Smallball vs. Moneyball

Many say it's a baseball sin to waste your allotted 27, but teams like the Tigers say they're the key to success.

Originally Published: April 29, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

The Red Sox closed in on a three-game sweep of the Yankees last Sunday, taking a 2-0 lead into the eighth, the Yankees' offense stagnant. Johnny Damon drew a walk against left-hander Gabe White, with switch-hitting Mark Bellhorn coming up; David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were to follow.

POP explained
What is a productive out?
A productive out occurs when ...
  • A baserunner advances with the first out of an inning.
  • A pitcher sacrifices with one out.
  • A baserunner is driven home with the second out of an inning.

    What is the formula for productive out percentage (POP)?
    Productive outs divided by the total number of outs. For instance, if three of Player A's 10 outs are productive, his POP is .300.

    Top and bottom
    Through April 26
    1. Detroit Tigers .430
    2. Arizona Diamondbacks .417
    3. Pittsburgh Pirates .417
    4. San Diego Padres .400
    5. Texas Rangers .365
    6. Houston Astros .349

    25. Seattle Mariners .229
    26. San Francisco Giants .226
    27. Cincinnati Reds .225
    28. New York Yankees .210
    29. Boston Red Sox .200
    30. Oakland Athletics .137

    Source: Elias Sports Bureau
  • As Bellhorn stood in against White, his batting average was under the Mendoza Line of .200, and he was 0-for-11 against left-handed pitchers in 2004; he is better against right-handers. His primary contribution to the Red Sox's offense this year has been in drawing walks. If he reached base against White, then Boston could have been set up for a big inning, with Ortiz and Ramirez coming to bat.

    But the Red Sox didn't necessarily require a big inning. One more run would have felt like 100 to the Yankees, with the Boston bullpen in the midst of a streak of scoreless innings. Bellhorn could have bunted Damon into scoring position, and White would have had to pitch to Ortiz, with Ramirez looming. They could have considered a sacrifice bunt.

    But Boston plays the "Moneyball" style -- never bunt, don't take chances on the bases, sit back and let your hitters hack away and do the work regardless of the game situation, regardless of the identity of the opposing pitcher. Other teams -- the Anaheim Angels and the Florida Marlins, most notably -- prefer to use their outs productively, by bunting, employing the hit-and-run; they put runners in motion and emphasize aggressive base-running as part of a larger strategy to put pressure on the opposing pitcher and the defense behind him.

    Bellhorn swung away, flied out to right, the inning died, the Red Sox didn't tack on another run. This didn't matter, in the end, as Scott Williamson closed out the Yankees.

    But it will be interesting to see if, eventually, this passive-aggressive approach hurts Boston, especially with the shift in the team's makeup. The Red Sox nearly bashed their way to the World Series last year, but they improved their pitching for 2004, shed Todd Walker, added light-hitting glove whiz Pokey Reese, and have been playing without injured Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, whose rehabilitations are being closely monitored.

    With the rotation bolstered by Curt Schilling and the bullpen strengthened by Keith Foulke, the Red Sox won't be required to score a ton of runs to win; they really don't need to roll the dice and wait for the big inning. A run or two here, a run or two there, and they will be formidable.

    The Marlins and Angels have fully diverse offenses: some excellent power hitters, an essential element; some patient hitters who draw walks, also crucial; they have hitters who make contact, advance runners efficiently; and they run the bases.

    The offenses of the Red Sox and Athletics, on the other hand, are effectively two-dimensional, eschewing the productive out within their philosophy. Boston has one sacrifice bunt, Oakland zero, and through games of April 26, the Red Sox rank next-to-last in productive out percentage -- a statistic developed by the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN -- at .200; Oakland is last, at .137.

    Juan Pierre
    Getty ImagesJuan Pierre, left, was a World Series hero for the Marlins in 2003.

    Productive out percentage is the ratio of productive outs -- generally, advancing runners with the first out in an inning, or driving home a run with the second out. Last season, Anaheim ranked fourth overall in this statistic, at .347, the Marlins fifth, at .334. Juan Pierre ranked third among individual players, with a POP of .545.

    Going into this season, Detroit Tigers hitting coach Bruce Fields emphasized the value of using outs. "That's how games are won and lost -- productive outs, advancing baserunners and getting guys in from third with less than two out," he told John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press earlier this week.

    "After watching those situations come up last year and how unsuccessful we were, I wanted to come up with something that would be instrumental in guys focusing on those situations and just realizing the importance of what they mean to one-run losses and one-run wins."

    Through Monday, the Tigers led the majors in POP, at .430, with 37 productive outs among 86 made in those situations. Carlos Pena has a POP of .545 (6-for-11), Ivan Rodriguez .600 and Alex Sanchez 1.000 (5-for-5).

    The Yankees ranked 28th in POP (.210) before beginning their series against Oakland this week. As club broadcasters Jim Kaat and Paul O'Neill noted last weekend, the team's offense is built much differently than in the championship years; in those seasons, the Yankees advanced runners, put runners in motion, bunted occasionally. While they didn't always have an overpowering offense -- the notable exception being the 125-win season of 1998 -- they had an efficient offense that provided the team's typically strong pitching enough runs to win.

    Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

    Buster Olney | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine