For a year or so, I’ve been working on this idea that situational baseball is simply the aggregate of situations that a group of ballplayers produce. The basic idea is that since each ballplayer has limited traits, abilities, and approaches, a batting order full of ballplayers will get itself into situations that result from those aggregate traits, abilities, and approaches. This counters fan expectations about ballplayers, I think, as fans equate “situational baseball” with “changing one’s approach depending on the situation.” Yet, this demand sells short the reality that ballplayers are successful because of their limited approaches to the game; by playing his approaches to his strengths, a ballplayer can stay in the league and hopefully be as productive a player as possible. Of course, even if ballplayers did consistently change their approach to produce a specific, situational result, it would fall short of fan expectations — the expectation seems to be that each time a club gets a runner on second with no outs, that runner needs to be advanced; each time a runner gets to third with less than two outs, that runner needs to be scored.
Situational Hitters in History
In the 2012 National League, if you saw a runner on third base with less than two outs, you saw that runner score 49% of the time. Similarly, if you saw a runner on second with zero outs, you saw that runner advance 54% of the time. If you’re cursing under your breath about how modern ballplayers don’t know how to play the game right, or how the home run culture deters from strong situational baseball, these success rates are not far from previous eras. In fact, 50 years earlier, in a good ol’ deadball era, runners on third with less than two outs scored 47% of the time, while 51% of runners advanced when on second with zero outs; a decade later? 47% / 54%; 1983? 50% / 53%; 1993? 52% / 57%; 2003? 50% / 56%. 2011? 50% / 54%.
I gather that even though most baseball fans wouldn’t say, “situational baseball was stronger during the steroids era;” it shouldn’t be surprising that when more runs were scored, a higher percentage of baserunners were advanced in situations that demanded productive baseball. What we can draw from this basic survey is that baseball outs cohere in ways that make it difficult for players to consistently advance runners or play “situational” or “productive” ball.
For their part, Manager Ron Roenicke‘s ballplayers have been pretty good at situational baseball. As I noted last week, Roenicke aggressively employs his baserunners in a way that capitalizes on his batting order’s speedy traits, and his teams have also outscored their opponents in terms of manufactured runs. Not surprisingly, Roenicke’s Brewers are solid at scoring runners from third or advancing runners from second. In 2011, Roenicke’s Brewers scored 53% of runners on third with fewer than two outs, and they advanced 57% of runners on second with zero outs. In 2012, the club was not quite as good, scoring 45% of runners on third with fewer than two outs, and advancing 55% of runners on second with zero outs (ironically, the 2012 Brewers managed to outscore their 2011 counterparts by a sizable percentage — even considering park/league factors, which suggests that elements outside of traditional “situational baseball” can account for a team’s ability to score runs).
I know it’s difficult to keep these kinds of facts on mind while watching a game — there is a sense that every runner from third base that does not score is a failure, or every runner that does not advance from second is a failure, simply because we perceive scoring opportunities as scarce phenomena. Yet, even in some of the greatest situational eras, back when ballplayers “played the game right,” you still only saw success rates around 50% when runners stood on third with less than two outs, or runners were on second with zero outs. In this regard, our experience and expectations of situational baseball are quite different than players’ execution.
Not surprisingly, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers matched the league average for productive outs. A productive out includes runners advanced with an out, as well as runs scored with the second out of the inning. The best part for the 2012 Brewers is that they did not have as many opportunities for a productive out as the average NL club; but, since productive outs are only measured in situations when an out is made, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have fewer-than-average opportunities for productive outs. After all, the goal is to score runs, not to make productive outs; if a ballclub is successfully stealing bases, crushing extra base hits, and generally not making outs, those outcomes can eat into their ability to record “productive outs.” Yet again, the success rate for productive outs is quite low — 2012 National League clubs made productive outs in 31% of opportunities. This shouldn’t be surprising because, (a) ballplayers don’t necessarily approach the game to make outs at the plate, and (b) outs can be recorded in numerous ways that preclude productive or positive outcomes.
Last year, I surveyed NL players from 2007-2011 and their abilities to record productive outs. I asked whether there is a type of bat a GM might sign while looking for a “good situational bat,” like a GM might similarly look for a lefty bat, a disciplined bat, a power bat, etc. Interestingly enough, I found 33 players from 2007-2011 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; of those 33 players, I found the following batting traits:
-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.
You’ll be interested to know that in 2012, not one of those 33 players repeated their productive out performance in the NL. Of course, some of those players, like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, couldn’t possibly have repeated their performance in the NL because they signed into the AL; others were retired, played sparingly, etc. Overall, this shouldn’t necessarily be surprising, because players just don’t repeat their productive outs performances consistently, simply because situations change so frequently.
In 2012, the best productive out batters were Martin Prado, Marco Scutaro, and Shane Victorino. These players feature batting approaches that consistently orient toward the “contact”-end of the batting spectrum, looking more towards batting the ball into play than striking out, walking, and homering. Almost to a man, these players’ productive out opportunities and success rates fluctuated on an annual basis prior to 2012. Again, this should not be surprising, simply because this type of player moves around the batting order (as well as moving between different clubs and batting orders), and the types of situations a batter finds himself in shift from year to year, anyway. Now that we have 36 different NL batters that performed better than average with productive outs from 2007-2012, I don’t think we should be surprised if a handful of completely different players are the best “productive out” batters in 2013.
Ultimately, when we think about the 2013 Brewers offense, we should think about their power ceilings, their speed ceilings, and their ability to manufacture situations together. We need not hold one trait over the other, or demand that the club take away one aspect of their offense to focus on situational baseball. In fact, the Brewers’ offense is already quite good at situational baseball since the Brewers’ batters are simply quite good bats. While their home-run approaches, and discipline-oriented approaches may result in more strike outs than we prefer, or may focus more on walks than we might like (or even, home runs), we should not assume that that means they’re not playing situational ball. In fact, the Brewers’ robust, multidimensional offense is arguably the best type of offense because of its diverse approaches to scoring runs. Throughout the batting order, the club has plenty of different opportunities, abilities, traits, and approaches to score runs. We should keep this in mind while we’re cursing at the radio or TV each time they fail to score a runner from third (or advance a runner from second).
That’s right; Roenicke’s Brewers are situational hitters.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference LLC, 2000-2013.
Zettel, Nicholas. “Productive Outs and Situational Baseball.” Disciples of Uecker, February 14, 2012.