Small Ball Who’s Who

You hear a lot of talk about “small ball” these days. You know what small ball is,
that old-style offensive attack, where speed takes precedence over
power. Where one-run strategies such as the sacrifice bunt and the stolen
base are preferred to a conservative brand of baseball that depends
on walks and home runs to produce runs (and strikeouts) in bunches.

It seems to me this talk about small ball reached a crescendo last
season, when the self-avowed small ball White Sox bunted and stole
their way to a world championship. Announcers and players, baseball
beat writers and managers extolled the virtues of the
small ball attack. Not everyone was convinced, however, and some
(especially in the blogosphere) were quick to point out that the White
Sox hit 200 home runs in 2005, good for fourth place in the majors. How
small ball is that?

So, I decided to take a look at some numbers and see if the White Sox
really were a small ball club. I came up with a ranking of all 30
major league teams, from most “small ball” to least “small ball.” And
you know what? The White Sox were indeed quite “small ball” last year,
although not the “smallest.”

Just What is Small Ball?

Before we can identify the small ball teams, we need to define what
we mean by small ball and come up with a few characteristics of
teams that play small ball. I
came up with six criteria for indentifying small ball teams.

  1. Stolen bases attempted
  2. Aggressive baserunning—going first-to-third on a single, etc.
  3. Bunts
  4. Productive outs
  5. Contact rate
  6. Percent of runs scored on home runs

Note that these are all offensive statistics. Good pitching and
(especially) defense are generally considered aspects of small ball
teams, but I’m only going to deal with offense here.
I would have loved to include the hit-and-run in my list, but
unfortunately my play-by-play data doesn’t identifiy that play
consistently.

So what follows is a look at how teams fared in each of the six
categories listed above. A big table with the rankings of each team in
each category is given at the end, so the impatient reader can scroll down.

The Stolen Base

Along with the bunt, I think the stolen base is the play most commonly
associated with small ball. I’m looking at stolen bases
attempted because I feel it is a better indication of a small
ball philosophy than successful stolen bases.
Here are the leaders and trailers in stolen base
attempts for 2005. (I will present data for all teams at the end of
this article.)

Stolen Base Attempts 
Leaders                                 Trailers	       
+------+------+------+----------+       +------+------+------+----------+
| Team |  SB  |  CS  | Attempts |       | Team |  SB  |  CS  | Attempts |
+------+------+------+----------+       +------+------+------+----------+
| LAA  | 161  |  57  |      218 |       | ARI  |  67  |  26  |       93 |
| CHA  | 137  |  67  |      204 |       | LAN  |  58  |  35  |       93 |
| TBA  | 151  |  49  |      200 |       | WAS  |  45  |  45  |       90 |
| NYN  | 153  |  40  |      193 |       | KCA  |  53  |  33  |       86 |
| HOU  | 115  |  44  |      159 |       | TEX  |  67  |  15  |       82 |
| SEA  | 102  |  47  |      149 |       | BOS  |  45  |  12  |       57 |
| MIN  | 102  |  44  |      146 |       | OAK  |  31  |  22  |       53 |
+------+------+------+----------+       +------+------+------+----------+

No real surprises here: Angels and White Sox at the top and Red Sox
and A’s at the bottom.

Aggression on the Basepaths—Taking the Extra Base

As already mentioned, speed plays a crucial part in the small ball
attack, but in addition to speed, aggressiveness on the basepaths is
also a signature of small ball offenses. After all, if you’re not
going to bring the runners around by hitting the ball over the fence,
you’ll have to rely on them getting around the bases on singles,
doubles and fly-outs.

To measure aggressiveness on the bases, I’ve considered five different
situations when a baserunner may opt to take an extra base or
not. I’m not going to discuss the five different situations here;
details can be found
in my previous articles on
href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/cannons-and-popguns-rating-outfield-arms/">outfield
href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/more-guns-in-the-outfield-center-and-left-field/"
>arms.

