To be precise

I’ve been ranting for years about two-out routine flies that don’t end innings but instead go over the heads of outfielders playing shallow and drive in crucial runs, but until now, the data I was working from was ill-suited to the purpose and I’m here to fix that.

Shallow thinking

I researched what happened in the late innings when a runner was on second with two outs when managers are most likely to bring their outfield in to prevent a run from scoring on a groundball into the outfield.

Since then, I found a more detailed data set, that doesn’t distinguish whether the outfield is in or not, but does allow me to search only those times when the runner on second is the tying or go-ahead run — exactly the circumstances when managers do the dirty in terms of outfield positioning.

Japanese baseball is steeped in the belief that the best pitch is low and one that gets beat into the ground, and so if one of those ideal pitches gets through the infield, the runner will have to stop at third.

But the data from 2019 suggests that when outfields come in, batters adjust and hit more balls in the air.

From all the plate appearances after the seventh inning with the pitching team tied or leading by one, I compared situations with runners on first and second with two outs, to those with the bases empty — where the sole focus is on retiring the batter.

The results are pretty predictable.

With the big potential run on second base with two outs in the late innings, batters in Japan in 2019:

  • walked a lot more, 270 percent as often, including intentional walks.
  • struck out 19 percent less.

When the ball was put in play with the runner on second and two outs, batters:

  • hit 11 percent fewer singles in front of the outfielders, and 25 percent more fly outs to the outfielders.
  • hit 2.9 times as many balls over the outfielders heads, and 54 percent more into the gaps, resulting in about the same frequency of doubles, but about 4-1/2 times as many triples.
  • hit 61 percent more home runs.

In simple terms, batters try to exploit the situation by hitting fly balls into the outfield, and while the shallow positioning eliminates flare singles, any ball that gets driven is trouble with a capital “t.”

It’s not the unmitigated suicidal tactic I’ve portrayed it to be in the past, because it defends against the bloop two-out singles that can easily score a runner from second.

What I don’t like about it, is that, like an 0-2 ball thrown intentionally a foot out of the zone, it is a tactic of avoidance.

This is evidenced by the huge number of walks given up–unintentional walks, which were just as common with runners on first and second and they were with just a runner on second base–increased by 53 percent.

But more than that, it is a tactic that is employed, I think, as the sacrifice bunt is, to avoid criticism.

A manager who chooses to play his outfield in the best position to make an out, and gives up an RBI flare single will be criticized, while the manager who plays shallow and lets the game blow up on otherwise catchable balls will never catch flak.

Employees at Japanese companies are driven to do what will cause them the least grief, rather than what will produce the greatest benefit in the same way citizens’ behaviour is shaped by the tax code.

Workers are discouraged from doing something efficient and sensible if their bosses catch flak for it, and not discouraged from wasting company resources if no one is held accountable for it.

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