“I’m sorry, but if you’ve got a runner on second with no outs you’ve just got to advance the runners.” More or less, those have been the repeated words of broadcaster John Sterling in recent New York Yankees‘ losses.
Sometimes he’ll add, “I’m sorry if I’m being too harsh.”
What interests me about Sterling’s rhetoric is the question of why he’s apologizing. He says it’s for being harsh, but that doesn’t really make sense. The famous trade-off of becoming a professional athlete means accepting that you will be publicly criticized when you don’t produce.
It would seem then that Sterling is not just bemoaning poor results. Rather, he’s implying that the failure of Yankee teams to play small ball (that is, for batters to make strategic outs in order to either score runners or put them in scoring position), is a conscious choice: a moral failure. It’s one thing for a player to fail to hit a home run: it’s quite another for them to fail to hit a modest grounder, simply because they’d rather achieve another outcome.
What bothers me most about Sterling’s comments is precisely that he refuses to state his position outright. He hints that players are choosing not to play small ball, just as he hints that some pitchers choose not to throw strikes. But because Sterling doesn’t explicitly say the word “choice,” he avoids having to explore this accusation and its implications.
So why don’t the Yankees deliver with sacrifice flies and well-positioned grounders when they have runners in scoring position? It could be that some of them are selfishly trying to be the home run hero, but that’s far from the only explanation.
One alternative explanation is that it’s a mistake to assume that competent hitters can just stumble their way into making weak contact. It’s one thing to cringe for what could have been when Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez or Giancarlo Stanton miss a ball with one of their big, arching hacks. But I’ve also heard Sterling pull his “you’ve got to move the runner” bit when players like Brett Gardner miss a pitch, while clearly making contact-oriented swings.
The reality is that it’s getting harder to make contact with baseballs. In 2015 the MLB strikeout rate stood at 20%. That number has gone up to 27% in 2021.
Another possibility is that it’s not the Yankee players, but the manager and coaches who are advising them against playing small ball. A result of baseball’s current sabermetrics era is a decline in the amount of bunts. Why has this happened? Because bunts almost always lead to an out. And when put in a cost-benefits table, the cost of these outs tends to outweigh the run benefits they provide.
So we’re left with three explanations for why the Yankees haven’t been using small ball to overcome struggles with runners in scoring position. One is the ego of sluggers. I’m sure in some cases this hypothesis is the correct one. However, while it is an explanation that could be scrutinized, it can’t be proven. And pinning that on certain guys is irresponsible. Do you think they’re going up to the plate disregarding the coaching staff and doing as they please?
The second explanation is that hitting a grounder or sacrifice fly is easier said than done, especially in the age of strikeouts.
The third explanation, that Yankees management has abandoned small ball as a strategy, is the one most worth exploring. If properly analyzed, this is a criticism that could lead to constructive results i.e. Aaron Boone giving his players different instructions when they step up to the plate.
Over the course of a season it would appear to be a better strategy to build a team that hits for timely power, rather than one that plays frequent small ball. But what a manager should do with this information is far more ambiguous. Whenever a manager makes a decision, they are not dealing with the “average situation,” but a discrete one. Any one situation a manager deals with can be an anomaly.
And how can you tell when a situation is a worthy anomaly? If you have a runner on second and no outs, swinging for sacrifices might always appear the safer bet than swinging for the fences. In fact, it will appear to be the safe move on most occasions. But at the end of the day, the data makes clear that if teams take this approach on too many occasions it will most likely cost them runs.
If the Yankees again find themselves struggling to produce with runners in scoring position, the calls for small ball will continue to mount: both from the broadcasting booth and from ordinary fans. We as fans should try to be humble and remember that sometimes even the smartest of baseball decisions don’t pan out in a given moment.
But on the other hand, Boone and the Yankees have a responsibility to, at the very least, re-explore the small ball question. Playing data-savvy baseball means adjusting to the times. Baseball has rapidly oscillated from the hitter-friendly, juiced-ball era of 2017, to the pitcher-dominated present.
And if swinging for the fences is no longer a viable strategy (at least not in every game, against every pitcher), then even the Bronx Bombers may have to adapt.