Note that I’m not ranking teams by success rate in taking
the extra base. Dan Fox already did that for The Hardball
Times Annual 2006
. (You did get it, didn’t you?) I’m just ranking teams by
how often they attempted to take the extra base, given the opportunity. The results:

Baserunning
Leaders                                       Trailers
+------+------+----------+--------------+     +------+------+----------+--------------+
| team | Opps | Attempts | Attempt_Rate |     | team | Opps | Attempts | Attempt_Rate |
+------+------+----------+--------------+     +------+------+----------+--------------+
| CHA  |  582 |      345 |        0.593 |     | NYA  |  687 |      360 |        0.524 |
| KCA  |  624 |      370 |        0.593 |     | ARI  |  574 |      298 |        0.519 |
| TBA  |  623 |      368 |        0.591 |     | MIN  |  603 |      313 |        0.519 |
| CLE  |  597 |      346 |        0.580 |     | CHN  |  584 |      301 |        0.515 |
| WAS  |  575 |      331 |        0.576 |     | TEX  |  567 |      291 |        0.513 |
| ANA  |  643 |      369 |        0.574 |     | BAL  |  616 |      314 |        0.510 |
| HOU  |  556 |      318 |        0.572 |     | LAN  |  580 |      288 |        0.497 |
+------+------+----------+--------------+     +------+------+----------+--------------+

The White Sox were the most aggressive base-running team
in baseball last year. Frankly, I expected the Angels to top this
category, but they are close to the top (sixth place). It’s curious that
the Dodgers were the most station-to-station team in the majors last
year, and by a goodly margin. I didn’t expect to see the Twins among the trailers in this
category, either.

The Smallest Hit

What is smaller than a bunt? Everybody knows that the bunt is a key
part of good small ball. Getting that bunt down when the sacrifice is
in order is part of the fundamental game that is so pleasing to
announcers, (some) managers and many fans. But there is more to bunting
than just sacrificing. Beating out a bunt for a hit is also a
small ball tactic. And what about the squeeze play? It’s one of the most
dramatic plays in the small ball arsenal. I’ve chosen to rank teams based on
total number of bunts.

By the way, I removed
pitcher bunts when making my ranking—just about every pitcher
will be asked to bunt in a sacrifice situation, and that’s not small ball,
it’s just baseball. Real small ball is having position
players bunt.

Without further ado, here is the team ranking in bunts for 2005:

Total Bunts 
Leaders              Trailers
+------+-------+     +------+-------+
| team | bunts |     | team | bunts |
+------+-------+     +------+-------+
| FLO  |   148 |     | PHI  |    58 |
| CHA  |   131 |     | LAN  |    53 |
| HOU  |   129 |     | CIN  |    43 |
| CHN  |   112 |     | OAK  |    40 |
| DET  |   100 |     | TOR  |    36 |
| MIN  |   100 |     | BOS  |    33 |
| TBA  |    98 |     | TEX  |    15 |
| ANA  |    98 |     +------+-------+
| COL  |    98 |
| SFN  |    98 |
+------+-------+

There are the White Sox again, near the top. And at the bottom we have
some sabermetrically inclined teams: Oakland (Billy Beane, general manager),
Boston (Bill James, senior advisor) and Toronto (J.P. Ricciardi, general manager).
Note that when you remove pitcher
bunts, the top teams are an even mix of NL and AL
clubs.

Even though I didn’t explicitly use squeeze plays in the rankings, I
thought it would be interesting to look at who squeezes most often. I
have always heard that Tony La Russa loves the squeeze play, and I was
curious to see if the numbers bear that out. Here are the top
squeezers in 2005:

Squeeze Plays Attempted Leaders
+------+----------+              
| team | Squeezes |
+------+----------+
| SLN  |     14   |
| HOU  |      8   |
| MIL  |      7   |
| SFN  |      5   |
| ATL  |      5   |
| COL  |      4   |
| CHA  |      4   |
| ANA  |      4   |
+------+----------+              

Tony La Russa has indeed earned his repuatation as King of the
Squeeze. By the way, quite a few teams did not attempt a single squeeze play
in 2005.

Productive Outs

A couple of years ago several articles appeared in the mainstream media
about something called “productive outs,” and ESPN actually started
keeping track of team productive outs on its website (although that’s not the case any longer). There were quite a few href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-truth-about-productive-outs/">
rebuttals, mostly in the
blogosphere, disputing the value of the productive out stat. Well, if
you’re interested in the debate, I invite you to plug “productive
outs” into Google and read to your heart’s content. What I’m interested in here is finding
out which teams concentrate on getting productive outs.

