Judging the Royals

Fantasy baseball and the productive out

Royals second baseman Christian Colon (24) ripped a single past Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Brewer to score two runs and give the Royals the lead on March 16 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz.
Royals second baseman Christian Colon (24) ripped a single past Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Brewer to score two runs and give the Royals the lead on March 16 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz. The Kansas City Star

Last Wednesday the Royals played their last game in Surprise, Ariz., then went to Houston to play a couple of exhibition games. I was going to post this Thursday morning, but the hotel I was staying in wanted a fee for going online, so I said the heck with that, I’ll post it at the airport.

Well, to get online at the airport you had to give away the rights to your first-born male child, so I said to heck with that, I’ll post it when I get home. But by then it was late in the afternoon and I said to heck with that (Are you sensing a pattern?), I’ll post it first thing Friday morning.

Well that didn’t happen either, but I’m finally getting around to putting this thing online. So here’s what I tried to put online Thursday morning; and as we say in journalism: “Better late than never.”

The differences between fantasy and reality

In a recent spring-training game, Omar Infante was on second base with nobody out and Christian Colon was at the plate. Infante’s run mattered, so I mentioned on Twitter that Colon needed to hit the ball to the right side of the field. As long as Colon kept the ball on the ground, a ball in play between second and first base would move Infante to third base. Even if Colon made an out, it would be productive out because once Infante got to third base, he could score in a variety of ways without the benefit of a hit.

This is fundamental baseball.

But a lot of baseball fans don’t like the idea of productive outs. Their reasoning goes like this: Why voluntarily give up one of your 27 outs? But that argument misses an important point: When a batter hits the ball to the right side with nobody out and a runner on second or hits a fly ball with less than two outs and a runner on third, those hitters are trying to get a hit and if they don’t get anything to hit, they should take their walk.

(The National League a little different; if the starting pitcher is still in the game, the No. 8 hitter might have to expand his zone in certain situations unless he knows the starting pitcher will be replaced by a pinch hitter — but for now, let’s not complicate things and just stick with the AL.)

The guy at the plate who’s trying to advance the runner certainly hopes that a ground ball to the right side sneaks through the infield or that fly ball to the outfield turns into a double in the gap, but that guy also knows that if he puts the ball in play in the right way, he can do something positive even if he makes an out. And until people start hitting .501 the odds are, hitters will make outs. If even a great hitter is going to make outs seven out of 10 times, it makes sense to make some of those outs productive; try to accomplish something with the outs you’re likely to make.

To the people who grew up playing baseball, that’s completely logical, but if you’re coming to real baseball with a fantasy baseball point of view, you might have a different reaction.

Matt Fincher is the head baseball coach of the University of South Carolina Upstate. He’s friends with Tim Bogar, and Tim Bogar is friends with me. Tim had a long major-league career, went on to serve as a big-league coach, and he’s currently working for the Los Angeles Angels. Tim passed along something Matt Fincher had written, and now I’m passing it along to you. It comes from “The Batter’s Mind,” Matt’s guidebook to hitting.

Matt has some insight into why some baseball fans dislike the idea of productive outs. Here’s what Fincher had to say about fantasy baseball, sabermetrics and reality:

It is easy to forget that the growth of sabermetrics can be tied directly to fantasy league baseball. In 1977 Bill James began publishing his baseball abstract on an annual basis and it went almost unnoticed. The group that initially did take notice was fantasy baseball league players, who used his information to draft teams. This created a market for more statistical information on professional players in an effort to gain an edge over other fantasy players.   

In developing methods by which to rank player value for fantasy teams, conventional wisdom seems to be that sabermaticians have created methods by which to evaluate players in real life. This is a very slippery slope.

Fincher then explains some of the important differences when evaluating players in fantasy baseball and real-life baseball:

Sabermetrics places great weight on power. Power drives saber offense. It is the way to win fantasy baseball leagues. The problem in the real world is the talent pool. There are just not that many players available who can play in this manner. 

Those who cannot hit for power, trying to hit for power, have created a diminished product, and that diminished product is minimal run production. Sure there is the occasional long ball, but night after night, Major League teams average 4.10 runs per game. In such a low run scoring environment, should the extra base hit really be the primary strategy in an attempt to score more runs? If the strategy actually worked teams would score more, because it most certainly is what they have been trying to accomplish for the past number of years. 

And here’s what Matt has to say about strikeouts:

Sabermaticians will also have you believe that the strikeout is irrelevant. That it simply represents one of 27 outs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing positive about the strikeout is that it keeps a team out of the double play. The strikeout represents complete and total failure on the behalf of the hitter to do the one thing he is supposed to do, put the ball in play. While putting the ball in play is no guarantee of success, at least by doing so, one has created an opportunity to be successful. The strikeout provides no chance of getting a base hit or creating a productive out and only guarantees decreased run scoring potential. 

Matt then goes on to explain differences in fantasy baseball and real-world baseball priorities:

With the recent meteoric rise in strikeouts, the concept of the productive at bat has long been forgotten. Once upon a time, baseball philosophy dictated that at bats were used to advance base runners to increase team run expectancy. Today players simply try to hit the ball as hard and as far as possible and fail to recognize situations in which strategic placement of the ball can improve scoring potential. Outs have become personal property, not to be shared with others. A salient point is that fantasy team owners are not dependent upon teams scoring runs; they are dependent upon individuals producing runs. There is a big difference between the two priorities. What works in fantasy leads to failure in reality and has created a major flaw in modern baseball strategy. 

It’s not that sabermetrics have no value; they do — Fincher calls their overall effect positive. But we should acknowledge that there are differences between reality and fantasy and if we ignore those differences, we’ll fail to understand the game and why teams do what they do.

If you think big-league organizations can run real-world teams like people run fantasy teams, remember: it’s a fantasy.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.