Shallow thoughts

What happens in Japan when there are two outs and a runner on second? In close games, managers often bring the outfield in to prevent the runner from second scoring on a single into the outfield.

This drives me nuts because now and then routine flies, that should be the final out, drive in a run, and set up a potential big inning.

What are the real costs and benefits of pulling the outfield in? For one, teams appear to be drastically reducing their chances of recording the third.

The ideal data way to understand this would be through something like StatCast that defines outfielders’ positioning and the ball’s speed and trajectory. But there is a substitute. NPB’s website describes where hits land: in front of or behind a fielder or to either side.

While we can’t identify when the outfield is being played in, we can see the effect this has by comparing ALL these 2,559 plate appearances in 2019 to those PAs to times when the defensive team is focused exclusively on recording an out: the 38,406 times when no one was on base.

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Here are some quick takeaways. When there were two outs and a runner on second base in Japan in 2019:

  • The defensive focus appeared to be on keeping hitters from getting the ball into the outfield, which occurred 15 percent less often, largely because with first base open, walks were 2.5 times as common and hit batsman were 40 percent more frequent. Strikeouts were 13 percent less frequent.
  • When balls were put in play – when it matters where fielders are positioned —  singles decreased by 2 percent, doubles increased by 22 percent, triples increased 2.8 times, homers decreased by 19 percent.
  • Balls that stayed in the park but got through the infield were 76 percent more likely to be hit over an outfielder’s head and 44 percent more likely to find the gap.

What this says is not 100 percent clear, because we still won’t know the size of the elephant in the outfield until we know which of the results map with drawn-in outfields. With that knowledge, the results would likely be much more pronounced and easier to understand the true cost of the choice.

Clearly, bringing the outfield in is a one-run tactic, like playing the infield in against bunts or with a runner on third with less than two outs or an intentional walk, because it ostensibly reduces the chances of scoring one run – this data set is mute on whether that actually works or not – and increases the chance of an RBI extra-base hit that prolongs the inning.

This happened on Saturday, Aug. 14 in the 2-0 Hawks win over the Fighters, when Nippon Ham pulled in its outfield to prevent the Hawks’ second run from scoring late in the game. Kenta Imamiya’s fly to deep center wasn’t caught for the final out and instead went for an RBI double, setting up another potential run.

In all situations with two outs and a runner on second, outs were 14 percent less likely than when there were no runners on and the sole focus is ostensibly getting the batter out. I don’t know about you, but that appears to be a huge diference. I have to think that the focus should be on getting the out first, and worrying where the ball goes second.

I’m including the raw data, so you can check the work if you like.

 PAABH1B2B3BHRTBSHSFBBIBBHBPKKobGroundFlyLinerAvgOBPSlugK pctg pctisopBalls into the OF
R2, 2 outs2559203150633510418497930049711931484055645233.249.404.390.189.534.141704
No runners3840635147856159151480112105413427002954330583402997047962580.244.308.382.2170.53.13812423

Ballls hit into the outfield

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