A bear market for batters

MLB batters don’t make contact with the ball as much as they used to, making for a game that emphasizes strikeouts and walks instead of hits and defense.

The long-term decline in contact rate ((AB-K)/AB) has accompanied a trend toward fewer home runs, fewer runs scores and lower batting averages. Contact rates have been steadily falling since they reached a peak in 1981 unseen since 1956.

Many fans, myself included, would prefer a game with more balls put in play, but baseball has changed in the statistically oriented, post-steroids era. Batters understand the value of a walk, and they’re not afraid to strike out, setting K records in nine straight seasons.

When will this pattern end, leading to more contact and more run scoring? There’s no way of knowing.

Ordinary average bunts

Runner on first, no outs. The table is set for a mistake.

Managers often see this situation as a great opportunity to bunt the runner over, but the numbers show they’re giving away runs and wins even when the sacrifice is executed perfectly.

By giving up an out for a base, teams lose more than they gain. Everyday, run-of-the-mill bunts cost teams in expected run scoring and the probability that they will win.

The most common bunt can be the most damaging type of sacrifice over the long run. The median win probability added of all 2,114 sacrifice bunt attempts in 2013 was -0.02, according to an analysis of data from the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index. That means teams’ odds of winning drops by 2 percentage points when they lay down a bunt.

  • The Cardinals and Diamondbacks were tied at 9 in the top of the 13th inning on April 3, 2013, when Matt Carpenter bunted over Jon Jay to second. The Cardinals went from having a runner on first with no outs to having a runner on second with one out, and their win probability declined by -0.02. Jay never scored, and the Cardinals lost 10-9.
  • With runners on first and second, no outs and trailing 5-3 on April 15, 2013, Luis Cruz of the Dodgers bunted the runners over and was thrown out at first. The Dodgers WPA dipped -0.02, and the Padres went on to win, 6-3.
  • Denard Span bunted over two Nationals’ players to second and third in an effort to come back from a 4-2 deficit. Again, the bunt was successful, but the Nationals lost -0.02 in WPA and lost to the Cardinals 4-3 on Sept. 23, 2013.

If these examples seem similar, that’s because they are.

The same story repeats itself over and over. Each time, teams lose fractions of a win when they bunt runners over.

Bunts may be worthwhile when the pitcher is batting or when a position player is fast enough to bunt for a hit.

But in most other situations, teams shouldn’t bother with the bunt. They’re killing themselves with smallball.

Bunts do more harm than good for most teams

Most of baseball’s managers harmed their teams when ordering non-pitchers to lay down bunts last season.

Only 13 of 30 Major League Baseball managers improved their teams’ chances of winning with sacrifice bunt attempts, according to an analysis of information from the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index.

The other 17 managers would have been better off letting their batters swing away.

In the 2013 season, the managers and teams that were best at bunting — both the decision to try a bunt and the execution of a bunt attempt — were Terry Francona of the Indians, Joe Girardi of the Yankees and Ron Roenicke of the Brewers. The managers who made the worst bunting decisions were John Gibbons of the Blue Jays, Mike Redmond of the Marlins and Walt Weiss of the Rockies.

The most profitable bunts occurred when the batter reached base, either by beating out the throw or when the defensive team committed an error. Bunts also made a positive difference in win probability when they advanced runners from first and second to second and third with no outs.

For example, Juan Centeno substantially improved the Mets’ chances of winning on Sept. 29, 2013, when he bunted in front of home with a runner on first and no outs in the bottom of the 8th. The runner, Juan Lagares, came all the way around to score, tying the game at 2. The Mets went on to defeat the Brewers 3-2. With a win probability added of 0.37, that play had the highest WPA of any sacrifice bunt attempt in the 2013 season.

The least useful bunt attempt happened when the Marlins’ Rob Brantley hit a popup to third that turned into a double play at first when Donovan Solano was caught off the bag. That play significantly reduced the Marlins’ chances of winning with a WPA of -0.27, and one strikeout by Craig Kimbrel later, the Braves notched a 3-2 victory on April 9, 2013.

This study excluded pitchers in order to compare National League and American League teams.

Sacrifice bunt attempts are one of the more easily measurable decisions that managers make, but of course this ranking shouldn’t be used to solely determine whether one manager is better than another. Many other managerial decisions include bullpen management, lineup configuration, intentional walks, stolen bases, training, scouting, preparation and intangibles, such as player motivation.

There was a low to moderate correlation between the number of sacrifice bunt attempts and their win probability added. The correlation was about 0.38.

MLB strikeouts reach all-time high (again)

Stronger arms and quicker bats led to Major League Baseball players striking out more than ever before last season — the ninth straight season in which a new high has been set.

Both strikeout rates and the total number of strikeouts reached previously unseen peaks, with pitchers fanning an average of 7.57 batters per nine innings and 36,710 batters overall during the course of the 2013 season, according to Fangraphs.



A combination of factors have contributed to the rise in strikeouts, according to an CBSsports.com article published last May.

