For as much as baseball has not changed in the nearly 150 years since the Cincinnati Red Stockings first took the field, the way in which teams go about winning the game has changed a lot.
Babe Ruth revolutionized home run hitting in baseball, and as number 3 – also his place in the batting order – that spot in the lineup became the spot where you placed your best hitter and who most generally hit those home runs.
Rickey Henderson became the fastest man in baseball history when he surpassed Lou Brock’s stolen base record with 938. He then kept on going to end up stealing 1,406. Single season? He once stole 130 stolen bases in a season. Yet Rickey also did something else from the lead-off spot: he hit some home runs. Eighty One times he led off the game with a home run.
In playoff baseball 2018 – those records look to fall eventually. The three seasons with the most lead-off home runs in history? The last three, with 2017 leading at 642 total. Eight times it has already happened this post-season, with three alone from George Springer of the Astros.
Speaking of those stolen bases and sacrifice bunts – commonly referred to as small ball and universally abhorred by hard-core analytic commentators – it is down, but as the great Monty Python phrase would loosely translate, “It’s not dead yet”. Yes – stolen bases are down across the board and especially sacrifice bunts – but there have been more stolen bases this post-season than all of last year, and teams are 23 for 29. At the root of Moneyball is simply looking for inefficiencies in the game to be exploited – and perhaps in the great cyclical nature of things – this is coming back around.
The Dodgers and Brewers lead the way in the stolen base department and is a piece to keep an eye on in the upcoming NLCS, especially with the Brewers reliance on their bullpen and relievers being known for not keeping runners close as starting pitchers(Jon Lester exempted).
Some will see this wave of baseball as not fundamentally sound(looking at you John Smoltz), but I think the game will continue to adapt and in fact analytics only help speed up that rate of change.
Jayson Werth had this to say about analytics in baseball:
They’ve got all these super nerds, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball, but they like to project numbers and project players, “I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where [they should] just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke.
Thanks for the feedback Jayson, and we all know I like Jayson Werth, but the reality is he couldn’t be further from the truth. Great data means nothing at all without being interpreted and data is much better at showing past data than predicting future results. Famous statistician W Edwards Deming said, “In God we trust. All others bring data.” Yet data begets change which only begets more change.
Billy Beane said, “The idea that you can create a template that will work forever doesn’t happen in any business. There’s some really, really bright people in this business. You can’t do the same thing the same way and be successful for a long period of time.”
So as we watch baseball in 2018, and we lament the loss of the Jack Morris starting pitcher, the lack of small ball, the lost art of the sacrifice bunt…let’s make sure we still have our eyes open. The top teams in innings pitched by starting pitchers were the Indians (993.2) and Astros (955.1) with the Dodgers 8th. Yet in the playoffs, the Dodgers starting pitchers have thrown 24.1 innings to a 2.59 ERA. The Rockies actually came in second at 22.2 IP and a sparkling 1.99 ERA. The Brewers of course are the lowest with just 12.2 – but worth noting their starting ERA is at 0.00.
With Clayton Kershaw, Hyun Jin-Ryu, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole all remaining in the post-season tournament, dominant starting pitching is alive and well and will be on display over the next week at least.
So while the game has changed: more strikeouts, more home runs, more bullpen-dependent…don’t be afraid to look at what is changing in the game, right before our very eyes.