Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game” changed the way people think about our national pastime.
The book, published in 2003, was based on the Oakland Athletics and the team’s general manager, Billy Beane. It introduced many of its readers to what has become known as analytics: the application of statistical analysis to baseball.
Among other things in the book, it was argued that walks were undervalued while the stolen base, hit-and-run and sacrifice bunt were overvalued. It was also argued that the two most important statistics when it came to scoring runs were on-base percentage and slugging percentage (OPS).
A lot of people bought those arguments.
Teams hired analysts to crunch the numbers and tell them how to play the game more efficiently. If you want to know how influential analytics have become since Moneyball was published, all you have to do is look at the defensive-shift alignments that have three infielders on the same side of the diamond, or four guys in the outfield.
Analytics have definitely changed the game, but have they made it better?
Changes since 2002
In 2002, the year before Moneyball was published, there were 16,246 walks issued in the big leagues; in 2017, there were 15,829. Despite the analytics community’s enthusiasm for walks, there have been only two seasons where total walks increased above the 2002 level.
But home runs and strikeouts have gone up.
In 2002, there were 5,059 homers and 31,394 strikeouts; in 2017, there were 6,105 homers and 40,104 strikeouts. That’s an extra 1,046 homers and an extra 8,710 at-bats where a ball was not put in play.
Home runs and strikeouts tend to go hand-in-hand.
To hit home runs, most hitters have to start their swing sooner and pull the ball into the shortest part of the park — one of the corners. Starting their swing sooner means hitters get fooled by pitches more often, though, and that means more swings-and-misses.
But some people have argued that there’s nothing particularly bad about striking out: an out’s an out.
That ignores the value of putting the ball in play, advancing runners and pressuring the defense. But moving a runner from second to third base with a ground-out to the right side won’t get you paid; driving in that runner from second base will.
And if you drive in that runner with a homer, so much the better.
If the marketplace rewards players who hit home runs and doesn’t punish them for striking out, guys will keep swinging for the fences, even when they have two strikes. Hit enough home runs and the strikeouts won’t matter.
If Yankees star Aaron Judge hits 52 homers, will the marketplace punish him for striking out 208 times?
About those singles
When teams apply a defensive shift and leave half the infield wide open, fans often wonder why the guy at the plate doesn’t bunt, or hit a 27-hopper to the unprotected side of the field.
Royals manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Cal Eldred both say the single is being devalued.
If a hitter feels like he’s getting paid for his slugging percentage, he might let a hittable pitch go by because it’s not a pitch he can hit for a home run. Taking pitches in order to get to a favorable hitting count is one of the reasons pitches-per-plate appearance have gone up.
But more pitches thrown and fewer balls in play mean games have gotten longer ... and slower.
If your offense is built around extra-base hits, why steal a base? An attempted steal risks an out and if the guy at the plate hits a homer, a runner on first base is going to score anyway.
In 2002, there were 2,750 stolen bases in 4,032 attempts; in 2017, there were 2,527 steals in 3,461 attempts. Sacrifice bunts were down as well, from 1,633 in 2002 to 925 in 2017.
As Yost pointed out, standing around waiting for someone to hit a home run has taken strategy out of the game.
Fact is, singles matter, too
Both Yost and Eldred pointed out that singles do in fact matter. String a couple of them together, throw in a stolen base, and you might have a run. And even when you don’t push a runner across the plate, a single can still help you win.
A seemingly meaningless two-out single in the seventh inning might buy someone like Houston’s Jose Altuve an extra trip to the plate in the ninth.
And just having a runner on base changes the game. A runner with a reputation for stealing bases forces the pitcher to split his concentration. He has to think about pickoffs, holding the ball in the set position, using a slide-step and throwing fastballs to get the ball to home plate in a hurry.
The defense has to position someone closer to second base to cover the bag on a steal attempt, and that can open a hole for a base hit. If the batter is willing to lay down a bunt, the corner defenders might need to play in, which lessens their range.
All this strategy is infinitely more interesting than watching a game of Home Run Derby.
Analytics might have provided more offense, but the current method for providing that offense means games have also gotten longer ... and less interesting.
The quest to hit more home runs has led to an all-or-nothing style of play. Fans might like the additional home runs, but the strikeouts that go with them have resulted in some pretty boring baseball.