Minor's offerings.
Was trading an out for a better opportunity to score one run in the fourth inning of a high-scoring game really worth it? Did the resulting situation—Uggla on third with one out as opposed to being on second with no outs—even give the Braves a better chance of scoring?
The first question was a rhetorical one; the second was legitimate. In search of the answer, I turned to the source of baseball data I trust the most: The Book.
If you're a baseball fan and you haven't at least skimmed through The Book, you're really missing out. It analyzes common strategies and uses well-researched MLB data to assess whether each particular tactic is wise or not. Think of it as a common sense encyclopedia that often comes in handy when you're looking to challenge long-held, if errant, baseball ideologies.
Do you think sacrifices are smart baseball plays?
The section of the book relevant to my inquiry is chapter nine: To Sacrifice Or Not. The focus of the chapter is the wisdom of calling sacrifice bunts, but the data used is equally useful in answering my question. I'm aware that a groundout isn't technically a sacrifice, but the result is the same. ESPN The Magazine and the Elias Sports Bureau define a productive out as "when a fly ball, grounder or bunt advances a runner with nobody out." So, was Jones' groundout really productive?
Not according to The Book.
From 2000-04, The Book compiled the run expectancies (RE) of every possible base/out scenario in the National League. The average team that had a man on second with no outs scored 1.15 runs in that inning. When we look at the run expectancy for an average team with a man on third and one out, their RE falls to .98 runs.
The gap is probably wider when you consider that Jones was followed in the lineup by Eric Hinske—he wound up with a four-hit game, but that's an aberration— light-hitting Tyler Pastornicky and Minor.
Let's assume we're all rational people. We'd rather have Jones up with no outs and a man on second than Hinske with one out and a man on third. In less player-specific terms, we'd rather have our No. 6 hitter batting in a higher RE situation than our No. 7 hitter in a lower RE scenario.
How did the situation play out? Hinske singled and Uggla scored. Some might argue that the result proves that essentially sacrificing Uggla over was a sound play. I would argue the opposite. Uggla probably would've scored from second on the play. It was also the last run the Braves would score, as the Pirates continued to rough up Minor en route to a 9-3 win.
I should take this opportunity to mention that it doesn't matter whether Jones intentionally hit the ball to the right side in order to move Uggla over or not. The reason I looked into this in the first place was because Simpson and Caray deemed the result of the at bat a success.
The issue boils down to whether a base is worth an out; the objective data reveals that it's not, regardless of which base/out state we're talking about.
So, the next time you hear an announcer laud a player for moving a runner over at the expense of himself, don't be fooled by his oft-repeated "good at bat" nonsense.
Good at bats increase a team's chances of scoring.
Trading outs for bases does not.