What I actually looked at is sometimes known as the “Productive Out
Percentage,” which is just the number of productive outs divided by
the
total number of outs in productive out situations. Sacrifice bunts are
usually included in this stat, but I removed them since I’ve considered bunts
elsewhere. Here are the
results:

Productive Out Percentage
Leaders                                       Trailers
+------+------+-----------+--------------+    +------+------+-----------+--------------+
| Team | Opps | Prod Outs | Prod Out Pct |    | Team | Opps | Prod Outs | Prod Out Pct |
+------+------+-----------+--------------+    +------+------+-----------+--------------+
| TOR  | 1038 |       291 |        0.280 |    | MIL  |  938 |       219 |        0.233 |
| ANA  |  940 |       262 |        0.279 |    | CLE  | 1020 |       237 |        0.232 |
| MIN  |  954 |       262 |        0.275 |    | CIN  |  926 |       215 |        0.232 |
| NYN  |  910 |       248 |        0.273 |    | COL  |  956 |       222 |        0.232 |
| WAS  |  876 |       233 |        0.266 |    | BAL  | 1008 |       227 |        0.225 |
| DET  |  963 |       255 |        0.265 |    | LAN  |  979 |       207 |        0.211 |
| SLN  |  962 |       248 |        0.258 |    | TEX  | 1015 |       214 |        0.211 |
+------+------+-----------+--------------+    +------+------+-----------+--------------+

It’s curious that Toronto, often considered a “Moneyball” team, ranks highest on the small ball
index in this category.

Texas has been among the trailers in each category examined so far, and
the Reds and the Dodgers seem to be a bottom-dwellers as well. We’ll see how they
fare overall when we total up the scores.

Put The Ball in Play!

An important aspect of the small ball philosophy is putting the ball in
play. Don’t strike out, do make contact, put pressure on the defense, and
make something happen. Even the base on balls, when there are runners in scoring
position, is downplayed in favor of hitting the ball.

Contact is the percentage of plate appearances that result
in a ball put into play, including home runs. Teams that top this
category do not strike out or walk very much. Here are the top and bottom teams in
this category (pitcher plate appearances removed):

Contact
Leaders                 Trailers
+------+---------+      +------+---------+
| Team | Contact |      | Team | Contact |
+------+---------+      +------+---------+
| ANA  |   0.785 |      | WAS  |   0.729 |
| SFN  |   0.779 |      | BOS  |   0.728 |
| CHN  |   0.778 |      | PHI  |   0.727 |
| OAK  |   0.776 |      | LAN  |   0.725 |
| BAL  |   0.771 |      | ARI  |   0.725 |
| FLO  |   0.766 |      | MIL  |   0.721 |
| DET  |   0.760 |      | CIN  |   0.694 |
+------+---------+      +------+---------+

The Los Angeles Angels lead this category, which doesn’t surprise me,
since they have the reputation of a contact-oriented team. However,
seeing Oakland among the leaders did surprise me a bit. It’s been
pointed out many times that since Moneyball was written in
2002 the A’s have been shifting away from the walk-walk-home run paradigm,
and this seems to be further evidence of that.

Home Runs or Lack Thereof

One criticism of teams that rely heavily on power is that when a team
goes into a home run slump, there is no way of scoring—their
lack of speed and aggressiveness precludes them from scratching out that
one run that might be enough to win a close game, especially in the playoffs.
I don’t find this argument very convincing, but that’s
not my concern at the moment. I just want to identify the teams who least rely on the
home run.

