Scoring on the Sacrifice Fly

“The better the gambler, the worse the man“. – Publius Syrus, Latin writer from the first century B.C.

Two weeks ago I took a look at how often runners score from third base on fly balls caught by outfielders. What I found was that:

  • Runners are sent around 80% of the time when the ball is caught by a corner outfielder and almost 90% of the time when caught by the center fielder
  • In these opportunities runners score a whopping 96% of the time overall with just a 2% variance when there is one out (95%) versus when there are none (97%)
  • It makes almost no difference whether there is zero or one out when the ball is hit since third base coaches hold the runner just 2% more often with nobody out than with one
  • I concluded that article by taking a look at who caught those fly balls in order to see if it told us anything about the quality or reputation of that arm. What I found was that those outfielders with reportedly better arms tend to be more intimidating, resulting in fewer chances taken by opposing third base coaches.

    Well, since I showed data for fielders, it’s only right (and because inquiring minds wanted to know) that I do the same for the base runners. However, this time I expanded the data set to include the six-year period of 2000-2005; the previous article’s data set only spanned the previous three years.

    Know When to Hold ‘Em

    First let’s take a look at those runners who were held least often when perched on third base in a sacrifice fly opportunity.

    Name             Field      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Jimmy Rollins       CF       26      25       1   0.000   0.962
    Jose Vidro          CF       17      16       1   0.000   0.941
    Jim Edmonds         CF       15      14       1   0.000   0.933
    Jose Cruz Jr.       CF       15      14       1   0.000   0.933
    Kenny Lofton        CF       15      14       1   0.000   0.933
    Albert Pujols       CF       14      14       0   0.000   1.000
    Brian Roberts       CF       14      14       0   0.000   1.000
    Trot Nixon          CF       14      13       1   0.000   0.929
    Roberto Alomar      CF       13      13       0   0.000   1.000
    Cliff Floyd         CF       13      13       0   0.000   1.000
    Scott Rolen         CF       13      13       0   0.000   1.000
    Fernando Vina       CF       13      13       0   0.000   1.000
    Lance Berkman       CF       13      12       1   0.000   0.923
    Jose Macias         CF       13      12       1   0.000   0.923
    Sammy Sosa          CF       13      12       1   0.000   0.923
    

    This list includes all those players with 10 or more opportunities who were sent every time the ball was hit to center. What you should notice is that individual players, even over a six-year stretch, don’t get that many opportunities. That means that small sample size caveats apply. You’ll also note that the list contains both players like Jimmy Rollins, Kenny Lofton and Brian Roberts who are generally considered fast and some who are of average speed like Albert Pujols, Cliff Floyd and Scott Rolen. This probably indicates that this list is for the most part determined by opportunity than actual base running skill.

    The following list shows those who were sent every time when the ball was hit to one of the corner outfield positions.

    Name              Field      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Carlos Guillen   Corner       23      22       1   0.000   0.957
    Bernie Williams  Corner       20      20       0   0.000   1.000
    Corey Koskie     Corner       18      17       1   0.000   0.944
    Shannon Stewart  Corner       16      15       1   0.000   0.938
    Dmitri Young     Corner       16      16       0   0.000   1.000
    Jermaine Dye     Corner       15      14       1   0.000   0.933
    Brian Jordan     Corner       15      14       1   0.000   0.933
    Carlos Febles    Corner       14      13       1   0.000   0.929
    Geoff Jenkins    Corner       14      12       2   0.000   0.857
    Gary Sheffield   Corner       14      14       0   0.000   1.000
    Craig Monroe     Corner       13      13       0   0.000   1.000
    Aaron Boone      Corner       12      11       1   0.000   0.917
    Doug Glanville   Corner       12      11       1   0.000   0.917
    Reed Johnson     Corner       12      12       0   0.000   1.000
    Jose Reyes       Corner       12      12       0   0.000   1.000
    Michael Barrett  Corner       11      11       0   0.000   1.000
    Jose Guillen     Corner       11      10       1   0.000   0.909
    Felipe Lopez     Corner       11      11       0   0.000   1.000
    Junior Spivey    Corner       11      10       1   0.000   0.909
    Doug Mientkiewiz Corner       10      10       0   0.000   1.000
    Jolbert Cabrera  Corner       10      10       0   0.000   1.000
    

    Like the previous list, this one is a mixed bag of players with speed, like Carlos Febles and Jose Reyes, and those without, like Dmitri Young and Aaron Boone.

