Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 26, 2003
BASEBALL: Case Not Closed
David Pinto takes on the Elias Sports Bureau's statistics supporting Buster Olney's argument on ESPN.com that teams that make productive use of outs (generally through the deployment of one-run strategies -- bunts -- and other methods of emphasizing moving baserunners at the expense of hitting away) tend to gain a significant advantage in the postseason. Leaving aside Pinto's account of the institutional politics at play here, let's look at Olney's core statistical argument, in which he leads off by arguing that the Marlins
dominated the Yanks, 9-5, in productive outs -- in keeping with a longstanding post-season trend.
This is the Productive Out, as defined and developed by ESPN The Magazine and the Elias Sports Bureau: when a fly ball, grounder or bunt advances a runner with nobody out; when a pitcher bunts to advance a runner with one out (maximizing the effectiveness of the pitcher's at-bat), or when a grounder or fly ball scores a run with one out.
There have been 142 post-season series since 1969. In 130, one team or another has had an advantage in Productive Outs -- and in 62.3 percent of those 130 series, the team with the advantage in Productive Outs has prevailed. Factor in the 12 series in which opposing teams have tied in Productive Outs, and it can be said that teams with a deficit in POs have won 34.5 percent of post-season series.
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[By contrast, t]he Athletics have failed to advance beyond the Division Series in the last four years, and it's probably not a coincidence that they have never won the battle of Productive Outs. In 19 games over those four series, their opponents have produced 23 PO's, Oakland 15.
Base on balls are a fundamental piece of the Athletics' offensive philosophy, but statistically, they have shown to have slightly less significance than Productive Outs in the post-season. Teams that have had the advantage in walks have won 60 percent of the time. (Teams with an advantage in singles have won 63.8 percent of the series, and teams with an advantage in home runs have won 70.4 percent - which makes sense, as Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau noted, because it is the one offensive result in which a run is assured).
David raises two initial objections to Elias' definition of the Productive Out, which he suspects is "rigged" to generate a favorable result:
[I]f you move a runner into scoring position with two outs, doesn't that count for something? And besides, didn't Pete Palmer show 20 years ago that trading an out for a base always decreases run potential?
Well, yes, and yes, although on the second point I'm at least open to persuasion that the dynamics of regular season baseball are in some way materially altered by the characteristics of postseason play, in which a higher quality of pitching figures disproportionately (such as, as I've noted before, Mariano Rivera averaging over 150 innings pitched in relief per 162 games). But the problems with the definition run quite a bit deeper than David has addressed in his initial post on this issue. If your thesis is that teams should try to make productive outs, shouldn't you be measuring the number of times they try to do this, rather than the number of times they succeed? Otherwise, it's like measuring steals but not caught stealings. (Of course, I realize that such a study might be impossible, but recognizing that you've loaded the question by only looking at successful baserunner movement is the first step to recognizing the flaws in this measurement).
Now, leaving runners stranded on base is unquestionably a bad thing, and more to the point, it runs precisely counter to the whole point of making Productive Outs. But the fact that, at least in a small sampling, the team leaving more runners on base was actually successful more often than not at least suggests that both moving and failing to move baserunners, as an indicator of success, is simply a symptom of having more baserunners in the first place.
If Olney wants to show that the study he relied on wasn't skewed but was really a meaningful measurement, he can always come back with a comparison to the success rate for the team that gets more men on base -- a number that is conspicuous by its absence from his article. Like I said, I really am open to persuasion that moving baserunners takes on added importance in the postseason; absent statistical evidence, my gut tells me it does. But the proof, as of now, just isn't there.