Small ball is dying. Bunts, especially sacrifice bunts, have hit all-time low rates of .28 sacrifices per-game in each of the last two seasons. Stolen bases, another trademark of small ball, have also dropped off as teams are relying more on big hits. But don’t tell that to the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals are AL leaders in both sac bunts and stolen bases and are on the verge of making the World Series, up three games to none on the Baltimore Orioles. So why are most teams bucking the trend of small ball?
Dawn of a new era
The changing dynamics of pitchers and stadiums is a possible explanation. Stadiums are becoming smaller in dimensions, leaving less room to hit between the gaps in left-center and right-center, advancing runners that way. Hitters are also striking out at an extraordinary rate at 7.70 strikeouts per game, a 9% increase from 2010 at 7.06 K’s per game thanks to the rise superior pitching. With more hitters striking out there are fewer opportunities to advance runners. While bunting may advance runners over, it usually takes away an out.
The Cinderella Royals have played small ball to their advantage against each of their playoff opponents. For example, in the bottom of the third inning of the American League Wild Card game against the Oakland Athletics, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas singled into left to lead off. Shortstop Alcedis Escobar bunted Moustakas over to second, and later advanced to third on another groundout by right fielder Nori Aoki. On the next play, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain doubled in Moustakas to tie the game 2-2.
Royals excelling at the right time
Kansas City also excelled at small ball during the regular season. The Royals stole the most bases in all of major league baseball in each of the last two seasons with 153 total stolen bases, living up to their nickname, the Legion of Zoom. None of their opponents so far in the playoffs stole more than 100, each finishing in the bottom five of the American League, with their current opponent, the Orioles, finishing last in all of baseball with just 44 stolen bases.
With the trend clearly tilting towards smaller ballparks, like the new Yankee Stadium, Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park and Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the need for bunts and stolen bases has shrunken.
Thanks to advanced metrics, such as the Win Probability Added (WPA) statistic, more managers are coming to the conclusion that bunting is simply a bad idea. This isn’t a new concept though, in the book Moneyball, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane explained that a bunt is essentially giving up an out.
But it was against these very same Athletics in the Wild-Card game, that Royals manager Ned Yost called for bunts five times, including three straight innings in the bottom of the 9th, 10th and 11th innings, but the Royals failed to bring home the runner from third in each of these innings. The five bunts actually dropped KC’s WPA by a net of 8 percent. In short, the Royals got lucky in beating the Oakland As this year.
Small ball can be useful in certain situations, but overall the concept is dying, despite the Royals success.