In the baseball fan’s universe, the entire strategic game unfolds clearly and logically. Each player is culpable for contributing their share to the offense, but barring that, they should at least hit behind the runner. This is simple — the baseball fan’s universe is frequently one where fundamental baseball rules, where each player should have the control to bunt when necessary, protect the strike zone with two strikes, and advance runners in relevant situations.
Baseball players, of course, frequently conflict with fans’ ideals about the game. Not every player is a prototype or a category, but there are certain approaches that players need to take to execute their specific hitting ability. Home run hitters might strike out more than one would prefer, simply due to the necessity of whipping the bat through the zone and waiting patiently for their specific pitch to drive. Other hitters give up on the long ball and specifically look to knock the ball in play and let something happen.
There are players that work in between these approaches, and let’s be honest, a lot of us as fans expect players to be able to constantly adjust their approach to play situational baseball. And sure, there are contact-oriented players that also exhibit a great ability to slug, but those players usually have names like Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, and Vladimir Guerrero (one of the most underrated discipline/contact hitters, ever).
Lately, I’ve been wondering if a specific type of player plays situational ball. You know, a player that a GM might specifically look for, to gain more productive outs in his batting order — that, all things considered, as a GM might look for a lefty bat, a disciplined bat, or a gap power bat, a GM might also look to sign the situational ballplayer, all things being equal.
This is going to be an ongoing study, I believe, because situational baseball is an extremely vague, and rather broad concept. It’s not just that guy that knocks a single with two strikes and a runner on third with two outs in the sixth; it’s also that guy that knocks a lead-off home run to open the ballgame. Frankly, there are a ton of situational plays that we could look at within a ballgame.
(This is why, in the last year or so, when people charge that statheads might say “clutch” doesn’t exist, I counter with the notion that perhaps the entire ballgame is “clutch,” as there are hidden moments within each game that do not reveal themselves as clutch until after the fact).
BUT! We’re baseball fans, we want the MEAT of the issue — give us your best cut, regardless of price! So, today we’re looking at situational baseball as productive outs. As reported on Baseball-Reference, productive outs includes sacrifice bunts for pitchers, advancing a baserunner, or knocking in a run with the second out of the inning. (This version of productive outs was created by Elias and ESPN, according to Baseball-Reference).
You might charge that I’m cherry-picking — but, I figure that this is one of the closest categories to what fans actually mean by playing situational baseball. That is, all things considered, when the game calls for it, the player advances a runner or picks up a sacrifice fly. We’ve all heard it “come on, just move ‘em along!” Or, “just hit a flyball to the outfield!”
Ballplayers, on the whole, make productive outs a lot less frequently than fans might expect. Over the last five years in the National League, for instance, the average ballplayer executes a productive out in approximately 30% to 32% of his opportunities. This shouldn’t be that surprising, given (a) the frequency of strike outs in the contemporary game, and (b) outs simply occur in a variety of ways that preclude baserunners advancing.
Given this basic information, I looked for National League ballplayers from 2007-2011 that received an average or higher number of productive out opportunities. Then, I counted the number of ballplayers that, given a high number of productive out opportunities, also produced those outs at a better than average rate.
By my count, between 2007-2011 NL, there were approximately 60 ballplayers that posted average or better ratios of productive outs while facing higher than average productive out situations. If we increase the ratio, and look for ballplayers that executed productive outs at a ratio approximately 20% to 25% better than league average, we end up with 33 NL ballplayers from 2007-2011 that were strong productive out players.
Less than 10 NL ballplayers from 2007-2011 managed to execute productive outs at an average or better rate in two or more seasons (in fact, no player made the leader board for productive outs in three seasons out of the five I examined).
One thing that strikes me about situational baseball stats is how much player execution in those situations changes over time. Productive outs is no different — perhaps it’s just the nature of counting something that might only present 60 or fewer opportunities for each ballplayer over the course of the season (and that’s if you take an everyday player). Perhaps I’m stacking the deck in the first place — of course no one would consistently pick up productive outs, because frankly, those opportunities will never simply repeat themselves year after year in the same manner. If a player is moved in the batting order, other players come and go, etc., that will probably affect a player’s ability to face productive out situations.
However, one might add, this scenario means that executing productive outs is less an indication of skill, and more an indication of being in the right place at the right time.
So, I decided to look deeper at the batting profiles of these above average productive out players. Specifically, how do these players bat the ball in play? Do they strike out, walk, or hit home runs frequently?
If we learned that not very many players consistently produce productive outs at an average or better ratio, might we at least learn that a particular profile is favored for successfully accumulating productive outs?
In the chart below, I included 33 players that (a) faced an above average number of productive out situations during at least one season from 2007-2011, and (b) executed productive outs at a ratio approximately 20% to 25% better than league average. Then, I included their K%, BB%, and HR% for that particular season, as well as their overall 2007-2011 PA and OPS+.
Some interesting observations:
-Only 6 of 33 ballplayers struck out more frequently than the typical NL average of 18%-19% K% between 2007 and 2011.
-17 of 33 ballplayers managed to walk at a rate of 8% or better, which is typically around NL average.
-14 of 33 ballplayers hit home runs at a rate of 2.5% or better, which places them around or better than typical NL average.
If this all seems obvious, that’s understandable, but I find these conclusions interesting because even though players themselves did not consistently repeat their high productive out performances on a year to year basis, a prevailing set of batting profiles emerged. If the players on this list are not outright contact hitters (someone like Bengie Molina or Juan Pierre), they’re what we might call “disciplined ball-in-play batters.” That is, players that don’t strike out or hit home runs at extremely high rates, but that knock the ball in play and draw walks at very strong rates (Orlando Hudson, Aubrey Huff, Neil Walker, and Garrett Jones are examples of this type of hitter).
What I also find interesting about this scenario is that a lot of players on this list move around to different teams, as fringe-to-average ballplayers that rely on a specific skill to stay in the big leagues. Therefore, we shouldn’t find it terribly surprising that these players do not consistently receive high productive out opportunities, because if they’re moving around from team to team, they’re probably facing different batting roles, situations, and maybe even playing time shifts.
I think that we can begin to analyze a particular group of ballplayers for their strengths within otherwise fringe-to-average player profiles. While executing productive outs does not seem to be a clear hitting skill that one can repeat year after year — simply because that’s not how baseball situations are presented to batters — we can conclude that in a given season, a particular profile of batter is likely to be better at executing productive outs.
Furthermore, while looking into position players that might not bring an average or better bat to the table, I wonder if GMs can specifically look for these batting profiles to increase the chance that a particular player will add more productive outs to their batting order. Think of this as the Yuniesky Betancourt versus Alex Gonzalez issue — while Betancourt was not a good hitter overall, his extreme contact approach allowed him to lead the league in sacrifice flies in 2011. Gonzalez, another fringe bat, doesn’t walk, and strikes out a ton with the payoff of potential home run power.
In this case, where two bats might seem equally below average in terms of their batting line, might a GM make decisions to sign a player based on their contact profile, in order to gamble on other types of production that stand outside of the batting line?
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012. Accessed February 13-14, 2012.