Chicks may dig the long ball, but is relying on it to produce runs a viable strategy for teams with World Series aspirations? Or in the new age of the pitcher, should teams start returning to the small-ball strategies of the past?
In this article, I'll attempt to answer those questions. It should be noted, of course, that any manager would love to possess a team capable both of bashing home runs and utilizing small ball when the situation dictated it, but having it both ways isn't always feasible.
Our examination will start with a brief overview of each strategy, a discussion on the fluctuating value of each strategy throughout time and a deeper look at the past five World Series winners.
Let's get started.
Tenets of Each Strategy
At its core, small ball is based upon advancing base-runners into scoring position, often sacrificing outs to do so. Runners are moved into scoring position via stolen bases, sacrifice bunts and situational hitting (for example, if there is a runner on second base with no outs, the hitter's goal is to hit the ball to the right side on the ground to advance the runner).
Runners are then scored either through hits or with further sacrifice plays, such as sacrifice flies or safe and suicide squeezes (sacrifice bunt with the runner taking off for home).
Long ball is less intricate and is based upon a team's ability to score either by hitting home runs or stringing together a number of hits in an inning. Teams that employ this style generally don't sacrifice outs to advance runners, hoping instead to bunch together several runs in a big inning.
The Value of Each Strategy Has Fluctuated Throughout History
Small ball ruled the early years of baseball until Babe Ruth made the home run sexy in the 1920s. Alongside several rule changes that favored the batter before that decade, the home run changed the game into a higher-scoring affair.
And it has fluctuated ever since.
In 1955, there were only 0.28 stolen bases and 0.48 sacrifice hits (sacrifice bunts) per team per game, but 0.91 home runs. The total amount of home runs per team per game in the 1950s and early 1960s was as high as the game would see until the Steroids Era hit in full force in the 1990s.
In 1979, there were 0.71 stolen bases and 0.46 sacrifice hits per team per game, but only 0.58 home runs. From the late 1960s until the mid-1980s, small ball once again ruled the day.
Why does this matter?
Namely because baseball is trending away from the long-ball game we saw during the Steroids Era, and pitching in baseball is starting to dominate. Take a look at the following table comparing the years of 1998-2006 (two expansion teams were added in 1998, so there was a natural bump in stats compared to previous years).
|Period||Average HR Per Year|
And the 2011 season saw a major dip in offensive production, as the following numbers attest to (from STATS LLC via the Associated Press):
- Teams averaged 4.28 runs per game this season, the lowest since 1992's 4.12 and down from a Steroids Era peak of 5.14 in 2000.
- The home run average was down to 0.94 each team per game, also the lowest in 19 years and a sharp drop from 1.17 in 2000.
- The major league batting average of .255 was the lowest since 1989.
- The 3.94 ERA was a level last seen in 1992.
In the past five years, we've seen a shift back toward stronger pitching and less home runs, and last year, that was more clear than ever. In fact, since 2007, earned runs have decreased every season and strikeouts have increased.
Thus, examining how the past five World Series have approached the game offensively should give us a better idea of which strategy is more viable for current World Series hopefuls.
Studying World Series Teams
We'll start by looking at how each team ranked during the regular season in several categories.
|Year||Team||R||HR||XBH||SB||Sacrifice Hits||Sacrifice Flies|
|2011||St. Louis Cardinals||5||13||9||29||3||20 (tied)|
|2010||San Francisco Giants||17||10 (tied)||13 (tied)||30||3||17 (tied)|
|2009||New York Yankees||1||1||1||11||25 (tied)||24 (tied)|
|2008||Philadelphia Phillies||8 (tied)||2||5||4||4 (tied)||23|
|2007||Boston Red Sox||4||18||6||15 (tied)||29||7 (tied)|
It should be noted that American League teams will naturally have lower stats in the sacrifice hits department, since those teams don't have to worry about pitchers hitting. Thus, an American League team ranked around 15 or so in these rankings would be seen as more inclined toward small ball.
Clearly, living or dying by the home run is risky. The more pressing stats seemed to be extra-base hits and runs—only the Giants weren't top-10 in either category during the regular season.
So did anything change in the postseason?
From 2007-09, not really. Each team generally maintained their averages.
But in 2010, the Giants caught serious fire in the postseason, scoring 71 runs and bashing 20 home runs in 16 games. Those averages (4.73 runs and 1.33 home runs per game) were higher than what the team managed in the regular season (4.30 runs and 1.0 home runs per game).
That surprising offensive burst supplemented the team's excellent pitching staff, and the Giants rode both to a title.
The Cardinals moved in the opposite direction. They stole seven bases and accumulated 12 sacrifice hits in 18 postseason games. Those averages (0.38 stolen bases and 0.66 sacrifice hits per game) eclipsed what the team did in the regular season (0.35 stolen bases and 0.51 sacrifice hits per game).
The team averaged exactly one home run per game in the regular season and postseason, however. They nether lived nor died by the long ball.
What Does This All Mean?
We know that offense dominance is no longer the trend, pitching is re-establishing itself as the game's defining factor and the last two World Series winners were red-hot teams that slipped into the playoffs on the season's final day and rode that momentum to a World Series title.
We also know, however, that the Texas Rangers were second in home runs last year en route to the team's second-consecutive World Series berth. This year, they have the second-best record in baseball and lead all of baseball in home runs.
But they haven't been able to win when it mattered most.
Right now, the formula for winning the World Series seems to be be relying on a solid pitching staff, building an offense that can generate runs without relying on the long ball and hoping your team gets hot late in the year.
Thus, small ball seems the safer strategy at the moment.
As I said before, having a lineup full of plus hitters and only utilizing small ball as a situational weapon is ideal. But for general managers building a team right now, focusing on pitching and players who can generate runs is more viable than hoping to bash home runs en route to a championship.
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