June 1, 2018


ESPN's Buster Olney opines that many aspects of the traditional game of baseball are vanishing before our own eyes. Basic managerial strategies like the hit-and-run, or the squeeze bunt, or pitchouts, or stolen bases are all significantly down over the past decade.

The game’s three true outcomes -- the strikeout, the walk, the home run -- have increased exponentially, and "like invasive species, they are swallowing other parts of the game."

He blames the wide spread use of statistical models that are now ruling the game.

Pitchers are now being programmed to make exacting pitch locations with various pitches. So there is no emphasis on keeping a runner close at first base, or worse, wasting a pitch on a pitch out.

Likewise, runners have been taught that the risk-reward for stealing a base is not worth the chance. Unless you have an 80 percent success rate, it is better to stay close to the bag to wait for a batter to walk or hit a home run.

Even with a slow runner on first base, managers used to employ the hit-and-run. The reason was simple: once the runner broke to the bag, one middle infielder had to start moving to cover second. The motion of the defense created holes in the infield that could be exploited by a good contact hitter. But there is a huge lack of .300 contact hitters in the majors. Hitters are being more concerned about their launch angles (swings so they can hit HRs), exit velocity of the ball off the bat (for distance) and OBP (the general manager's pet statistic come contract renewal time.) 

But with the statistical probability defensive grid shifts applied to every batter, the hit and run play may be the only way some batters can actually hit a grounder into the outfield for a single.

With a runner at third with less than two outs, the manager had several options to call. First, the batter could try to hit a deep fly ball to the outfield (sacrifice fly) to score the runner. Second, the batter could make the pitcher work a count, and in a high stress situation may throw a wild pitch to score the runner. Third, the batter could try to fool the infield with a "safety" squeeze in an attempt to get an infield single - - - and if the defenders were not paying attention, the runner from third could try to score in the confusion. Fourth, the manager could on the pitch send the runner racing for home forcing the batter to make any sort of contact in play so the runner could score (the suicide squeeze since the runner would be out if the batter failed to get contact).

Rarely does a manager call for a bunt. The problem is that players don't want to learn to bunt. Bunting does not help their stat line. Players would rather try to get a hit than sacrifice. Sacrifices are left to the weak hitting pitchers in the NL.

For some, major league baseball is now becoming a modified home run derby contest. It is swing for the fences or coax a walk. There is less strategy but more controversy about calls made by umpires (and the breakdown of replay to resolve issues).

Olney may be on to something. The game is supposed to have more moving parts than just pitching and hitting.