    And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t show those who were held up most often. First in center…

    Name           Fielded      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Andy Fox            CF       10       5       1   0.400   0.833
    Carl Everett        CF       11       7       0   0.364   1.000
    Adam Kennedy        CF       14       9       0   0.357   1.000
    Pat Burrell         CF       12       8       0   0.333   1.000
    Jorge Posada        CF       12       8       0   0.333   1.000
    

    And then in the corners…

    Name           Fielded      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Jim Thome       Corner       17       6       2   0.529   0.750
    Carlos Delgado  Corner       18       9       0   0.500   1.000
    Richie Sexson   Corner       14       7       0   0.500   1.000
    Geoff Blum      Corner       12       6       0   0.500   1.000
    Javier Lopez    Corner       11       6       0   0.455   1.000

    In the second table, and to a smaller extent in the first, we begin to see that those runners who have a bit of trouble getting down the line are likely not being sent home as often. Carlos Delgado, for example, earned the distinction of being the worst base runner in the past six years according to my base running framework as mentioned in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006.

    Know When to Run

    But probably more interesting are leaders and trailers in success percentage—that is, the percentage of times they scored when sent. Those players with more than 15 opportunities in center and 20 at the corners who were never caught include:

    Name           Fielded      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Johnny Damon        CF       28      26       0   0.071   1.000
    Mike Cameron        CF       25      24       0   0.040   1.000
    Ray Durham          CF       22      20       0   0.091   1.000
    Ichiro Suzuki       CF       22      19       0   0.136   1.000
    Luis Castillo       CF       22      17       0   0.227   1.000
    Juan Pierre         CF       21      19       0   0.095   1.000
    Carlos Beltran      CF       21      16       0   0.238   1.000
    Shawn Green         CF       19      17       0   0.105   1.000
    Jeff Kent           CF       19      16       0   0.158   1.000
    Jeff Bagwell        CF       19      14       0   0.263   1.000
    Paul Konerko        CF       18      16       0   0.111   1.000
    Garret Anderson     CF       18      14       0   0.222   1.000
    Placido Polanco     CF       18      14       0   0.222   1.000
    Rafael Furcal       CF       17      16       0   0.059   1.000
    Jason Kendall       CF       17      14       0   0.176   1.000
    Derrek Lee          CF       17      13       0   0.235   1.000
    Eric Young          CF       16      15       0   0.063   1.000
    Alex Rodriguez      CF       16      12       0   0.250   1.000
    

    Name           Fielded      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Julio Lugo      Corner       36      25       0   0.306   1.000
    Kenny Lofton    Corner       32      25       0   0.219   1.000
    Rafael Furcal   Corner       31      24       0   0.226   1.000
    Carlos Lee      Corner       31      21       0   0.323   1.000
    David Eckstein  Corner       31      19       0   0.387   1.000
    Derek Jeter     Corner       28      26       0   0.071   1.000
    Ray Durham      Corner       28      22       0   0.214   1.000
    Cristian Guzman Corner       27      22       0   0.185   1.000
    Mark Kotsay     Corner       27      22       0   0.185   1.000
    Jeff Kent       Corner       25      21       0   0.160   1.000
    Bobby Abreu     Corner       25      20       0   0.200   1.000
    Barry Bonds     Corner       25      18       0   0.280   1.000
    Michael Young   Corner       24      20       0   0.167   1.000
    Mike Young      Corner       24      20       0   0.167   1.000
    Jacque Jones    Corner       24      19       0   0.208   1.000
    Brian Giles     Corner       24      18       0   0.250   1.000
    Carlos Beltran  Corner       23      20       0   0.130   1.000
    Ron Belliard    Corner       22      19       0   0.136   1.000
    Ronnie Belliard Corner       22      19       0   0.136   1.000
    Royce Clayton   Corner       22      19       0   0.136   1.000
    Joe Randa       Corner       22      18       0   0.182   1.000
    Chipper Jones   Corner       22      16       0   0.273   1.000
    Juan Encarnacio Corner       21      15       0   0.286   1.000
    

