The New “Billy Ball”
In 2003, Michael Lewis published his deep dive into what became an analytics revolution. “Moneyball” popularized Bill James theories on analytics and thrust Billy Beane reluctantly into the baseball spotlight. Take away Brad Pitt, an A’s historic win streak, and the total abandonment of the ‘old school’ style of baseball and Michael Lewis accomplished one important thing… he forced us to consider another way to look at the game.
Flash ahead 16 years and the balance of perspective that allows for smart people to hold each other accountable is absent. What started out as a puzzle of trying to figure out which statistics correlate to wins has turned into a mystery. Currently we are drowning in information and starving for wisdom. It was argued that walks were grossly undervalued and stolen bases, the hit and run, and the sacrifice bunt were thought too highly of. Lewis further describes Beane’s mission as one where he covets on base and slugging percentage as the holy grail that directly translate to the win column.
A lot of people bought into this and Hollywood became reality. MLB front offices started looking like Wall Street, with analysts in cubicles treating ball players like dividends. All you have to do is turn on a random game in the third inning and witness a drastic defensive shift with three guys on the same side of the infield or four guys in the outfield (see last week’s article).
Think about this. In 2002, the year before the book was released, MLB players walked 16,246 times. Since then, only two times has the walk total eclipsed that number, despite the analytics community’s enthusiasm for the stat. Weren’t they listening to Jonah Hill?!
But, there were 2 statistics not touched on by Lewis or Beane that have skyrocketed because of analytics. Home runs and strikeouts go hand in hand. In 2002 there were a shade over 5,000 homers hit and 31,000 strikeouts. Today, we’re looking at 1,200 more homers hit in a season and almost 9,000 more opportunities where the ball is not put in play.
To hit home runs, hitters have to start their swings sooner and pull the ball to the shortest part of the park- usually the corners. Starting the swing sooner means they’ll get fooled more often … thus, more swings and misses.
This is where the analyst would retort, a strikeout is an out and an out is just an out. As an analytics person, I have to question whether we should ignore the value of putting the ball in play, moving a runner over, and putting pressure on the defense. Is this now the undervalued stat? It certainly won’t get you paid.
If you drive that runner in from second you can make some good money… if you hit a homer, you can make even more.
As an industry, if a player is rewarded for home runs, yet not penalized for strikeouts, why not swing for the fences? Hit enough home runs and the strikeouts won’t matter … ask Aaron Judge who eclipsed both 50 homers and 200 strikeouts in the same campaign.
When teams apply the defensive shift, wouldn’t it make sense to lay down a bunt or hit a 27-hopper to the unprotected area on the vacant side? The single is definitely devalued. If a hitter feels like his paycheck correlates with home runs, he might let a pitch go if he can’t send it 400 feet. Taking pitches to get a favorable hitting count has resulted in pitch counts going up. But more pitches thrown and fewer balls in play means games have gotten longer… and slower.
With analytics-based offenses relying on extra base hits, why steal a base or sacrifice a runner or move a guy over? On a swing of the bat, that guy could score anyway. Ironically, standing around and waiting for the home runs has actually taken the strategy out of the game.
In making this next comment I may have to hand my SABR card and give back my analytics degree … but singles matter too. String a couple of them together, throw in a stolen base and like magic, a run appears. Even if it doesn’t result in a run, a seemingly meaningless 2-out blooper can allow for a key hitter to get one more at bat later in the game or that starter to have to throw 5 more pitches. Just having a runner on base who is a threat to steal changes the dynamics of the pitcher’s delivery (slide step or not), pitch selection, and his concentration is now split between batter and runner. The defense is now altered with a first baseman holding or playing behind, a middle infield pinching for better coverage on a steal or double play, and the third baseman is creeping in to defend against the bunt. A simple single alters the DNA of the defense adding countless variables to the decisions involved with the next batter. All these strategies involving movement, communication, cat-and-mouse like ploys, angles, fakes … dare I say strategy, are certainly more interesting than sitting around waiting for a home run.
Analytics have provided more offense but the current methods have made the game less interesting, less intellectual…. and longer. The all-or-nothing style of baseball has certainly resulted in some monumental power numbers, but the amount of strikeouts that come along with it has resulted in a boring product. Bring back Billy Ball … Billy Martin that is.