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June 12, 2015

Small Ball in Little League?

June 12, 2015

For many baseball enthusiasts there is nothing more beautiful than a well-executed sacrifice bunt or a batter deftly hitting behind a runner with nobody out to move his teammate to third. Manufactured runs that result from small ball tactics such as these can be a pleasure to behold because they involve skill, teamwork, and the willingness of a player to give himself up for the good of the team. But are these strategies still the best way to win ball games, and what do these trends tell us about the way the game of baseball should be taught to youngsters these days?

Many of the elements we associate with small ball are essentially methods of a batter giving himself up in exchange for increasing a baserunner’s odd of scoring. So does it work? Do teams that follow the small ball strategies score more runs or fewer runs than teams that play what some consider a more modern version of the game - playing for the three-run homer or scoring a runner from first with a double in the gap? Do sacrifice bunts, stolen base attempts, and the hit and run equal greater run production than playing for the big hit?

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An argument some use in favor of small ball is that of consistency. While teams that play small ball may not score more runs than those teams that go station to station waiting for a bit hit, they are more likely to score runs consistently. A small ball team may average five runs per game by consistently scoring three to six runs a game while a team that avoids small ball techniques may average five runs a game by scoring ten one game and getting shut out the next. Which of these scenarios equates, though, to more wins over the course of a season?

Let’s look at the stats and see what they say. Specifically, let’s look at the correlation between run production and stats like stolen bases and sacrifice hits by American League teams in 2014. Were the top run producing teams the ones playing small ball, or were they the ones playing for the big hit?

According to Baseball-Reference.com the two top American League teams in runs scored for 2014 were the Los Angeles Angels with 773 runs scored and the Detroit Tigers with 757. These same teams were also the two top teams in the AL in OPS+ (On Base + Slugging Percentage) with 109 and 111 respectively. OPS+, of course, is perhaps the most anti-small ball statistic out there. It measures and rewards both getting on base and hitting for power. Hitters and teams who give themselves up via sacrifice hits or hitting behind runners are neither getting on base nor hitting for power. How did scoring the most runs in the AL and having the highest OPS+ in the AL translate to wins for LA and Detroit in 2014? The Angels finished first in the AL West with 98 wins, and the Tigers finished first in the AL Central with 90 wins.

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Let’s examine the other side of the coin as well. How did the teams who led the AL in sacrifice hits and steals fare in terms of run production and wins? The two top teams in sacrifice hits were Cleveland, which finished third in the AL Central with 85 wins and scored 669 runs - good for 7th place out of the fifteen AL teams, and Tampa Bay which finished 4th in the East with 77 wins and scored a league low 612 runs. In terms of stolen bases, the two top AL teams in 2014 were the Kansas City Royals and the Houston Astros. Kansas City was the one exception to the small ball data. They led the AL in steals with 153, finished second in the AL Central with 89 wins but advanced all the way to the World Series before losing in seven games to the San Francisco Giants. Houston, on the other hand, was second in steals with 122 but finished fourth in the West with a paltry 70 wins.

Nearing the halfway point of the 2015 MLB season Toronto tops the AL in runs scored with 325, they lead the league in OPS+ at 118 and they are near the top of the league in both steals and sacrifice hits. Currently, though, they are only in third place in their division, so their statistical dominance hasn’t translated into wins so far. The New York Yankees are second in runs scored with 275, have a third-place 106 OPS+, and are right around the league average in both steals and sacrifices. They are currently holding down first place in the AL East.

At the major league level, the data seems to suggest that teams who shun the small ball philosophy win more games. Playing for the extra base hit with runners on clearly seems to result in more runs scored and more wins at the MLB level. So, what is this information saying about the way the game of baseball should now be taught to Little Leaguers and other youth players? Should coaches stop spending time teaching the fundamentals of bunting or executing a hit and run or a stolen base? Should they instead simply teach station to station baseball while they wait for the big hit?

Little Leaguers are not major leaguers. In fact only a very small percentage of youth players will ever have a chance of becoming a major league player. The skill sets of big leaguers are vastly different from those of youngsters. Therefore, the game is very different, and, other than the old school philosophy of learning to play the game the right way, there are some practical reasons for youth teams to learn and employ small ball strategies.

There are far more ways to score a runner from third with less than two out than scoring that same runner from second base - a passed ball or wild pitch, an error on the infield, a balk, or a missed third strike, for example.

Defenses shift in bunt situations. These shifts create holes for hitters and make fielders feel uncomfortable and out of position. All of these factors equal opportunities for the offense.

Bunt situations change a pitcher’s focus. They make the pitcher think differently. Instead of focusing on pitch selection and location, the pitcher can get out of rhythm and think about things like keeping a pitch up so the bunter will pop it up or what his responsibility is in various bunt coverages.

Bunts force the defense to move, catch the ball, and throw the ball. Every one of these tasks creates an opportunity for the defense to make a mistake that the offense can capitalize on. There really is no such thing as an easy out at the youth level.

Not everyone is proficient at hitting the ball at the Little League level. Most teams probably have just a couple hitters they can consistently count on to hit the ball hard. Using strategies like the bunt or the steal gives those players who have not yet developed as hitters a way to make a positive contribution to their team’s offense.

At the big league level teams that get more runners on base and pick up more extra base hits seem to be the most successful teams these days. If a team only gets 27 outs a game, why give them up so easily with sacrifice bunts, easy ground outs, or unsuccessful stolen base attempts? Major league teams appear to be better off moving up one base at a time and waiting for someone to come through with a big hit. There does, however, still seem to be value at the youth level both strategically and fundamentally in continuing to teach small ball skills.

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