Monday, June 1, 2009

The Brewers, Apparently, Suck At Offense

Oh Nelly, what have we here? Why, I do believe it’s a call for the Brewers to play “small-ball”, the much-loved practice of getting out intentionally for very minor gains. Greg Giesen, of the Racine Journal Times wants more bunting from the Brewers, and decries the fact that they hit “too many home runs.” I’m sure he has good reasons. Let’s take a look.

Baseball fans dig the long ball.

Whereas smarmy baseball writers dig bunting, and grounding out (as long as you hustle), and spitting and beards.

Home runs are the reason fans flocked to watch Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire back in 1998.

Sure, that’s true, but it wasn’t just the fact that they hit home runs, it’s that they hit a record-breaking number of home runs. What fans really like are records. Remember when Cal Ripken was going to break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak? People showed up for that, and Cal wasn’t really hitting with much power by then as he was a broken-down old man who put selfish individual accomplishment ahead of the welfare of his team. Sosa and McGwire were big, record breaking freaks. I also think Greg is trying to make some point about steroids, but I’m not sure what point.

Home runs electrify crowds and can turn a game around with one swing of the bat.

Yes, home runs are exciting, and, more importantly, result in the scoring of runs, which can turn a game around by causing your team to have more runs than the other team.

But home runs are also a Siren’s call to baseball players and teams that can lead to disaster.

What? Oh No! I thought trying to hit home runs was a smart thing to do, but apparently some metaphorical monster lurks just off the map! What, pray tell, is this danger?

The Milwaukee Brewers are a perfect example of a team drawn to the allure of the home run only to find its promises of high-octane splendor empty.

I know. I’m pissed about their 30-20 first place record too. And they’ve had 4 NL teams (four!) score more runs than they have. Super lame. If they did more bunting they’d be right up there with the Phillies in runs scored (2nd in the NL at 267 runs). I hear those guys bunt all the time.

Entering Friday's game against Cincinnati, the Brewers have hit 53 home runs — second in the National League. Eighty-five of Milwaukee’s 218 runs scored have come via the home run. That’s 39 percent of the team’s offense. During the Brewers’ recent 28-game stretch during which they went 22-6, Milwaukee hit 35 home runs. During that span, the Brewers scored 155 runs and 56 — or 37 percent — came via the long ball.

I recently reread a book that I first read in high school. It’s called “A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper.” I thought I should read it again while we still have newspapers. Anyway, one of the lessons of the book is that writers often use numbers in an attempt to confer credibility, but if they fail to provide context for those numbers, then the numbers are meaningless. Here, Greg spouts off a bunch of numbers about the Brewers reliance on the home run, but to what end? Are teams that rely on HRs over 35% of the time typically bad teams? Do they miss the playoffs? What’s the league average? How do the “top teams” fair now and in the past? I mean, if I was a sports writer and my job was to have opinions about baseball, I might look this up.

As it is, it seems like he actually contradicts his own point. The Brewers hit a bunch of HRs (I think, I guess I don’t have any context to support that assertion either) and won a bunch of games. The obvious conclusion is that hitting home runs is a good thing. Right?

When Milwaukee isn’t hitting home runs, things don’t go so well. Since finishing a three-game sweep of St. Louis May 18, Milwaukee has hit three home runs accounting for four of its 22 runs. Milwaukee’s record during that period is 3-6. Going a step further, the Brewers are 22-9 in games in which they homer, but just 5-11 in games in which they don’t.

I would wager that most teams lose more frequently in games in which they do not hit a HR. Home runs are good things because they help you win games. If you do not hit home runs it will be harder to win games. Therefore, we would predict a worse record for any team in games in which they do not homer compared to games in which they do homer. It’s like the frequently stated football stat that teams that commit two or more turnover lose 80% of the time. Well duh.

"Hopefully, we’ll hit some more home runs," Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder said when asked about the team’s dependence on home runs.

That Prince, he’s a smart guy. On the radio yesterday I heard him say that “It would be nice to score 5 or more runs every day, but sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. That’s baseball.” I’d like to think he was focused on winning, but I’m pretty sure he was dreaming of a perpetual Webb’s Burger Run.

Thanks Prince, but that’s not going to solve Milwaukee’s problems. All baseball teams run hot and cold when it comes to offense and sometimes it’s due to a slump and other times it’s due to facing hot pitchers.

I’m still unsure about what Milwaukee’s problems are in the first place. I guess he’s concerned about a lack of offense, but that begs the question, “What lack of offense?” By the way, writers typically resort to foolish hokum when explaining slumps instead of quality of opposition, or injuries, or even just random statistical fluctuation. I love how, in the last sentence, he separates a “slump” from facing a “hot pitcher” as if they have nothing to do with each other.

