By Mark Smith
My nephews came over on Saturday, and being about 18 months old, they aren’t really cognizant of anything. Well, they know where Grandma’s cookie jar is, that blowing bubbles outside is the bees’ knees, and that it’s fun to throw things at Uncle Mark’s head. But they don’t really understand what’s going on around them, and it’s fun to watch what grabs their attention. While my dad (their grandpa) and I were babysitting Midget and Widget, I was watching the Florida-Mississippi State game on ESPN, and those kids would sit there and watch the game and react to the ping of the bats. I’d rather them be awed by the crack of a bat, but at this point, I’ll take what I can get. The little balls of energy finally went to take a nap, and I got to watch more of the game. Unfortunately, I heard one of my pet peeves. With no outs and a runner on second, the announcer said, “He’s looking to make a productive out here.”
I guess I understand the sentiment. American culture is really weird. On one hand, few other cultures push the idea of “rugged individualism” more than that of the United States, but on the other hand, there’s still a fair amount of admiration for self-sacrifice. The two are not mutually exclusive (you don’t have to believe one or the other), but they are opposing ideas. Individualism is you putting yourself first, and self-sacrifice is putting something else first. While America promotes individualism, self-sacrifice has played key roles in American history, especially in times of war.
Baseball also intertwines the two. Individuals are celebrated. Each prospect works his way up the ladder. There are end-of-season awards for individual performance. At every stage where the team is crowned, an individual also gets an award, with the slight exception of winning a division series. Yet, the idea of team is essential. Baseball, after all, is a team sport. While each player is pushed to excel, he is supposed to excel so that the team wins (that is unless you’re RBI-whore Carlos Beltran).
These intertwined and yet opposing ideologies sometimes lead to confusion, and that often happens in such a situation as the one mentioned above. There’s a man on second with zero outs. What’s he supposed to do? Hit it to the right side of the infield, of course. That idea is ingrained in baseball players, coaches, and fans, but it isn’t really the best idea. I won’t go through the statistical analysis because you can find it elsewhere by people better than me at such things, but giving up an out for a base is almost always a bad idea. The basic reason is that the batter could actually get a hit, take a walk, and move runners without giving up outs, and multiple runs can be scored. More baserunners is a good thing as you can’t score without them. Yes, moving the runner over may increase your chances of scoring one run, but it more severely decreases your chances to score multiple runs. Unless it’s late in the game, you need that run to tie or take the lead, and the hitter at the plate equates to hitting a decent-hitting pitcher, you should want the batter to hit.
So why are “sacrifices” still so beloved? That’s not hard to understand, either. “Sacrifices” look both productive and team-friendly. They actually move runners forward, and while swinging away is likely to be more productive, it’s easier for everyone to see the benefits of “sacrifices”. Swinging away, because hitters are always going to get out more than on base, frequently fails, and when it works, no one is thinking about productive outs (or it’s assumed the team wanted the hitter to swing away). The fact that it’s way more helpful to swing away is hard to grasp against the ingrained philosophy of moving the runner along.
“Productive outs” also make the player look unselfish. If he bunts of hits that grounder to the right, he is clearly trying to put the team first. He’s giving up the chance to increase his stats to move the runner over. Swing away, again while more productive, has either no effect because he’s just hitting normally or makes the player look like he’s out for himself.
This situation is what sabermetrics is all about--asking questions about unquestioned practices. These ideas become ingrained because of the years of no one questioning them. That’s not a criticism, either. It’s easy to understand why the practice became commonplace, and it seems to make sense. The criticism comes when we fail to investigate new ideas with an open mind. Immediately dismissing them gets us nowhere. If you feel your position is legitimate, you should welcome the questions, not fear them. It should be opportunity to prove yourself. If you’re wrong, well we’re all wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time, so welcome to the human race, buddy. So from now, can we please say, “I hope he gets a hit or a walk here, but if he doesn’t, hopefully his plate appearance leads to a somewhat productive result.” No one needs to make outs.