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Tearing Down the Myth of Small Ball in Major League Baseball

Former Mariners' and Yankees' OF Ichiro Suzuki; Photo via Keith Allison

The game is tied - it’s the bottom of the ninth, and the team needs to score. The coach for this team wants to use the “small ball” style of play this inning, as he believes that’ll yield him the best chance of winning. If you’re not familiar with this common strategy, "small ball" is when teams prioritize getting a runner on base and then utilize aggressive baserunning and/or sacrifice hitting to move the runner over at almost any cost. In staying with the style, the first runner takes a ball four on a full count: one man on first. The second batter is given the bunt signal, successfully lays down a sacrifice bunt, and is thrown out at first: man on second, one out. The third batter is told to swing away, and he does. He laces a clean groundball … right into the shortstop's glove. The batter is promptly thrown out while the other runner advances: man on third, two outs. The team successfully moved the runner to third, but it is worth little with two outs, especially considering the fact that the runner could score on a hit from second anyhow. The fourth batter comes to the plate, hitting a clean flyball to the center fielder: inning over, the game still tied. Now, I want to note that this was more for the benefit of the reader than anything. Singular anecdotal stories are often filled with flaws, regardless of the side they support. However, this story is meant to represent a bigger fact. Small ball’s multi-faceted approach is filled with flaws - they just need to be pointed out.

Pre-Case Considerations

The Run Environment

While some strategies are applied all the time, the magnitude of their effect is based on the run environment of a given time. Small ball supporters generally endorse the strategy in a low-run environment, as smaller actions can have a larger impact. There is some truth to this, although it is far from a complete story. When fewer runs are being scored on average, the effects of using small-ball philosophies become less detrimental. After all, most events likely won’t yield a run anyways. In theory, it would be possible for the detriment to get smaller and smaller as fewer and fewer runs are scored. Still, small ball would not prove to be a winning proposition.

Win Expectancy vs Run Expectancy

When figuring out which projected numbers to use in a game, it is important to consider the situation. Win Expectancy and Run Expectancy are the primary ways that teams consider the cost/benefit of a given action, but they must align with the goals of the team at the given time. If the game is still relatively young (say… innings 1-6), then teams should be focusing on maximizing their offensive output. The Run Expectancy matrix is perfect for this, as it provides the average number of runs scored in a given situation. But if the game has entered the back three (innings 7-9), then teams should be focused on maximizing their chances of scoring a run versus runs. This is where Win Expectancy comes in handy, providing the given chance of a team attaining the necessary runs in the given situation to ultimately win. Small Ball tactics are rarely supported by Run Expectancy and can be a bit more supported by Win Expectancy - this will be elaborated upon later.

Aggressive Base Stealing

The days of heavy baserunning and hyperactive base-stealing specialists are long gone. In 2011, Major League Baseball had 3,279 stolen bases. In 2022, the league had a combined 2,487 stolen bases. The number of attempts is correspondingly decreasing as well, as teams are becoming more aware of the losing proposition of trying to steal bases. For a given team to at least break even, the runner must steal successfully around 70% of the time (with variation depending on the run environment and game situation) to have an equal run expectancy. From the beginning, the runner is at a disadvantage. Teams still managed to be successful at a profitable rate of 75.4% in 2022, but this can be partially owed to the fact that teams are much more selective and knowledgeable about their set attempts. Small ball promotes a more reckless strategy of stealing bases - hence, part of the issue lies there.

Stealing bases, like lots of things within baseball, is just a strategy of game theory. The choice of whether to attempt to steal a base is not only reliant on the risk/reward, but the opponent's anticipation and expected reaction to said attempt. If the opponent is aware that the team only needs to score one and will do almost anything to do so, then the opponent can likely anticipate a stolen base attempt. If the attempt is predicted and the defense is above average at throwing out runners, the success rate would easily drop below the necessary margin to make such an effort fruitful. Even if the defense is slightly less-skilled, the expected success rate would still likely not be as high as necessary for the runner solely due to the anticipation factor of the defense. Precautionary moves would be implemented; pickoff attempts and catcher throws to first base would disallow the runner to get a solid lead, which would make stealing the base incredibly difficult.

Selectivity and playing on expectations have kept base stealing an ultimately positive endeavor in baseball in recent years. The success rate in 2011 was 72.2%, 3.2% less than the current 2022 rate. As teams decide to steal less and less, defenses expect the stolen bases less frequently, and success rates generally go up. This feign of average rightfully goes away in a do-or-die situation where the attempt is expected, making the ideal vision of being aggressive on the basepaths somewhat antiquated in the only situation it would be generally needed. Let the runners stay.

The Sac Bunt

In theory, the sacrifice bunt sounds nice. There is an agreed-upon trade - the runner knowably gets to advance, while the batter is almost guaranteed to be out. The main problem is that this is a losing proposition from the beginning; there is a clear winner and loser in this trade. The majority of the time, the defense will significantly benefit more from the likely out than the runner advancing. This is made clear through the projected win probability outcomes, which utilize past data to project the chance of winning based on certain situations.

