Some view bunts and sacrifices as wasting precious outs. But in the postseason, it's the key to success.
Aaron Boone could have been a World Series hero without a hit. Game 4, 11th inning, bases loaded, one out. With a slow roller, Boone could have driven in the go-ahead run. Just a fly ball, and the Yankees would have controlled the Series, three games to one. Joe Torre's players used to excel in these situations, using their outs productively. Scott Brosius, the Yankees' third baseman during their dynasty of 1996-2001, was particularly adept at generating productive outs.
But Boone struck out, the Yankees failed to score and the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez slammed a decisive homer in the 12th. Florida would go on to win the Series in six games, at least partially because they dominated the Yanks, 9-5, in productive outs -- in keeping with a longstanding post-season trend.
This is the Productive Out, as defined and developed by ESPN The Magazine and the Elias Sports Bureau: when a fly ball, grounder or bunt advances a runner with nobody out; when a pitcher bunts to advance a runner with one out (maximizing the effectiveness of the pitcher's at-bat), or when a grounder or fly ball scores a run with one out.
There have been 142 post-season series since 1969. In 130, one team or another has had an advantage in Productive Outs -- and in 62.3 percent of those 130 series, the team with the advantage in Productive Outs has prevailed. Factor in the 12 series in which opposing teams have tied in Productive Outs, and it can be said that teams with a deficit in POs have won 34.5 percent of post-season series.
No team has won the World Series since the 1997 Florida Marlins with a deficit in this statistic.
"It sounds like the numbers are pretty good indicators," said Kevin Towers, the general manager of the San Diego Padres. "There are many times when you sacrifice yourself during a game, move a runner from second to third with a ground ball, and it doesn't show up in the box score, but you know from watching that that is a key part of the game."
The style of play that generates many of the Productive Outs - putting runners in motion, bunting - has been scrutinized by many baseball theorists in recent seasons. Some teams, most notably the Oakland Athletics, have played with the philosophy that a team's 27 outs should not be wasted.
This has worked for Oakland during the regular season: the Athletics averaged 98 regular-season victories from 2000-2003. During that time, they ranked 14th, 13th, 14th and 13th in the 14-team American League in stolen bases, and 12th, 13th, 13th and 13th in sacrifice bunts. Their base-runners proceeded carefully, taking care not to make a mistake that would effectively strip a teammate of a chance to swing the bat. Bunts, hit-and-run plays and aggressive secondary leads are not part of the Athletics' DNA.
Oakland has generated walks, something that other great teams had done before -- one of Gene Michael's primary goals when he began rebuilding the Yankees in 1990 was to increase on-base percentage -- with the goal of saturating the bases with runners and scoring more.
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But this conservative style has not translated well in the post-season, when the pitching is markedly better, there are more off-days to rest the best pitchers, and the pressure is greater. Rather than concentrating on not wasting their 27 outs, most championship teams have successfully used their outs, working to put runners in scoring position.
The Athletics have failed to advance beyond the Division Series in the last four years, and it's probably not a coincidence that they have never won the battle of Productive Outs. In 19 games over those four series, their opponents have produced 23 PO's, Oakland 15.
Base on balls are a fundamental piece of the Athletics' offensive philosophy, but statistically, they have shown to have slightly less significance than Productive Outs in the post-season. Teams that have had the advantage in walks have won 60 percent of the time. (Teams with an advantage in singles have won 63.8 percent of the series, and teams with an advantage in home runs have won 70.4 percent - which makes sense, as Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau noted, because it is the one offensive result in which a run is assured).
The Marlins wrecked the Yankees with Productive Outs, just as the Yankees had done to their opponents during their dynasty. Florida center fielder Juan Pierre made up his mind while he was waiting in the on-deck circle for the start of the World Series that he was going to bunt in his first at-bat. "I wanted to set the tone," Pierre said recently. "I knew that they weren't accustomed to that style of play in the American League."
He reached first base, and when Luis Castillo followed with a hit-and-run single, Pierre raced to third. Pierre scored on a sacrifice fly, and the Marlins seized the early initiative without the benefit of a big, aggressive swing. "I think the world saw in the World Series that if you put pressure on the defense and the pitcher, that makes a lot of people uncomfortable," Pierre said. "You can't measure that by statistics, but you can feel it."
The Productive Out would not be possible without walks or hits; it's a piece of the offensive puzzle. Teams that relied solely on Productive Outs would probably struggle in the post-season, as well. But the numbers suggest that championship teams need their offense to be diverse, and the Productive Out is an essential part of that.
There will be more to come on the Productive Out in the months ahead from the Elias Sports Bureau, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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