From the start of September through the first game of last week’s series in Seattle, Josh Donaldson slashed .149/.349/.213 (70 wRC+) and Jose Bautista slashed .220/.403/.288 (104 wRC+). Two of the Jays’ three biggest bats were still managing to get on base, but were hitting for almost no power, as the team skidded out of the top spot in the American League East.
In the five games since then we’ve had this: .350/.458/.750 (213 wRC+) from Donaldson, and .400/.478/.950 (273 wRC+) from Bautista.
Hey, so let’s make a big deal about small ball being behind the team’s turnaround!
* * *
Or, actually, let’s not. Small ball isn’t The Way To Win Baseball Games like it’s too often purported to be in certain corners (and on certain TV broadcasts), nor is the term a catch-all for doing all the little things right. Some people get that, and some people don’t and probably never will. But I’m pretty sure that half of why this is an “issue” to be argued over is the fact that boiling it down to a single term obscures all kinds of common ground between the two sides.
Stealing bases with a good baserunner? Taking the extra base? Going the other way against the shift? Playing sound fundamental baseball? All those things are great! But sometimes — and I’m thinking specifically of a particular JaysTalk caller on Sunday, and a particular way that the Minnesota Twins were once glorified in the media — it feels like people believe that being anti-small ball means literally only wanting a team to passively wait for a home run. That’s simply not true. Even bunts can be great! Ezequiel Carrera’s bunt in the ninth inning on Sunday was fucking amazing! Who cares if baseball’s newest small ball darling, John Gibbons, made clear that he wouldn’t have called for it himself!
You’ll sometimes hear that using the sac bunt is maybe better if you only want to score one run, but the problem is that it limits the chance for a big inning. Even that is being too kind to the sac bunt. It’s a fallacy — check. the. run. expectancy. table. — and yet sacrifice bunts do have their place, depending on the hitter and the situation. We can all agree on that!
The other half of the problem when it comes to this issue, I think, is that people *really* like the bunt. I suspect that’s because it feels like the team is *doing something*, and if you’re a manager it looks like you’re doing something, not just playing your fiddle as Rome burns. Russell Carleton went deeper than this, into “the neuropsychology of bad managing,” in a piece last December at Baseball Prospectus, arguing that the brain’s limbic system — the efficient home of memory, emotion, and basic biological drives — sometimes yells louder than the messier pre-frontal cortext, which lets us use abstract reasoning, understand complicated patterns, etc.
“Even if the mathematically correct pre-frontal cortex answer is to let the hitter swing away, the limbic system is looking to get rid of the anxiety and to get that extra hit of dopamine that comes from knowing that the runner from first has at least made it 1/3 of the rest of the way home,” he writes. “And letting the hitter swing away means that he might strike out or pop up or something silly and it means that the manager (and the fans!) have to sit in agony for another few minutes waiting for a hit that might not ever come. Bunting doesn’t get the whole job done, but it does turn off the anxiety machine for a few minutes.”
Related to that stuff, but dumbed down several shades, I’m of the mind that our perception in this game is especially warped by things that are big and loud and negative. People viscerally hate strikeouts and errors in the field, they hate when their catcher can’t throw base-stealers out, and they hate it when their team hits into double plays or can’t cash runners in scoring position. Understandably so! But we have a tendency to inflate the importance of those big, loud things, even when we understand them to be only parts of a larger picture.
It’s why some people were ready to bail on Devon Travis after a couple bad weeks in the field. It’s why Melvin Upton and Justin Smoak get constantly groaned about, despite being net positive contributors — uh… theoretically. It’s why Gregg Zaun was ruthlessly maligned as a catcher in 2008, despite the team posting a 3.49 ERA for the season. It’s why people thought the losses of early September meant that the Jays had suddenly become one of the worst teams in baseball.
And it’s why people think a sacrifice bunt, which costs an out but removes the possibility of a double play, *has* to give a club its best chance of scratching a run across. A double play in a crucial spot is an absolute killer, and avoiding that while getting a runner to second base with two outs left in an inning feels like a great and positive thing. We’ve been told over and over for years that it *is* a great and positive thing. It’s just… it isn’t. At least not in a vacuum.
Like I say, there are situations in which it can make sense to bunt. Like when a bad hitter is at the plate and a good hitter is coming up afterwards, and it’s late and tied or you’re down a run. The run expectancy values don’t operate in a vacuum either. Anti-small ball therefore isn’t anti-bunt — just like it isn’t anti-fun, despite that being the cheap slag often hurled at it by those who want desperately to disbelieve the math — it’s simply about playing the percentages. And to understand why someone like me can continue to be against it despite what how the Jays have played since implementing such tactics more means understanding that the appearance that it has been “working” is no more real or predictive than the appearance for the first three weeks of this month that the club was “terrible garbage not worthy of being on a major league field, let alone a playoff spot, not that we have to worry about that given that the season is doomed anyway.”
Cool that they’re back to winning again though!
Provided we keep releasing Birds All Day mini episodes on time, this is going to be where you can find them here at BlueJaysNation.com. (Well, here and in the sidebar). Drew has this week’s mini ‘sode, which was recorded post-game on Sunday and dives into the rotation but not before addressing the tragic death of Marlins pitcher José Fernández. Check it out!
Hey, and also since we’re here, you can help keep this podcast going while helping to keep us honest; support us with a small, recurring monthly contribution through Patreon at patreon.com/birdsallday.
What do you meme?
I’m thinking that my own tweets end up in this space far more often than they should, and I’m definitely thinking that this one here does not constitute a meme in the slightest, and yet…
It’s almost like the farther away from the knee injury he gets, the more he hits like a goddamn boss. ?
— Andrew Stoeten (@AndrewStoeten) September 24, 2016
I think you know the drill. The Jays’ magic number for the Wild Card currently stands at five, which… almost means we can exhale for a minute. But not yet!
Monday vs. New York (AL), 7:07 PM ET
Tuesday – Thursday vs. Baltimore, 7:07 PM ET
Friday – Saturday @ Boston, 7:10 PM ET
Sunday @ Boston, 3:05 PM ET
Holy shit, it’s the end of the season!
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