I looked at percent of runs scored on home runs. I went through the play-by-play data (you can’t get these stats
elsewhere, folks!) and looked at what percentage of a team’s runs
scored were knocked in via the home run. Before I show you the list,
a quick comment: just because a team doesn’t drive in
many runs via the homer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a
small ball team. It could mean the team just stinks. Maybe the players are trying to hit home runs, but they’re no good at it. However, I
still think that to some degree percentage of runs scored on home runs can be
indicative of a team’s small ball tendencies. Here’s the list:

Teams Least Reliant on Home Runs
Leaders                                    Trailers
+------+------+------+-------+-------+     +------+------+------+-------+-------+
| Team | Runs |  HR  | RonHR |  Pct  |     | Team | Runs |  HR  | RonHR |  Pct  |
+------+------+------+-------+-------+     +------+------+------+-------+-------+
| WAS  |  639 | 117  |   166 | 0.260 |     | CLE  |  790 | 207  |   321 | 0.406 |
| KCA  |  701 | 126  |   200 | 0.285 |     | ARI  |  696 | 191  |   288 | 0.414 |
| FLO  |  717 | 128  |   215 | 0.300 |     | CHN  |  703 | 194  |   296 | 0.421 |
| SDN  |  684 | 130  |   206 | 0.301 |     | CHA  |  741 | 200  |   314 | 0.424 |
| SEA  |  699 | 130  |   212 | 0.303 |     | NYA  |  886 | 229  |   390 | 0.440 |
| TOR  |  775 | 136  |   238 | 0.307 |     | CIN  |  820 | 222  |   364 | 0.444 |
| PIT  |  680 | 139  |   211 | 0.310 |     | TEX  |  865 | 260  |   413 | 0.477 |
+------+------+------+-------+-------+     +------+------+------+-------+-------+
(RonHR = runs scored on HRs)

Well, as we already suspected, the White Sox don’t look very small at
all by this measure, as the Sox were one of the teams most dependent on the
the long ball in 2005. The Nats’ home park, an inhospitable place for home run hitters,
probably has something to do with their
leading this category. In looking at the numbers, I think it’s
difficult to claim that scoring a high percentage of your runs on
homers is a bad thing. The “leaders” in this category (the top seven shown
above) averaged 699 runs scored for the season, while the trailers
averaged nearly 100 more (785).

Total Small Ball Ranking

To come up with a total ranking, I simply ranked all teams in each
category. Since
there are 30 teams, the leader in a category gets a “30,” the second
place team a “29,” etc., down to “1″ for the worst team. (Just like
the scoring in many fantasy baseball leagues.) Finally, I
added the scores in each category to get a total. Here’s the final list:

Final Small Ball Rankings: 2005
Team   SB      BR      Bunts   PrdOut  Cntct   RoHR   Total
ANA    30.0    25.0    22.5    29.0    30.0    23.0   159.5
TBA    28.0    28.0    22.5    23.0    23.0    16.0   140.5
CHA    29.0    29.5    29.0    17.5    18.0     4.0   127.0
FLO    21.0    12.5    30.0     8.5    25.0    28.0   125.0
MIN    24.0     5.5    25.5    28.0    18.0    22.0   123.0
SLN    18.0    22.5    18.5    24.0    22.0    18.0   123.0
SDN    22.5    22.5    18.5    13.0    16.0    27.0   119.5
DET     8.0    21.0    25.5    25.0    24.0    14.0   117.5
SEA    25.0    17.5    13.0    17.5    18.0    26.0   117.0
HOU    26.0    24.0    28.0     8.5    14.5    13.0   114.0
NYN    27.0    17.5    16.0    27.0    14.5    12.0   114.0
WAS     5.0    26.0    20.0    26.0     7.0    30.0   114.0
TOR    15.0    20.0     3.0    30.0    20.5    25.0   113.5
KCA     4.0    29.5    14.0    15.0    20.5    29.0   112.0
SFN    14.0    15.0    22.5    11.0    29.0    20.0   111.5
CHN    13.0     4.0    27.0    12.0    28.0     5.0    89.0
PIT    12.0    19.0     9.0    10.0    13.0    24.0    87.0
ATL    20.0     8.0    16.0    19.0     9.5     9.0    81.5
OAK     1.0    12.5     4.0    16.0    27.0    21.0    81.5
COL    10.0    14.0    22.5     5.0     9.5    19.0    80.0
PHI    22.5    16.0     7.5    14.0     5.0    15.0    80.0
BAL    19.0     2.0    16.0     3.0    26.0     8.0    74.0
CLE    11.0    27.0    10.0     5.0    11.0     7.0    71.0
NYA    16.0     7.0     7.5    21.5     8.0     3.0    63.0
MIL    17.0    11.0    11.0     7.0     2.0    11.0    59.0
ARI     6.5     5.5    12.0    21.5     3.5     6.0    55.0
BOS     2.0     9.5     2.0    20.0     6.0    10.0    49.5
LAN     6.5     1.0     6.0     1.5     3.5    17.0    35.5
CIN     9.0     9.5     5.0     5.0     1.0     2.0    31.5
TEX     3.0     3.0     1.0     1.5    12.0     1.0    21.5
(SB = stolen base attempts, BR = base-running, RoHR = percentage of runs on HR)

