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Some Unconventional Baseball Thoughts

While we have a bit of a lull in baseball activity, and yet I am not all that inclined to try to write about football yet, I thought I would share some thoughts I had about baseball strategy. I am no baseball expert, but in the spirit of this Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker about how an Indian immigrant who knew nothing about basketball used unconventional thinking to take his team of untalented little white girls from Silicon Valley close to a national championship, sometimes you need someone who is outside the orthodox groups to really give insight that those inside have missed.

These are just some ideas, some ideas whose time have not come, and may never come, and may be bad ideas from the word jump.

1.  Put your best hitter first in the lineup.  Few things infuriate me more than seeing a baseball manager leading off a game with a weak hitter.  Your #1 hole hitter, over the course of a season, will come to bat more often than any other hitter on the team.  Why would you put a weak hitter in position to get the most at-bats while better hitters get fewer chances to hit?  I have long felt that managers who put poor hitters in the leadoff hole "because they can steal bases" need to be sent to a basic statistics class or an economics class about maximizing your resources.  

This is all to say, you should put a good hitter in the leadoff spot, whether he fits the slap-hitting, base stealing, walk-inducing mold of a traditional leadoff hitter or not.  But to get a little more unconventional, why not just put your absolute best hitter there?  As mentioned, this is the spot that will be batting the absolute most often.  Put your best there.  The spot that will bat second most often?  That would be the second spot in the order.  Put your second best hitter there.  And so on and so forth.  The only thing you'd be giving up really would be some percentage chance that your best hitters will come up with runners on base.

2.  Start your closer.  I am generally aware that baseball statistics nerds (which I would be if I was inclined to follow baseball more closely than I do), have long decried the inefficient use of the "closer", that relief pitcher who is the best on the team, and whose job it is to preserve close leads in the 9th inning, and generally only to preserve leads, and only in the 9th inning.  I have heard and read many people suggest that the closer should be used not strictly in the 9th inning, but in the situation which is the most dangerous for the team.

Let's say my favorite team is winning by 1 run.  The opposing team is batting and their two best hitters are coming up with runners on 1st base and 2nd base and one out in the 7th inning.  The starter is still in, but he's well over 100 pitches and this is the 4th time these hitters have seen him.  Wouldn't this be a great time to use your best pitcher?  Wouldn't it be better to bring in your #1 pitcher here than to let some stiff try to get these guys out in hopes that you can save your best pitcher for the 9th inning, when the opposing team's worst hitters may be up?  Or worse than that, you may have lost your lead and may be seeing the other team's best pitcher try to get out your worst hitters.

But this is a column for truly unconventional thinking rather than just thinking like a lot of people think.  Teams generally set up their lineup  with the first inning in mind.  They try to put hitters who are likely to get on base at the top of the order and follow them up with hitters who are most likely to hit home runs or extra-base hits.  In conventional thinking, the batting order is set so as to maximize the number of runs scored in the 1st inning.  Why not thwart this by using your best one-inning pitcher in that situation?  You've still "shortened the game" by an inning as proponents of the closer like to say, but you've done it in such a way that it counters the conventional thinking of the opposing manager.  After you get through the other team's best hitters in the first, come in with your "starter" in the second and subsequent innings when the lineup is no longer geared to maximize runs in any particular inning.

3.  Almost never sacrifice bunt, but occasionally bunt with intent of getting a hit.  In Texas's 10-6 win last night, they gave a perfect illustration of why sacrifice bunting is bad.  Down 6-0 in the 4th inning, they managed to get runners on 1st and 2nd with no outs.  Being a small ball team, in most situations Texas would have given up an out to get those runners to 2nd and 3rd to play for two runs.  Being wayyy behind, Texas decided not to give up the out and played for a big inning.  The batter hit a home run to cut the lead to 6-3.  You have to admit that a 3-run home run is always better than an out, even if the runners advance a base on the out.  Texas ended up getting its big inning, as they scored 3 additional runs that inning to tie the score 6-6.

This blog has hit on the maddening economic inefficiency of sacrifice bunting countless times, but Texas also illustrated how useful bunting can be if not done merely to sacrifice.  While still down 6-3 in the same 4th inning, Texas's Travis Tucker came to bat with 1 out and runners on 1st and 3rd.  Still significantly far ahead, Arizona State was not expecting a bunt.  Tucker bunted, and it caught the defense totally off guard.  They ended up scrambling to get bases covered and threw the ball into right field.  Not only did the runner score from third, but ASU failed to get the out and allowed the runners to advance two bases.

All because Texas, a bunting team, disguised the bunt rather than square around early, and bunted in a time when it was not expected.  What they got was the equivalent of a double.  If you have players who can bunt for hits effectively and if you are willing to call for it when it's least expected, it can really be a damaging play at the college level.

4.  If you're the visiting team, play around with your starting lineup.  The visiting team bats first.  If you have a defense-first lineup, why not keep your good defenders out of the lineup and instead put some good hitters in the lineup to start the game, then sub them out in the bottom of the first inning.

By way of example, let me present you this scenario.  We can all agree that despite Austin Nola's home run the other night, he is not a great hitter at this point in his career.  Paul Mainieri plays him anyway because he's a good defender.  Well, you don't need defense when you're batting.  Why not start, oh.. Leon Landry (against righties), and bat him 1st or 2nd so he bats in the first inning.  Then, when the half-inning is over, take Landry out and put Nola into the game in Landry's spot.  Your weak hitting defensive specialist bats less and you get an at-bat from one of your better hitters who ordinarily wouldn't play.  You can do this with 2 or 3 players if you want and have the hitters on your bench to do it.  

That's it for now.  We'll go back to regular coverage tomorrow.