The Royals won in thrilling fashion yesterday, scoring a runner from first base in the bottom of the tenth, without any hitters putting the ball into play. Pinch-runner extraordinaire Terrance Gore advanced from first to third on a wild pickoff attempt by pitcher Trevor May, who was obviously concerned about a steal attempt. Gore then scored on a wild pitch that was well blocked by catcher J.R. Murphy, but got away enough for the speedster to score the game-winning run.
The game perfectly exemplified Royals baseball from the past few seasons, and perfectly justified the Royals using a 25th roster spot on a light-hitting speedster like Terrance Gore. However, to local sportscaster Brad Fanning, the game was a stick in the eye to sabermetrics.
And I mean that as a compliment. Bunts, defense, stolen bases don't matter to the propeller heads. Speed won them a game today. #Royals— Brad Fanning (@bradfanningshow) April 10, 2016
The popular image of sabermetrics is in promoting the plodding, three-true-outcomes hitter who draws walks, strikes out, and hits home runs. That was an accurate description at one time, when "Moneyball" was written by Michael Lewis well over a decade ago (2003). Sabermetrics, being a peer-reviewed science of sorts, is constantly contradicting old conventional wisdom - even its own conventional wisdom. Analytics has adapted, particularly as better data has emerged on other aspects of the game.
But it is understandable for more mainstream fans to have an outdated view of sabermetrics when the most visible profile of the game was during George W. Bush's first term. It got me thinking of a few other conventional ideas from mainstream fans that are not really true anymore.
Sabermetric wisdom is to not steal bases
The popular notion from the book "Moneyball" is that sabermetricians hoarded outs, and scowled at strategies that gave outs away on the bases such as stolen bases and bunts. When a stolen base by Dave Roberts of the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series helped set the table for an amazing comeback, some wrote that it was a repudiation to sabermetrics.
However it was not just any base-stealing that sabermetrics scowled at, it was bad base-stealing. Mainstream baseball praised raw stolen base numbers without looking at the caught-stealing numbers that were giving away outs. As way back as 1984, Pete Palmer was discovering a success rate of about 67% would justify attempting the extra base. In 2007, Mitchell Lichtman, Tom Tango, and Andrew Dolphin popularized the notion of a "break-even" rate for stolen base attempts at about 73%, depending on the situation.
Sabermetricians love a guy like Terrance Gore, who has a 90% success steal rate in the minor leagues and is 12-for-13 in his Major League career including the post-season (with the only "caught stealing" coming on a technicality). Indeed, our sabermetric-leaning site praised having Gore on the roster and Clark Fosler over at Baseball Prospectus Kansas City, a very stat-oriented site, crunched the numbers and guessed that Gore would be more valuable than your average 25th man. Just remember, the stat guys hate giving away outs. Terrance Gore does not give outs away.
Baseball games take too long because more runs are being scored
I don't know if this is commonly accepted wisdom anymore, but it has been a rant of Royals announcer Denny Matthews for some time, since the release of his book "Hi Anybody! What I Love About the Game and What I'd Do to Fix it". When that book was released in 2009, game times were up, but run scoring had been up for some time as well, at least since the 1970s and 80s. However since 2009, run scoring has dropped precipitously around baseball, and by 2014, run-scoring in the American League had dropped to its lowest level since 1981. Fewer runs per game crossed the plate in the 2015 Royals championship season (4.39) than in the 1985 Royals championship season (4.56).
Denny has some good ideas on how to speed the game up - keep the hitter in the box, use a pitch clock. But he insists that baseball has conspired to generate more offense, which has caused games to run longer.
"At some point, baseball figured that they needed more runs and more offense," he said. "The DH comes into play. The mound gets lowered. The strike zone shrinks. Ballparks get smaller. It's all geared toward the offense and more runs. And that increases the time of games.
"Like I said, they are scared of 2-1 games, as if they are boring."
Scott Lindholm at Beyond the Box Score has done a terrific job tracking game lengths, showing little correlation in recent years with the decrease in run-scoring and the length of games. Games are taking longer these days, but it isn't because baseball is afraid of 2-1 games. They're already here.
The Yankees buy all the free agents and don't develop players of their own
George Steinbrenner certainly had fun in his prime, buying seemingly any free agent he wished until the Yankees became a parody. When his sons Hank and Hal took over in 2010, it looked like the Yankees might continue their high-spending ways, bringing in free agents Mark Teixeira, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran. But in the winter after the 2014 season, the Yankees signed one new free agent - Stephen Drew, while re-signing Chase Headley. This past off-season, they were the only team that did not sign a single Major League free agent.
Some of that is because with all these long-term contracts, the team has some positions locked up long-term. But the team still had holes to fill at second base, outfield, and in the pitching staff. The Yankees' absence from the free agent market is likely to be brief, to get them under the luxury tax threshold and to go younger in the wake of Derek Jeter's retirement. The team has still made moves to improve the team, making trades for players like Aroldis Chapman, Starlin Castro, and Didi Gregorious. However, those deals show the importance in developing homegrown players, whether to use in the lineup or use as trade bait.
The new restraint by the Yankees also shows how the economics of the game have changed, with the luxury tax serving as enough of a deterrent to affect team behavior. The Royals have also shown how building a young team from within can be a successful model. The Yankees have another talented young crop coming in Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Ian Clarkin, and Gary Sanchez, which could serve as the nucleus of the next great Yankees team. This isn't George's team anymore.
Small market teams can't compete
I think this one has finally died off in recent years, especially now that the Kansas City Royals are the champions of baseball. The Oakland Athletics bucked the trend for several years, but their lack of post-season success was enough ammunition for critics to insist the odds were stacked too far against small market teams. Even Athletics General Manager Billy Beane expressed his frustration with the inequitable treatment.
But with the more recent Collective Bargaining Agreements that allow for more revenue sharing, and more savvy front offices in small market organizations like Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and now Pittsburgh and Kansas City, smaller markets are just as competitive as the big boys. Tampa Bay grabbed the 2009 American League pennant, Pittsburgh has reached three post-seasons in a row, and the Royals followed up their pennant with a championship run. If the Royals can win, anyone can win at this point. It just takes dedicated ownership and a smart General Manager.
Baseball is dying
When you were a kid, baseball was king, enjoying its Golden Age. Now it is dying, needing loud music and gimmicks at ballparks to keep the attention of youths while they instead turn to basketball and football. Baseball is an old white man's game, which means it will soon go the way of the dinosaur. Or so the media would have you believe.
Baseball is enjoying record attendance, record revenues, and record local TV ratings. Baseball is not the national sport anymore, but that is more due to the rise in popularity of professional football in the 1960s rather than any fault of baseball. Baseball still remains firmly the second-most popular sport in America. The TV ratings for World Series and All-Star Games may be a concern, but TV ratings are generally down for everything non-football in the age of the 300-channel cable lineup. Baseball continues to dominate local TV ratings in the summer, and cable companies are placing billion-dollar bets on baseball.
Baseball's demographics skew older, but they have always skewed older. Sure, the game could do more to attract young people, women, and minorities, but for the most part the game has never been healthier. Baseball has had over two decades of labor peace, some thrilling post-season games of late, and exciting young marketable players in Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Correa. There are more reasons than ever to come out to the ballpark, and fans are doing so in droves.