But when those power outages arise, teams have to grind through the tough times and score enough runs to win. The St. Louis Cardinals did just that Wednesday in their 3-2 victory over Milwaukee at Miller Park.

You mean that game in which the Cardinals hit 4 doubles and drew 6 walks? I love walks by the way. Did you know that the Brewers are 4th in walks so far this year, trailing only the Dodgers, Nationals and Mets? The Brewers’ increased discipline at the plate has really helped them out this year. Oh, and I should mention that small-ball tends to look down on walks, and instead glorifies “putting the ball in play” and “sacrificing.” It's hard to walk if you try to put the ball in play every time. I just thought I would mention it.

Shortstop Brendan Ryan led off the game with a walk.

See? Walks are great for offense!

He moved to third on a single

By noted small-baller Chris Duncan...

and scored on a fielder’s choice.

I have the MLB package that allows you to watch every game on your computer, and watch highlights of old games. I just watched the highlight of this play, and I urge you to do so as well. Do you know who did not watch a highlight of this play? Greg Giesen did not watch this play. Had Greg watched this play, he would have seen Nick Stavinoha hit a sharp ground ball to Hardy who flipped to Counsell to get Duncan at second. Counsell then threw the relay wildly to Fielder at first which allowed Stavinoha to reach. Had the throw been accurate this would have been an inning-ending double play. No error was assessed because in baseball scoring, you “cannot assume a double play” and since they got the out anyway. It’s just a fielder’s choice.

We are now applauding Nick Stanivoha for basically grounding into a double play.

In the third, Ryan doubled and moved to third on left fielder Chris Duncan’s groundout to first.

Ah, one of those small-ball doubles. Apparently when you’re “not hitting home runs” the secret is to just hit balls that aren’t quite home runs instead. Brilliant. Chris Duncan is apparently the greatest small-ball player ever.

Ryan scored on a sacrifice fly.

Teams that rely on hitting home runs suck at hitting flyballs to the deep outfield, as we all know.

The Cardinals’ final run came in the sixth when right fielder Nick Stavinoha doubled, moved to third on a groundout to second and scored on catcher Jason LaRue’s single.

I like this one because the “productive out” wasn’t productive at all. Stavinoha has another one of those “small ball doubles” and eventually scored on a single. Moving to third made scoring more likely, but he probably would have scored from second anyway. And the "productive out" may have killed a big inning, as the Brewers walked two more batters in the inning, including an intentional pass to Albert Pujols.

In contrast, the Brewers got the lead-off hitter on three times. In the fourth, shortstop J.J. Hardy singled and two outs later moved to second on a walk before outfielder Frank Catalanotto tripled.

Got it. Double = small ball, but triple does not.

In the sixth, Fielder led off with a single. Mike Cameron struck out and Catalanotto flied out to center. After an error put runners at the corners, Jason Kendall flied out.

Should the red hot Mike Cameron have bunted the rather slow Fielder over to 2nd? Should he have “tried harder” not to strike out? What would you have done? Poor Frank’s mistake was hitting a flyball with no one on third, apparently.

In the ninth, third baseman Mat Gamel walked.

Yay walking!

Pinch hitter Jody Gerut popped out.

Popping out sucks, however, it’s worth noting that Jody Gerut isn’t very good, and was almost certainly trying to have a "productive out" in this situation. If you try to play small-ball and fail, should you play more small ball?

Catcher Mike Rivera couldn’t advance the runner, grounding into a fielder’s choice — shortstop to second.

Just like Stanivoha! Except he had a walk and a single in from of him.

After second baseman Craig Counsell singled, putting the tying run in scoring position, Hardy grounded out to short to end the game.

D’oh! If only Craig had hit that single earlier someone might have scored on Rivera’s groundout. Oh well.

There wasn’t a single home run, but St. Louis beat Milwaukee because the Cardinals got runners on base, hit to the left side for productive outs and scored the runner. They manufactured runs. That’s exactly how championship-caliber teams beat good pitching and grind through offensive slumps.

First of all, the Cardinals only scored 3 runs. Most of the time, when you score 3 runs, you will lose. Second, the Cardinals scored 2 of these runs on sequences involving doubles. The sequence that scored the third run involved a completely unnecessary “productive out” that may have killed a bigger rally. The Cardinals won the game because they hit doubles, walked a lot, and benefited from an error which was not called an error because of an anachronistic baseball scoring decision.

The Brewers need to focus on fundamental hitting.

I have no idea what this means, but it apparently does not involve hitting the ball very far.

