Cincinnati Reds CF Billy Hamilton steps into the batters box and immediately the Pirates defense is on high alert. The corner infielders move up to defend the bunt. The middle infielders cheat in a few a steps because they know it will be difficult to throw out the speedy leadoff hitter from the edge of the OF grass. Hamilton shows bunt and takes the pitch from Charlie Morton for a ball. 3B Pedro Alvarez cheats in another step. The count reaches 2-1 and Hamilton is almost assured of seeing a fastball. No pitcher wants to fall behind and issue a free pass to this kind of baserunner. Hamilton slaps the next pitch to the right of Alvarez just out of his reach for a single. Under normal circumstances Pedro would make this play, but defending the bunt takes the angle away from him. Now things are about to get really stressful for Morton and the Pirates’ Defense. Morton has to divide his attention between Hamilton at the plate and the hitter Todd Frazier. Morton gets ahead of Frazier 0-1 and the Pirates are sniffing that Hamilton might be on the move. Catcher Russell Martin calls for the pitch out. No dice, Hamilton stays put. On the next pitch Morton holds the ball in the set position for an especially long time to try and freeze Hamilton. It works. Hamilton can’t get a good read and he stays put again. Unfortunately, the pitch was a 59 foot curveball that Russell Martin has difficulty blocking. The ball squirts just far enough away for Hamilton to advance to second base. Did the distraction of Hamilton at first base cause Morton to lose focus and fail to execute the pitch? Morton is able to retire Frazier and now Joey Votto steps to the plate. Ordinarily the Pirates would love to put an over shift on Votto. But with Billy Hamilton still on second base Pedro Alvarez must stay close enough to defend third base from the steal. It doesn’t matter, Hamilton swipes third base anyway. Votto then lifts a fly ball to right field that is too short to score most base runners. But Billy Hamilton is not most base runners. He scores standing up.
As a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates I hate Billy Hamilton. As someone who grew up watching baseball in the 80′s I love Billy Hamilton. For me Hamilton harkens back to the brand of major league baseball of my youth when Vince Coleman would swipe 100 bases in a season and Brett Butler would collect 188 bunt base hits in a career that spanned the 80′s and early 90′s. This small ball style of play began to die as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the home run record at the dawn of the steroid era. The growing community of sabermetric minded baseball people were eager to help bury it. Armed with years of data, run expectancy charts were developed that seemingly proved the inefficiencies of small ball tactics.
Analysis of run expectancies tells us that base stealing requires roughly a 70% success rate to provide any positive contribution in scoring runs. Prior to 2003 only twice did the league average success rate for steals exceed 70%. With the explosion of home runs during the steroid era runners began to take a more cautious approach on the base paths. Stolen base attempts per game dropped considerably as managers preferred to conserve outs, play a station to station style of game, and rely on the long ball. In light of the sabermetric data this all made for sound baseball strategy. But there is a hidden unquantifiable impact in small ball tactics that is missed by the those people that too heavily favor sabermetrics in the way they think about the game. For instance let’s look at Billy Hamilton. Hamilton has swiped 38 bases in 53 attempts this season. That represents a success rate of just under 72%. The data says that the Reds are just barely breaking even in scoring any extra runs due to Hamilton’s base stealing. But what the data doesn’t show is how strongly Hamilton’s base stealing abilities influences the game. He changes defenses. He alters pitch selection. When he gets on base he is always in the head of the opposition. Perhaps efficiency is not the end all and be all when considering offensive strategies. There is an influence, a psychological impact on the opponent that should also be considered. Just because it can’t be measured doesn’t mean the pressure to defend a stolen base attempt, or even the pressure to defend a sacrifice bunt doesn’t create some advantages.
This is not to say that the lead data analysts that front offices are employing do not grasp the importance of these hidden immeasurable effects of various baseball strategies. David Manel of Bucsdugout.com wrote an exceptional article last week in which he discussed his findings on the effectiveness of defensive over shifts with Dan Fox, Pirates’ Director of Baseball Systems Development for the – Pirates getting creative with defensive shifts. In the article Mr. Manel pointed out that despite the rapid adoption and exponential increase of defensive shifting by all teams over the last three seasons defensive efficiency has not improved. However, the insights provided in the article by Clint Barmes, Jimmy Rollins, and Dan Fox make it clear that there is more to evaluating the success of the shift than just defensive efficiency. Mr. Fox spoke of how the Pirates use the shift to hem in hitters and influence them to change their approach at the plate.
Hitters have become pull happy and have eschewed bunting and hitting to the opposite field in their thirst for power. Defenses have countered by shifting fielders to the pull side of the field. Influenced by the shift, some hitters are searching for answers to beat it such as trying to hit more to the opposite field and even laying down an occasional bunt. It is a vicious circle and it is very much like the cat and mouse game played by base stealers, pitchers, and defenses for decades. In the end the efficiency of the tactic matters most, but the hidden psychological impacts should not be completely ignored. There is value in influencing an opponent. It is just difficult to measure how much.