    The tops of these lists are clearly dominated by faster players, with an occasional slower player like Carlos Lee thrown into the mix.

    But there were those who were not so successful…

    Name           Fielded      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Jay Payton          CF       12       8       3   0.083   0.727
    Fred McGriff        CF       11       9       2   0.000   0.818
    Andy Fox            CF       10       5       1   0.400   0.833
    Edgar Renteria      CF       16      11       2   0.188   0.846
    Royce Clayton       CF       15      12       2   0.067   0.857

    Name           Fielded      Opp  Scores      OA   Hold%   Succ%
    Jim Thome       Corner       17       6       2   0.529   0.750
    Kevin Mench     Corner       11       6       2   0.273   0.750
    B.J. Surhoff    Corner       13       7       2   0.308   0.778
    BJ Surhoff      Corner       13       7       2   0.308   0.778
    Mike Piazza     Corner       12       7       2   0.250   0.778
    Alex Sanchez    Corner       11       7       2   0.182   0.778
    Jeff Cirillo    Corner       16      11       3   0.125   0.786
    Melvin Mora     Corner       21      15       4   0.095   0.789
    Brent Mayne     Corner       13       8       2   0.231   0.800
    Ruben Sierra    Corner       13       8       2   0.231   0.800
    Todd Zeile      Corner       12       8       2   0.167   0.800
    

    The first list here is interesting because it is really a mixed bag with Jay Payton and Fred McGriff together. Presumably the reason for this is more related to the bad fortune of these players in running when the outfielder makes a perfect throw. The second list, however, is filled with notoriously slow runners.

    Incidentally Melvin Mora led the majors by getting nabbed five times at the plate (four times from a corner outfielder and once from a center fielder) during the six-year period.

    The Dealin’s Done

    So what, if anything, do all these lists tell us? Because of the small sample sizes it’s not wise to try and draw too many conclusions. But with that said, we might infer the following:

  • Faster runners are not given the go-ahead to try and score any more often than average runners. In other words, third base coaches see little additional risk in sending runners who are of average speed. This makes sense given the high success rate.
  • Third base coaches don’t appear to take running speed into consideration when the ball is hit to center field, possibly because the throw is longer, allowing even a slow runner to score without much additional risk.
  • However, coaches do hold runners much more often who have below-average speed when the ball is caught by a corner outfielder.
  • While fast runners score at a high rate no matter where the ball is hit, slow runners (even with fewer opportunities) are the ones being nabbed when the ball is in the hands of a corner outfielder.
  • When the ball is hit to center, the results are more random, indicating that runners caught in those situations are probably unlucky
  • To finish let me reiterate one of the points I made in the previous article with a different twist. The very high success rates on sacrifice flies are an indication that coaches probaby don’t send runners as often as they should. I mentioned in the previous article that this might be chalked up to the human propensity to be risk averse. However, in thinking it over I believe there may also be a more subtle reason as well.

    What if bang-bang plays at the plate on sacrifice fly opportunities are relatively rare? Instead, what if most opportunities result in the runner being safe by a mile or getting nailed by 10 feet? If that were the case, and I believe you can make an argument that it is despite only having anecdotal evidence, then those failures would be better remembered and carry an increased weight in the minds of the fans, the media, the manager and maybe even the third base coach himself. The end result is a coach who is not much of a gambler.

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