Small Ball Hurting the Ms

The Mariners love small ball. Head hauncho, Don Wakamatsu, runs his players wild on the base paths, and it’s killing this offense. Run expectancy(RE) is a excellent stat to look at when determining the expected returns on a given play, like stealing or sacrificing. Basically, run expectancy (RE) is how many runs are expected to score from a given situation in an inning. For instance, with a runner on second and 2 outs, the major league RE over the last five years is about 0.35 runs. How can this help us? I’m glad you asked…

Let’s start with base stealing. Say there are none out and a runner on first. Whether or not the manager should send the runner depends entirely on the his stealing percentage. Major league RE with a runner on first and none out is 0.91 runs, nearly a full run. If the base runner succeeds in stealing second, then he has increased RE to 1.15, whereas if he get caught, run expectancy plummets to 0.29 – since there are now no base runners and 1 out. The expected gains of stealing the base are only 0.24 runs, while the risk of getting caught costs 0.62 runs. To break even, the runner has to be able to steal consistently at 72%.

Stealing third has to be done even more efficiently, since losing a runner on second to a base stealing mishap is even more costly, and gaining third isn’t often such an improvement. The RE of a runner on second with none out is, again, 1.15 runs. The marginal benefit of stealing third is about 0.3 runs, while the costs of getting caught are 0.86 runs. Now the percentage needed to break even is 75%.

Below I have filled out the rest of the possible situations for stealing each base with 0, 1 and 2 outs, and all the percents needed to break even…

Outs — >        0             1              2


2nd                 72%       73%         68%

3rd                 75%        70%         93%

Home             94%        73%         34%

As you can see, the best times for stealing certain bases completely depend on the situation. Attempting to swipe third with two outs goes back to the old saying, “Don’t get the third out at third.” No out can score you from third with two outs unless the Ump can’t count, and a majority of hits will score the runner regardless of whether he’s on second or third. However, the numbers show that it’s slightly more advantageous to steal second with two outs. This puts a runner into scoring position, yet not much is lost if the runner is caught. A manager should always know the situation and his player’s base-stealing ability before putting on the sign.

Not surprisingly, the Ms lead the league in getting caught at third, and they steal third at 61% as a team. It doesn’t matter the situation, 61% stinks.

With run expectancies in mind, let’s move on to sacrificing. Is giving up an out worth the extra base? Again it depends on the situation, but generally, no. Managers like Wakamatsu often put on the sacrifice with either zero or one out and a runner on first in order to get him into scoring position. With none out, a successful sacrifice actually lowers run expectancy – from 0.91 to 0.71! With one out, the result is basically the same. RE is reduced from 0.55 to 0.35, another loss of 0.2 runs. This all assumes that sacrifices are successful 100% of the time. They aren’t. The league succeeds in sacrificing about 70% of time, and the other 30% result in the lead runner becoming a casualty.

Even with runners on first and second, the expected gains from sacrificing are negative. So why would a manager ever sacrifice? Well since baseball doesn’t exist only in numbers, and every player that comes to the plate is NOT the league average player, there are certain situations in which a sacrifice may be beneficial. If a very poor hitter is at the plate, like a pitcher or Yuniesky Betancourt, then a sacrifice may be the way to go, since the likelihood that the batter does something productive is slim.

What most people don’t think about is that the sac isn’t even a done deal. Like a said, it is only successful 70% of the time – perhaps 80% with a good bunter. The Mariners are the ONLY American League team in the top 15 in sac attempts. Without their pitchers batting, that figure is impressive, very negatively impressive.

Franklin Gutierrez seems to be the king of Wakamatsu’s attempt at killing an already bad offense with small ball. Gutierrez has been caught twice stealing third (no successes), and is only 5/8 stealing second for a total stealing percentage of 50%. Ouch! He bunts pretty well, apparently, going 8/10 in sacrifice attempts this season and 76% for his career. But being one of the Mariners’ better hitters, why is he the one bunting? When he swings away with men on base, Gutierrez reaches safely 40%* of the time and – according to – his outs are productive 31% of the time. That means that 71% of the time, Gutierrez does at least the work of a sacrifice, and in 40% of plate appearances he does much better than a sac…when allowed to swing away.

There is a time and place for everything. The Mariners steal second well as a team, at 75%, and there’s no reason to halt that. Yet an over-calling of this small ball crap is hurting a Mariners offense that needs every run it can get.

*Includes errors and intentional walks


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