Pitchers throw harder, with average fastball velocities reaching all-time highs in 2013 at 92 mph, according to Fangraphs data. Batters now know that strikeouts aren’t much worse than other kinds of outs, reducing the stigma of whiffing, with contact percentages at their lowest rate since 2003. When starters get tired, fireballing relievers come in at a moment’s notice with fresh arms.

As a result, batters go deeper into the count, fewer balls are put in play and games take longer.

Cut the cord and free your TV

cut_cable_TV_smallCable TV costs too much, wastes time with commercials and fails to offer channel packages I want. Who needs cable when we have the Internet?

So I cut the cord this week, which will save me money and focus my viewing on the content that I want to see. Without cable, I’m left with MLB.tv for baseball, Netflix for movies and TV, and an antenna on my windowsill to pick up over-the-air HD broadcasts.

I had enough of steep monthly cable bills when I didn’t even watch it that often — mostly for live sporting events or DVR’d movies that are also available through Netflix.

I was paying a promotional rate of $95 a month for 6 megabit Internet and AT&T’s U-verse 200 cable package, which didn’t even include MLB Network. Without the discount, full price for this package would have been about $135 a month, which seemed crazy to me. Now with 12 megabit Internet alone, my monthly bill will be about $51 each month.

For Internet content (Netflix at $8/month and MLB.tv at $50 for the remainder of the season), I use a Roku media player so I can watch shows on my TV. I’m also considering Hulu Plus ($8/month), but I’m not sure I need it.

For network and local channels, the over-the-air antenna ($10-$20) might seem old-fashioned, but the picture is fantastic and I don’t have to pay for the content.

I’ll miss out on some college football games under this setup because I won’t get ESPN and other sports channels. But I can instead see games over the air, at friends’ houses or sports bars. Even if I pay for food and drink at a restaurant while watching a game, I’ll still be spending less money.

Saving money may have been the primary reason for getting rid of cable, but it wasn’t the only one. I now have the freedom to choose the channels I want and watch them on demand.

How to avoid MLB.tv blackouts

Unblock-UsBaseball blackouts, be gone!

A service called Unblock-Us allows customers to get around MLB.tv’s blackouts of local games, which have long been an obstacle for fans who want to pay for online or TV viewing of their home teams but can’t.

MLB.tv allows viewers to watch any baseball game, with the catch that you can’t watch your team within its coverage area. This restriction limits the promise of MLB.tv, rendering it useless to fans who live in the same cities as their favorite teams.

MLB.tv

Unblock-Us avoids blackouts by routing an MLB.tv subscriber’s Internet connection through remote servers, making it appear that the subscriber is located outside of the blackout area. It works on desktop computers as well as media players such as Roku and Apple TV.

Being able to watch baseball through the Internet instead of on cable TV is a major benefit to fans who want to avoid paying for cable, watch game replays, view games across the league or listen to broadcasters different from those in their home market. In the Atlanta area, being able to switch to the visiting team’s broadcast is a great relief from the Braves’ regular crew in the booth.

Setup of Unblock-Us should be easy for most users. I had a harder time setting it up because of how my Internet service provider wired my home. A previous post titled “Make AT&T Uverse i38HG access point behave” explains how to address the same technical problem I had.

Fortunately, Unblock-Us comes with a seven-day free trial, and it costs $4.99 per month afterward. Unlike some VPN or proxy services, Unblock-Us does have any monthly data usage limits or require additional software.

I was surprised I hadn’t heard of Unblock-Us before now. If more baseball fans knew about it, they’d swarm to this kind of solution and MLB.tv would profit from new subscriptions.

Game change

Major League Baseball has entered a new era of pitching dominance, in large part because of an unprecedented jump in strikeouts over the last 35 years. One result is an increasing likelihood of no-hitters in a season, with pitchers already having thrown five of them so far in the 2012 season.

Strikeout rates, measured in K/9, have set record highs every year since 2005. The long-term trend dates all the way back to baseball’s beginnings, according to data from 1871 to 2012 compiled from FanGraphs.com.

 

Strikeout rates surged in the pitchers’ era of the 1960s, peaking at 5.99 K/9 in 1967. That rate stood as the all-time high for 20 years.

But strikeouts today far exceed those rates of nearly 50 years ago.

Pitchers are on pace to reach a new K/9 record this season. So far in 2012, they’ve been fanning 7.51 batters per game.

Ideas for better baseball

Baseball is fantastic as it is, but it could be better. Over the years, my friends and I have discussed ideas about how the game could be improved. Some of these suggestions are practical; others are a bit off the wall. But these suggestions would make America’s Pasttime even more fun:

1. Increase instant replay

It’s not acceptable to dismiss poor umpire performance as “the human element” of the game. With the technology we have today, there’s no reason not to get calls right with a high degree of accuracy. Why are we settling for less?

Instant replay should be vastly expanded to cover almost any contested play. A fifth umpire could handle replay duties. Challenges from managers could be limited, or umpires could have the discretion to review plays as they see fit. The details are unimportant. What’s needed is more accountability for getting calls right.