Suppose we go back to our anecdote above, right before the bunt out. With a man on 1st, no outs, and a tie game in the bottom of the 9th, the team's expected win probability in a high run environment (6.5 runs per team) is 74.8%. After the bunt and the out, the expected probability drops 2% to 72.8%. While not dramatic, the supposed “strategic play” will hurt teams in the long run. Under a low-run environment (3 runs per team) a smaller but existent drop exists - the team's chances drop by 0.8%. Assuming that the hitter is somewhat competent (basically, not an MLB pitcher), a team would’ve done much better by just having the batter swing away. In the alternative swinging-away situation, the extra out is no longer guaranteed. A player can get the hit and move the runner anyways, or get the runner to move if the ball is put into play.

With bunts yielding much lower run values, as well as their tact at limiting upside, their utilization as part of a small ball strategy can never be rightfully recommended. Teams would benefit much more by having their regular players swing away, attempting to move runners as in a normal game situation. Only if the individual player has an incredible ability to turn bunts into hits that exceeds his normal production, which does on occasion happen, could bunting be recommended. Specifically, this player would also likely need a low-run environment for the numbers to justify a bunt checking out. Barring that special circumstance, swing away.

Prioritizing Moving the Runner

Teams are attempting to move the runner over at any cost in small-ball, and this is not a sustainably successful strategy whatsoever. The law of diminishing returns is ever so evident in baseball, which seems to be easily forgotten. Conventionally, it looks as if a player reaching first gains one bag, and a player that moves over gains another - everything seems equal. Of course, this is the farthest from reality. People even vaguely familiar with sabermetrics are aware that reaching first is much more difficult than reaching the other bags. Ergo, first carries a given inherent superior value that the other bases do not have. To give some context, I’ll reference an RE24 (Run Expectancy Matrix) chart from the 2022 season.

Just by having a basic overview of the numbers, it becomes obvious that the most value comes from getting a runner on. The difference between a runner on first and an empty basepath is 0.389, 0.253, and 0.108 runs for 0, 1, and 2 outs, respectively. The difference between a runner on second and a runner on first under every out is 0.208, 0.159, and 0.103 runs (same order as last). Every time, getting a runner on is more important than moving them over. After every out, the returns of getting that runner on or moving them over rapidly diminishes. I will reemphasize what many before me have exclaimed - outs should be cherished. Teams should be attempting to save their outs at any cost.

In a situation where another runner gets on, the first baserunner likely got to second or third. Free swinging is not as effective at moving runners as sacrifice bunting, but the implications of saving an out are enormous. With the RE24 matrix, one could go through countless hypothetical scenarios using weighted averages to determine the cost-benefit of certain plays. Many have already done this and proposed countless scenarios where teams can benefit in given situations. In keeping things simple, these reports emphasize a main constant - teams need to prioritize saving their outs, not moving their runners over. Play as you did.

Concluding Thoughts

Bottom of the 9th, tie game, no outs, one man on first. The second batter swings away - medium ground ball into right field, the man on first advances to third while the batter settles for a single. The third batter also swings away, getting over the ball and slamming a grounder into the shortstop’s mitt. The batter proceeds to be thrown out first, where the runner on first made it safely to second and the runner on third remained; one out. The fourth batter is also given the sign to swing, and that he does. A deep fly ball sails into center field, where the fielder barely catches on - the runner at third tags up with ease and scores. That’s a win, and one without small ball. Anecdotal story again, but the point is clear.

The strategy of small ball and its seeming wisdom have been cherished by baseball, but they do more harm than help. Even in the most optimal run environments or measures, small ball fails to be a winning proposition. The facet of aggressive baserunning is generally going to lead to a negative impact, with the high stakes of the anticipated situation and the difficult break-even points making it hard to be successful. Sacrifice bunting has shown to be ultimately hurtful to a team's chances, with trading an out for a moved runner often resulting in a lower chance of winning. Plus, a philosophy that relies on moving runners over to be successful is likely going to be flawed at its basis, given the fact that other elements such as outs and offensive production in general are drastically more important. Generally, such a strategy should be avoided.

Different overarching factors have lots of implications for how the game should be played. Some strategies are supported by low-run environments, with teams being more open to risk to yield a higher expectancy of scoring a single run. Other strategies are supported by high-run environments, with the utmost priority being swinging away to maximize the number of runs scored. Small ball may play to the former, but it takes that type of strategy to an extreme; one that can’t be possibly beneficial to the team that is implementing it. A variation on the strategy could be successful, especially with some aspects of selective base-stealing adding gains for teams. But, these should be taken as gains on their own; they should not be the principal objective as the current strategy posits. Teams need to play to their best optimal setting of winning propositions at all times, not set themselves on an unadjusted given strategy. By avoiding these measures of small ball, they are following the best path.



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