Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Misguided "Hooray for Smallball" Argument

Two games, two wins, two pretty good showings of the 2015 Braves offense. Against a very tough Henderson Alvarez on Monday, the Braves took advantage of a balk, a misplayed ball in center, a double clutch at second, and apparently Mother Nature (if Dee Gordon's to be believed) to win 2-1. Tuesday evening, the Braves shifted gears and worked the count into aiding a seven-run first. Of course, it helped that Mat Latos was throwing batting practice fastballs, but the Braves kept hitting it where they weren't, aided by a trio of doubles that quickly put the game out of reach in a 12-2 win.

Twitter and facebook groups quickly came to a conclusion. Smallball works and strikeouts are the devil.

There appears to be no undecided's on this front. To some, strikeouts are just another out and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that - in most circumstances - strikeouts are just another way to make an out when the name of the game is to not make outs. Others would argue that strikeouts too often are a product of selfishly giving up on an at-bat over putting the ball in play and forcing the defense to make a play. Like many other social and/or political stances in our country, there doesn't seem to be much wiggle room on this subject.

However, it misses the point. In fact, it's basically trolling the subject.

Strikeouts aren't the enemy if your offense is built a certain way. On the other hand, smallball is best suited for certain offenses. It all boils down to philosophy. Let's get this out of the way...if the Atlanta Braves had showed the power last year that they did in 2013, they would have been a productive offense. They probably would have been in the playoffs. Frank Wren is probably still the general manager. But something went awry between 2013 and 2014. Looking at the numbers, it appeared the Braves, under a manager like Fredi Gonzalez, sought to not maximize their best abilities. Rather, they wanted to put the ball in play more. The problem with that philosophy, as justifiable as it may be in a vacuum, it doesn't work with the cast of characters the Braves had in 2014. The Braves swung more, but didn't make more contact. That led to the exact same strikeout percentage. That in itself doesn't tell us too much, but the bigger problem was that the Braves walked less and hit for less power. That turned what was, at worst (or best), an average offense in 2013 (101 RC+) to a woeful facsimile the following year despite largely sporting the same players. If Atlanta did desire to make more contact and strikeout less in 2014 than they did the previous year, it failed on both fronts with destructive side effects.

The Braves faced two possible avenues. Continue with Fredi and the same offensive players from 2014 and hope the problem was that their guys strangely hit better in odd years or accept that if Fredi is their guy, their personal ought to be better suited for what Fredi wants. Whether you like Fredi or not, and I'm certainly not a fan, you can't ask him to buy into a philosophy he doesn't support. That's why Wren wanted to get rid of him and that's why you wouldn't ask Bill Parcells to stick to a 4-3 defense when he prefers a 3-4. The manager has to be reflected in the philosophy of the team. One reason for the consistency of the Bobby Cox 2.0 Braves was because everyone was part of the same picture. At times, the philosophy altered, but what was important was that John Schuerholz and Cox were on the same page.

What does that have to do with this year's offense? Well, this year's offense suits Fredi. He wants the bunting, the aggressive running, the putting the ball in play. To be clear, there is no right way to score runs provided you, ya know, score runs. A look at the best offenses in terms of wRC+ over the last five years shows a variety of ways to sport an elite offense. The 2011 Red Sox did it with walks and power. Two years later, the Sox hit for less power and struck out more, but kept the walk rate and were a better team on the basepathes. The 2013 Tigers stunk as baserunning (which includes more than stealing bases). But they did for a high average and had enough pop. The 2012 Rangers didn't walk or strike out much, but hit for power (aided by their park). Boxing yourself into a Smallball vs. Three True Outcomes discussion is a waste of time. Both can work provided the team philosophy and the roster facilitates it. You wouldn't tell the 2013 Tigers that they need to steal more bases. Similarly, you wouldn't tell the 2013 Braves that they need to put the ball in play more. You would waste your team's best resources to tell Justin Upton he needs to put a bunt down.

Smallball works with the presently constructed roster and the manager tasked with getting the most out of it. It's not better than the 2013 offense that relied on walks, homers, and yes, a lot of strikeouts. It's not worse, either. It's right and that alone is a better use of the roster than we saw all of last year.

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