The numbers game: How analytics have thrown a curveball at the MLB playoffs

Gary Sanchez of the New York Yankees
Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images

If legendary baseball players like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson were to somehow mystically emerge from a cornfield in Iowa, à la Field of Dreams, to watch the Major League Baseball playoffs, they would likely be completely bewildered by the current incarnation of the game at which they excelled in bygone days.

We’re not just talking about the emergence of night games and colossal advances in equipment and training methods. An emphasis on data analysis over the past quarter-century has changed the game at its core every bit as much as more familiar traditional technological advances like the use of iPads in dugouts.

Technology has played a huge role in the amount of information that can be gathered and analyzed, as well as the availability of such data, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Information abounds on such sites as Baseball-Reference.com, MLB.com, and many others — and computers are getting better at analyzing data and spotting patterns every season.

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Sabermetrics, or the empirical analysis of baseball statistics that measure in-game activity, is nothing new. It’s been immortalized in the book Moneyball — an account of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season and general manager Billy Beane’s attempts to put together a competitive team by using sabermetrics to scout and analyze players — as well as the film of the same name starring Brad Pitt.

More than 15 years after that Oakland A’s team defied expectations, the use of analytics continues to have a profound effect on how the modern game is played. As the 2019 playoffs commence, here’s a look at some of the most significant changes sabermetrics has made to America’s pastime.

A dramatic shift

My brother-in-law, John, a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan, died in 2005, and I sometimes wonder what he would make of the game as it’s played today. More than anything else, I think the use of a technique known as the shift would completely confound him. The shift occurs when a batter with an extreme penchant for hitting the ball to one particular side of the field comes up to the plate. Based on sabermetrics, many teams will move all four infielders to that side of the field, leaving the other side virtually, if not completely, undefended.

I can practically hear John’s reaction: “What in the hell are they doing? Are they freakin’ nuts?!”

The actual effectiveness of the shift is up for debate. I have seen the New York Yankees’ Didi Gregorius, a left-handed hitter, bunt to the vacant third base side for an easy base hit a couple times. One would figure if hitters did that enough, opposing teams would have no choice but to abandon the shift against them, but most hitters continue to take their chances by swinging away and, more often than not, pulling the ball into the teeth of the defense.

The slow death of small ball

Speaking of bunting, this longtime staple of “small ball,” or the manufacturing of runs via base hits, the bunt, stolen bases, and sacrifice flies, has largely been pushed aside by a homer-happy focus.

While these facets of the game aren’t extinct, their influence on the game has been greatly diminished. After his retirement, the Yankees used to summon legendary shortstop Phil Rizzuto, who took bunting to an art form in the 1940s and ’50s, to share his know-how with players in spring training.

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Phil Rizzuto Getty

In 2017, however, there were only 421 bunt singles, which was the lowest in a full season since at least 1988, according to Baseball Reference. That’s 63 fewer — a 13% drop — than 2016, which was 47 bunt hits down from 2015. Through the 2017 season, bunt hits were down more than 30% from the start of the decade, and bunt attempts, excluding successful sacrifices, were down almost 40% since 2002.

The speed game has also slowed down drastically. At the peak of the golden age of steals in 1987, MLB teams were attempting steals 12.4% of the time when there was a man on first base. From 2015-2017, that number declined to less than 8%. In 1987, players stole 3,585 bases. Three decades later, in 2017, there were only 2,527 steals.

In 1988, the Yankees’ Rickey Henderson stole 93 all by himself and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Vince Coleman had 81. To put that in perspective, the Texas Rangers led all teams with 131 steals in the just-concluded 2019 season.

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Derek Jeter Getty

While there are various culprits for these trends, perhaps the most obvious is a push by teams, based on analytics, to concentrate on knocking the ball out of the park, which leads us to our final topic:

The fly ball revolution

Want evidence that baseball teams have become obsessed with hitting home runs? Prior to the 2018 season, the record for most home runs by a team in a single season — 264 — was held by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. That record was toppled in 2018 when the Yankees hit 267, a mark that would be annihilated this year by the Minnesota Twins (307 homers) and the Yankees (306). The Houston Astros (288) and Los Angeles Dodgers (279) also surpassed the 2018 mark in 2019.

The 2019 season also saw 10 players hit at least 41 home runs, with the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso leading the way with 53, a rookie record. And that was with perennial sluggers like the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and others missing significant time with injuries.

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Getty

While balls that have been manufactured to make it easier to hit home runs — also known as juicing the ball — definitely have something to do with this colossal spike in homers, there’s no doubt that an analytics-driven focus on knocking the ball out of the park has also been a major factor. Just take a look around baseball and there’s no shortage of players who have joined the “fly ball revolution.”

The Baltimore Orioles’ Jonathan Villar smacked 24 homers in 2019. While that number seems puny when compared to Alonso’s 53, it’s nearly one-third of Villar’s total of 78 over seven seasons. Then there’s Giovanny Urshela, a player known for his defense that the Yankees picked up off the scrap heap during an injury-plagued 2019 season. In less than 450 at-bats, Urshela hit 21 bombs after hitting just eight in parts of three previous seasons.

Homers may never see heights quite this dizzying again, especially if some of the juice is squeezed out of the baseball next season as expected, but make no mistake, the Mariners’ record is all but certain to keep plummeting down the list in years to come as analytics continue to influence and shape the game and new trends are explored and exploited.

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