2. Runners shouldn’t have to stay within the basepaths

Why should runners be confined to a narrow strip of land that’s arbitrarily enforced by the umps? It drives me crazy when, in the middle of a thrilling rundown, the runner is called out because he had the audacity to try to avoid the tag. Enough already. Let runners be free to dodge tags in whatever way they want. If enacted, this rule change wouldn’t change the game much because the fastest path between two bases is a direct line, and runners usually prefer to get to the next base as soon as possible. MLB should let runners run. It would make the game more exciting.

3. Change the structure of the commissioner’s office

Bud Selig has ruled as MLB’s all-powerful commissioner since an owner’s coup in 1992, and he has held office despite repeatedly saying he would step in. There’s a reason he’s called “commissioner for life,” and in January he received a contract extension through 2014. While I support many of Selig’s initiatives — interleague play, realignment, the wild card, the World Baseball Classic — he has also catered to the owner’s interests to the detriment of the fans.

A better system would decentralize power and make baseball more democratic by creating a five-person committee to oversee the game’s governance. As suggested my friend Erin from squaretender.com fame, two committee members would represent owners, two would represent players, and the fifth would be the key: the fan’s representative. The fan’s representative would case the tiebreaking vote in disputes between owners and managers, acting for the benefit of the game itself on behalf of the customers who pay billions of dollars to watch it.

4. End the idea of sacrifice flies

MLB Rule 10.08(d) allows batters who hit flyouts that score runs to not be charged with an at-bat. Unlike a sacrifice bunt, these batters get credit for a sacrifice fly even though it’s difficult to tell whether they were actually trying to sacrifice themselves to score a run. In many cases, batters are trying to get a hit, not a sacrifice. When a batter hits a fly ball that scores a run, he should get an RBI, but he should also be charged with an out and an at-bat.

5. Eliminate the designated hitter

There are many good reasons for consigning the DH rule to history, but one stands above the rest: the game is more strategic and interesting when pitchers have to hit. I would be happy if, in exchange for the killing the DH, each team were allowed to expand its roster from 25 to 26 players. This move would go a long way toward accommodating the players’ union.

For more game-changing ideas, check out a three-part series that ESPN published:

_ Five radical game-changing proposals

_ Your game-changing proposals

_ Upon further review …

Saving the best for never

When you have a problem and you know how to fix it, the solution should be obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not apparent to the Atlanta Braves and many other baseball teams.

The Braves have lost six in a row, but their best relief pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, hasn’t thrown the ball once during that stretch. This is a common managerial strategy by manager Fredi Gonzalez and other big league managers, and there’s no good reason for it.

A team’s best relief pitcher should pitch in the most important situations. Preserving closers for save situations often doesn’t make any sense because those situations may never come. You have to get there first.

How do we know when the “closer” should get in the game, if not necessarily the 9th inning? The answer is to use the Leverage Index, which is a table that shows how important each game situation is. The Leverage Index comes from “The Book,” by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin.

High leverage situations occur when the game hangs in the balance. That’s when you want your most effective reliever in the game. Closers typically appear in situations with leverage of about 2.

In Saturday’s game, that situation came when the game was tied 4-4 in the top of the sixth and there was a runner on third base with one out. The chart shows the leverage of that situation was 2.0, higher than at another other point in the game, but Kris Medlen was left in there to face Chad Tracy, who hit a double to put the Nationals ahead 5-4 on their way to an 8-4 victory. (The website Fangraphs lists the LI in that situation at 2.55, presumably based on a more detailed calculation than what’s provided in the chart. Under both the chart in “The Book” and on Fangraphs, that situation had the highest LI in the game.)

In Friday’s game, the Braves trailed 3-4 in the top of the 7th with the bases loaded and two outs, but starting pitcher Tim Hudson was allowed to continue pitching even though he had already thrown 105 pitches. Three pitches later, Ryan Zimmerman hit a bases-clearing double and only then was Hudson pulled from the game. In that situation, the game leverage was 3.1.

The trend also can be seen in the Braves’ previous losses.

When Medlen gave up a grand slam to the Reds on Thursday, the leverage index was about 4.0 when the bases were loaded in the bottom of the sixth with one out and the Braves led 2-1.

Again with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth and one out on Wednesday and the Braves ahead 1-0, Tommy Hanson was left in to pitch to Jay Bruce, who tied the game with a fielder’s choice. That LI was about 3.3.

On Tuesday, during the Braves 9-2 loss, there weren’t many high-leverage situations because the Reds took an early lead and then built on it. The 4-1 loss on Monday was also a low-leverage game–it game was tied at 1-1 in the second, and then Mike Minor gave up three consecutive solo home runs in the fourth.

So out of the last six games, the Braves had four high-leverage late inning situations where Kimbrel could have been used.

Instead, inferior pitchers were put in the game, Kimbrel rode the bench, and the Braves found themselves in fourth place.