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"Smallball"-Overvalued, and Overrated

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I was flipping through the Fox Sports news section the other day when I came across an interesting article written by Ken Rosenthal.

Rosenthal, like many baseball writers, is under the impression that "smallball" is going to win championships, and in some cases, is the most efficient way to run an offense.

Most of the Saber community understands that this talk of "smallball" is "how the game should be played" is a bunch of mumbo-gumbo, but just how inefficient are smallball tactics?

My analysis has been based off run totals over the last four seasons (2002-2005). Sure, as Rosenthal pointed out in his article:

" Three of the past four World Series champions - the 2005 White Sox, '03 Marlins and '02 Angels -- played the game the old-fashioned way, becoming greater than the sums of their parts."

Three of our last four World Series winners have been associated with running "smallball" offense, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the most efficient way to run an offense.

Were talking strictly run production here.

Over the last four seasons, 20 teams have placed among the top five of highest run scoring totals in each respective season. For example, in 2005, the top five league leading runs scored were the Red Sox, followed by the Yankees, Rangers, Reds, and Phillies. In 2004, the top five league leading runs scored leader were the Red Sox, followed by the Yankees, White Sox, and so on, dating back to the 2002 season.

So what kind of an impact has stolen bases had on scoring runs over the last four seasons?

The Answer: Very minimal. Since 2002, 40% of teams who finished among the top five stolen base leaders have gone on to place 15th or higher in total runs scored, in other words, only 8 of the 20 teams. Also since 2002, only 10% of teams who finished among the top five stolen base teams have managed to place 5th place or higher in total runs scored, or 2 out of the 20 teams. We've seen of the last few seasons, that the power of the stolen bag is grossly overrated by the media, and not even remotely close to the importance of on-base and slugging percentages. We haven't seen a high correlation to high stolen base totals and high run scoring totals over these last few seasons. Speed doesn't always equal big run totals.

And what about sacrifice hits? Some think moving runners into scoring position, even by wasting an out, increases your chances of high run totals. Once again, it's a very misleading perception.

Using the same type of concept as I did with stolen bases totals, a mere 30% of teams, or 6 teams out of 20, who finished among the top 5 league leaders in sacrifice hits also managed to finish 15th or above in top runs scored totals. Only one team has who finished among the top 5 league leaders in sacrifice hits also managed to finish among the top 5 league leaders in runs scored, that team being the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals.

But what to make of the fact that, yes, over the last four seasons, three of our World Series winners, the White Sox of 2005, the Marlins of 2003, and Angels of 2002 were tagged with the "smallball" approach to baseball?

We need to analyze each team individually:

The 2005 Chicago White Sox were hardly an offensive juggernaut. They placed 4th in the majors in stolen bases last season with 137, and were 16th in the majors in sacrifice hits, but placed 1st in the AL in sac hits with 53. They managed to place 13th in the majors in runs scored, but only placed 9th in the AL in runs scored with 741. It was the pitching staff and bullpen that carried the White Sox to a 99-win season. The White Sox staff placed 4th in the majors in ERA, and led the majors in innings pitched with 1475.2 innings. The Sox bullpen placed 4th in the majors in ERA, and because of such a dependable pitching staff, managed to earn frequent breaks, only pitching 401.2 innings, 29th in the majors.

The 2003 Florida Marlins, much like the White Sox, were a team who wasn't going to rack up huge run totals, and also had a solid pitching staff. The Marlins definitely stole their fair share of bases, 150 total, leading the majors. They also finished second in the majors in sacrifice hits with 82, but overall managed a pedestrian run total of 751 runs, good for a major league 17th place finish, and 8th place finish in NL. Nothing special offensively here. At the same time, their pitching wasn't overwhelmingly good, but was solid for the season, as the Marlins placed 10th in the majors in ERA, good for a 7th place finish in the NL. The Marlins aren't a very good example of a "World Series" team to begin with. They managed to win the NL Wild Card with a 91-71 finish, good, but not elite. A classic example of how the best team sometimes doesn't win.

The 2002 Angels are the only exception to the theory that "smallball" tactics don't have a high correlation to scoring runs. In 2002, the Angels finished 5th in the majors in stolen bases with 117. They finished 15th in the majors in sacrifice hits, so trading outs for bases wasn't a strategy they partook in. The Angels finished 4th in the majors in runs with 851, and are one of the two teams over the last four seasons that not only finished among the top 5 major league leaders in stolen bases, but also among the top 5 league leaders in runs scored.

Overall Rosenthal is correct in saying that over the past four seasons, three of the four World Series winners have been referred too as "smallball" teams, but in no way does that justify using "smallball" tactics, such as the stolen bases, and sacrifice hits, as two key parts to an efficient offense.

By the way, in no way am I trying to criticize Ken Rosenthal or the other writers over at FoxSports.com. He is a fine writer and a devoted baseball fan, and even though I may not always agree with his beliefs, I respect them.