Players like outfielder Corey Hart, third baseman Bill Hall and Hardy need to focus on putting down bunts, moving runners over and executing at the plate with fewer than two outs.

In the game that we just went over in meticulous detail, the Brewers recorded 8 hits. 3 of those hits came from Hardy, including a double. You want our fairly powerful short stop, who went 3/5 with a double in a game that you just discussed, to sacrifice and bunt? Corey Hart has slugged over .450 in his last 3 seasons. Bill Hall destroys lefties, and should concentrate more on not playing against righties.

All three have hit 20 home runs in a season and have that ability, but the team’s long-term success depends on them getting on base, moving runners over and driving them in by any means necessary.

This is meaningless drivel, and in no way supports creating a voluntary out to move a runner over rather than trying to hit a HR.

Milwaukee doesn’t do that. Instead, the Brewers get runners on base and wait for the big hit. On Wednesday, it was a two-run triple by Catalanotto. But that wasn’t enough. Against Minnesota Sunday, it was Fielder’s two-run homer in the ninth. But, that was too little and way too late.

Really? We should have played small-ball against the Twins? The same Twins who scored 11, 6, and 6 runs against the Brewers? (While out-homering the Brewers 7-2, I might add). The Cardinals, who you just held up a small-ball paragons, scored 3 runs against the Brewers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a small-ball team put up a 12-spot before.

Home runs are nice and fans love watching the ball fly out and Bernie Brewer go down his slide. But until Milwaukee puts together a multi-dimensional offense, the Brewers will struggle against good pitching and lose to fundamentally sound offensive baseball teams.

Everyone struggles against good pitching. That is why it is good pitching. The fact is that giving up outs is almost always a bad idea, and hitting home runs is almost always a good idea. Last year the teams that played in the World Series were 1st and 4th in their respective leagues in home runs. Over the past 5 years, here is how the World Series participants ranked in HRs in their league:

2008 – Rays (4th), Phillies (1st)
2007 – Red Sox (8th), Rockies (7th)
2006 – Cardinals (4th), Tigers (3rd)
2005 – White Sox (4th), Astros (9th)
2004 – Red Sox (4th) Cardinals (3rd)

You can obviously be successful without hitting a ton of HRs, but the World Series is littered with home run hitting juggernauts. The idea that small-ball somehow makes a champion is just silly. The worst example I can think of is the 2005 White Sox who were frequently referred to as the small-ball club, while their AL opponents, the Red Sox, were viewed as the home-run monsters. This label stuck even though the White Sox hit more HRs than the Red Sox, and even though their definitive “small ball” player, Scott Podsednik, was only valuable because he hit a walk-off HR (his only HR of the year) in the playoffs.

The Brewers could stand to take a few more walks, but bunting should not become a staple of the offense. Outs are bad, and they should be avoided if at all possible. This article is terrible.

(H/T, Brew Crew Ball)


Silverwolf said...

Thanks for the FJM throwback column. Great stuff!

Doug Russell on the WSSP morning show is big on the "we need more small ball" thing, too, but of course, every time he's pressured on it his argument falls completely to pieces, as it must, since it's, well, crap.

ahren said...

"...and hitting home runs is almost always a good idea..."

i think you can be pretty safe in removing the "almost" from that statement. though it is fun to try to think of scenarios where it's bad to hit a home run. the only one i can think of, is if you're the home team and you've just taken the lead in the bottom of the 5th, there is only time for exactly 1 more pitch before the rain will make the field unplayable, there are 2 outs, and you have 2 strikes on you. in that case, you should definitely not hit a homerun.

anyone else got one?

PaulNoonan said...

See? Almost.

PaulNoonan said...

Let's see...what if it's the bottom of the 9th in a tie game and Paul Molitor has hit safely in 39 games and is on deck and does not yet have a hit?

PaulNoonan said...

Perhaps there is a generic situation in which you need two runs to win our tie, and the next hitter (the hitter who would be the second run) hits far better with men on base than with the bases empty. Maybe he hits guys better out of the stretch or something. It's possible.

DannyNoonan said...

Macha seems to agree with you:

Rubie Q said...

Marvelous work, boys.

I ran the numbers for last year, and, wouldn't you know it -- the Brewers scored about 39% of their runs via the long ball in 2008. And, if my math is right: we made the playoffs.

Jon said...

Awesome article. The part that drives me the craziest is when the Mets idiotic announcers praise productive outs that had no impact on run scoring (other than hindering more of it). Leadoff single, sac bunt, then a bunch of singles and doubles follow and all they want to talk about is how great the bunt was. When will smart people take over all the announcing jobs??? I've waited so very long.