The 2005 Small Ball Champions are the Los Angeles Angels who scored at
or near the top in all six of our categories—their reputation is
justified. I hadn’t really thought that Tampa Bay was such a
small ball team, but considering that Lou Piniella was the manager last
year, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. It will be interesting to
see where they rank in 2006 now that a new regime is operating in
Tampa Bay.

Despite all the home runs, the White Sox rank high on the
small ball index. They are near the top in the three categories which
only depend on the decisions and not on execution: stolen base
attempts, attempting the extra base and bunting. They only ranked
towards the middle in productive outs and contact.

The “big ball” championship (for lack of a better name) for 2005 goes
to the Texas Rangers who ranked very low in every category except
contact. It looks like they have tailored their offense to the high
run-scoring nature of their ballpark. The same may be true of Boston,
Arizona and Cincinnati.

It’s curious that Colorado, despite playing
in a very high-scoring environment, ranks in the middle of the
pack. It looks like Clint Hurdle is a small baller. On the other hand, the Dodgers,
who play in a stingy park for run scoring, definitely played some
big ball in 2005. That surprised me because, although I don’t
follow the Dodgers closely, I was under the impression that
saber-minded Dodger fans were less than happy with the way Jim Tracy
was implementing the vision of then-general manager Paul DePodesta. It will be
interesting to see how the Dodgers, with DePodesta and Tracy gone and
Grady Little managing, end up ranking in 2006. Same for the Pirates,
where Tracy is now the manager.

References & Resources
Here are the results for all categories for each team.

Team       SB        BR     Bunts   ProdOut   Contact      RoHR
ANA       218     0.574        98     0.279     0.785     0.315
ARI        93     0.519        75     0.252     0.725     0.414
ATL       124     0.533        88     0.250     0.736     0.390
BAL       120     0.510        88     0.225     0.771     0.402
BOS        57     0.541        33     0.251     0.728     0.382
CHA       204     0.593       131     0.249     0.754     0.424
CHN       104     0.515       112     0.237     0.778     0.421
CIN        95     0.541        43     0.232     0.694     0.444
CLE        98     0.580        67     0.232     0.737     0.406
COL        97     0.545        98     0.232     0.736     0.332
DET        94     0.566       100     0.265     0.760     0.362
FLO       134     0.544       148     0.234     0.766     0.300
HOU       159     0.572       129     0.234     0.745     0.371
KCA        86     0.593        82     0.245     0.755     0.285
LAN        93     0.497        53     0.211     0.725     0.347
MIL       113     0.542        68     0.233     0.721     0.379
MIN       146     0.519       100     0.275     0.754     0.318
NYA       111     0.524        58     0.252     0.735     0.440
NYN       193     0.553        88     0.273     0.745     0.373
OAK        53     0.544        40     0.248     0.776     0.326
PHI       143     0.552        58     0.242     0.727     0.359
PIT       103     0.557        65     0.235     0.744     0.310
SDN       143     0.570        95     0.240     0.748     0.301
SEA       149     0.553        79     0.249     0.754     0.303
SFN       106     0.547        98     0.236     0.779     0.328
SLN       119     0.570        95     0.258     0.756     0.342
TBA       200     0.591        98     0.257     0.759     0.349
TEX        82     0.513        15     0.211     0.738     0.477
TOR       107     0.562        36     0.280     0.755     0.307
WAS        90     0.576        96     0.266     0.729     0.260
(SB = stolen base attempts, BR = baserunning, RoHR = percentage of runs on HR)
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