Game 2 and the true message of Moneyball

Strikeouts and the value of getting the ball in play…

If I’ve got the story straight it went like this: when Royals slugger Steve Balboni reached 100 strikeouts, teammate Hal McRae had a bottle of champagne waiting for him in the clubhouse.

McRae said 100 strikeouts was the mark of a home run hitter and now Balboni was in the club.

If that story is true – and if it’s not, it ought to be – I always thought it was a brilliant move by McRae: take an event people found embarrassing and turn it into a positive.

But these days Hal would need a truckload of champagne to cover all the players who punch out 100 times; in 2019 there were 161 one of them including that renowned power hitter Raimel Tapia who managed to hit nine home runs.

Right now nobody seems all that embarrassed about striking out 100 times and in a vintage year you can find guys who strike out 200 times in a season which, with inflation, probably ought to be worth at least two bottles of champagne and a shot of Jack Daniels.

In the year 2000 only 58 guys struck out 100 times which shows just how far we’ve come in the last two decades. That year Moises Alou hit 30 home runs with 114 RBI while striking out just 45 times.

Clearly, Moises wasn’t swinging hard enough.

The road less traveled

Back in 2014 when everyone was chugging Moneyball Kool-Aid the Kansas City Royals went against conventional wisdom and finished last in the AL in home runs, last in walks, but still won the American League Championship and made it to Game 7 of the World Series.

The Royals made up for their shortcomings by being good at other parts of the game and one of the things they did well was get the ball in play.

No team in baseball struck out less often.

In 2014 the Royals punched out 985 times while the average big league team struck out 1,248 times, which meant — on average — the Royals had 263 extra chances for a hit, an error or something really goofy to happen.

Critics said a team that didn’t hit home runs or walk couldn’t possibly repeat and what the Royals did in 2014 was a fluke…then the Royals did it again in 2015. That season the Royals struck out just 973 times while the average major league team was once again punching out 1,248 times.

After the Royals won the World Series, coach Rusty Kuntz said his team had shown the value of getting the ball in play.

Part of the Royals game plan was to get the ball in play on the ground (sorry if I gave you launch-angle fans indigestion) and force the New York Mets infield to make plays — and that game plan worked.

Make the other team play the game and you never know what might happen.

Being a certified genius who figured the internet was a passing fad, I also figured the Royals had shown there was more than one way to play the game and other teams would imitate their success.

But nope, most other teams were too heavily invested in the Moneyball-style of play so the 2014-15 Royals were ignored; it was like playing darts and getting your ass kicked by Stevie Wonder – twice.

It had to be a fluke so let’s all pretend it didn’t happen or of it did happen it really didn’t mean all that much. The herd is moving a certain direction and let’s not leave the safety of the herd because that’s a real good way to get your ass eaten by hyenas.

A league of Camrys

After Moneyball became a thing, pretty much every team wanted to assure the public they were paying attention and formed analytics departments to make sure their approach to baseball was up to date.

But since a lot of the analytics guys were saying the same thing, a lot of teams started playing the same kind of baseball.

A guy who has been in the game a long time explained it this way: in the old days teams had a style of play that favored them and their ballpark and some teams liked Mustangs, some teams liked ‘Vettes and other teams liked Thunderbirds.

Now everybody is working from the same analytics and the whole damn league is driving Camrys.

The true message of Moneyball

Back when everyone was first getting worked about analytics, a longtime front-office guy said people got it wrong: the true message of Moneyball wasn’t that walks and home runs were good, it was that undervalued players were good.

To find undervalued players teams need to value things everybody else doesn’t and today one of those undervalued skills is the ability to avoid striking out and get the ball in play.

Since 2015 when Rusty Kuntz thought the Royals showed the value of getting the ball in play, total big league strikeouts have gone from 37,446 to 42,823. If the Royals showed the value of getting the ball in play, few teams got the message.

The seventh inning of Game 2

Here’s why all this comes up now:

Last night in the seventh inning of Game 2 Kurt Suzuki broke a 2-2 tie with a home run, but Suzuki’s solo shot wasn’t the backbreaker.

  • With the bases loaded Howie Kendrick hit a ball to Alex Bregman which Bregman booted, (but was somehow ruled a hit anyway) scoring another run.

  • Asdrubal Cabrera hit a single on two-strike slider that scored two more runs.

  • Ryan Zimmerman also got a two-strike pitch in play and hit a weak grounder toward Bregman and Bregman launched an unguided missile past first base that scored two more runs.

Getting the ball in play forced Houston to play defense and when they didn’t make the plays, broke the game open; the Nationals scored six runs in the seventh and went on to win 12-3.

Where’s the outlier?

Let’s go back to that front-office guy for a moment. If he was right about the true message of Moneyball – and I think he was – where’s the outlier?

Where’s the team that’s going to zig when everybody else zags?

Everybody got excited about Moneyball and a team that was willing to take a different path and now just about everybody is taking the same path instead of figuring out a different path for themselves. None of this means a Moneyball approach can’t work, but it does mean it’s not the only approach that works.

And it also means Rusty Kuntz had a point:there’s value in getting the ball in play.

And it sure makes games more interesting.