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Baseball Strategy 101

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A baseball manager does more than just sit there and look ridiculous in an uniform designed for a much younger man. He has all sorts of strategic decisions he has to make before and during the course of the game which can mean the difference between winning and losing.

In this article we discuss some common baseball strategy and analyze whether or not they are sound. As you will soon learn, just because something is tradition it doesn’t always mean it is a good idea.

Bunting
A bunt is a strategy in which a hitter loosely holds the bat in front of home plate, usually before the pitch is delivered, and then attempts to tap it lightly into the field of play. The purpose of a bunt is generally to sacrifice your own out for the purpose of advancing the runners on base. Sometime a player will try to bunt for a base hit — exploiting either his own speed or baseman who are playing deep. In that case the hitter will wait until the last moment possible to show bunt to maintain the element of surprise.

Over the past decade there have been many sabermetric findings which suggest bunting to advance a base runner is not an optimal strategy. This has began to influence how major league managers approach bunting and the strategy is on the decline. Hower, in certain scenarios — such as when a pitcher or an extremely weak hitter is up — bunting is still a solid mathematically-approved strategy.

Batting order
The batting order is the sequence in which the offensive players come to bat. Traditional lineup construction includes a speedy player with good on-base skills batting first, a good contact hitter batting second, the team’s best average hitter third, the team’s best power hitter fourth and the second best power hitter fifth. The rest of the line up is filled in descending order of hitting skills, and in the National League the pitcher will almost always bat ninth.

This, however, is not the optimal major league lineup. Since each batting slot in the lineup will get 18 more plate appearances over the course of season than the the next there is an argument for simply batting all your hitters in order of on-base percentage, thus maximizing the the number of baserunners over the year.

Using more advanced mathematical formulations some sabermetricians suggest batting the best hitter second, and, in the National League, always hitting the pitcher eighth instead of ninth.

Another thing to consider when constructing a lineup is the handedness of the batters. By alternating right and left handed hitters as much as possible it makes it more difficult for the opposing manager to employee left handed or right handed relief pitching specialist.

Although many Major League team’s lineup construction leaves much to be desired it doesn’t necessarily hurt them much. Unless a manager does something really dumb — like bat the pitcher first — the difference between a perfectly optimized lineup and a sloppily put together one is only about ten runs a year.

Closer
A closer is a pitcher that typically only appears in the late innings of close game with his team ahead and with the intention that he will finish the game. Other names for a closer include fireman, stopper or short reliever. The strategy of using a closer stretches to the early 1900s but it wasn’t until the 70s when teams started using designed closers only TO finish out games and not during other regular relief appearances. The closer is almost always the team’s best relief pitcher, and in modern baseball it’s unusual for a closer to pitch more than an inning during an appearance.

Sabermetricians have long questioned the value of a designated closer. They argue you should always use your best relief pitcher in the highest leverage late inning situation and their formulations suggest this could very well come in the seventh or eighth inning, depending on what players are coming to bat and how many runners on base. A study from Baseball Prospectus found that big league teams could win about four more games a year if they dictated closer use by leverage rather than what inning it happened to be. Another study of every game from 1930 to 2003 found that designating a closer for the ninth inning hasn’t changed the overall percentage of games the average team wins when they are ahead by one, two or three runs..

Double switch
The double switch is a player and lineup substitution which typically involves the pitcher. It almost always happens when the team is on defense and making a pitching change and when the pitchers spot is due up the next inning. Along with the new pitcher, to execute the double switch the manager also sends out one new position player and this allows him to swap the new position player’s and the new pitcher’s positions in the batting order.

Thus in the following batting inning the pitcher’s spot is avoided, and this makes it easier to keep the just inserted pitcher on for another inning. The optimal player to double switch with is the eighth hitter. (Assuming the pitcher’s spot is still ninth.)

Disadvantages to the double switch can be that you are sending in a weaker defender — although that doesn’t have to be the case. Also, if you double switch closer to the middle of the lineup and the game goes into extra innings you have an offensive dead spot where you typically would have a good hitter.

While it rarely happens, confusion surrounding a double switch can lead to a team batting out of turn and an automatic out.

Hit and run
Hit and run is a high risk baseball strategy used by the offensive team to both increase the batter’s chance of getting a hit and the base runner’s chance of advancing on a batted ball. During a hit and run the runner on first base releases to second on the pitch. It is then the batter’s responsibility to at least foul the ball off because if the pitch gets to the catcher the runner will most likely be thrown out. If the hitter does get the ball in play there will be an extra area of the infield open for a ground ball base hit since either the shortstop or second baseman has been forced to leave their position so they can cover the second base bag.

If a single hit does go through the runner on first should be able to make it to third because the baserunner is already in motion. Among the other advantages of a hit and run is that ground balls that are fielded are less likely to result in double plays because the base runner head start.

The risks of a hit and run involve the aforementioned swing and miss caught stealing scenario. Forcing a batter to swing may also lead to weakly hit balls, as the hitter hacks at pitches that he would otherwise leave alone. Then there is the dreaded line drive double play.

Because of those risks, hit and runs should only be attempted with a batter who has enough bat control that he can roughly guide the ball toward the vacated infield spot and who doesn’t swing and miss very often.

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Infield positioning
Infield positioning depends on both the batter at the plate and the situation in the game. Infielders will typically shift slightly from side to side and forward and backward based on the batter’s tendencies on batted balls. Additionally, if the hitter is fast and a decent bunter the third baseman and to a lesser extent the first baseman will be forced to come in toward the infield grass until the batter has two strikes on him. Certain left handed power hitters are defensed with extreme infield shifts to the right.

There are also general situations which call for different types of infield positioning. With a runner on first base and less than two outs the middle infielder’s pinch toward second base, making it easier to turn a double play. With a runner on third base and less than two outs sometimes a manager makes a decision to play the infield in to cut off the run at the plate. Late in the game when a team is either ahead by one or tied a manager will typically have the corner infielders guard the lines to prevent extra base hits.

Infield shift
An infield shift is an extreme defensive alignment in which typically three infielders are on one side of the diamond. It is almost always employed against left-handed pull hitters, meaning the shortstop sets up to the right of second base, the second baseman plays in shallow right field and the first baseman hugs the line. The third baseman typically sets up where the shortstop would be, although in some shifts the shortstop remains in position and the third baseman skips over to the infield’s right side.

Ted Williams was the first player to be shifted on a regular basis. Lumbering left handed power hitters such as Willie McCovey, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira and David Ortiz have been consistently shifted over the years, and recently the strategy has been extended to relatively fast left handed pull hitter like Joe Mauer, Robinson Cano and Chase Utley.

The biggest drawback to the shift is that it’s very easy to bunt for a base hit against it. But, beginning with Williams, power hitters have been reluctant to bunt against the shift for reasons of macho-ness that frustrate most statistical-oriented baseball observers. They would argue that a few bunts here and there would make a shift untenable and improve the player’s overall offensive numbers.

Over the last couple years some teams have been experimenting with shifting right handed pull hitters, which is a more difficult proposition because the first baseman always has to stay fairly close to the bag

Intentional walk
In intentional walk is a pitching strategy in which the catcher stands up and moves away from the batter and the pitcher delivers four straight pitches that have no intention of being strikes and that the batter should have no chance of being able to hit. Intentional walks are usually issued with a base open and less than two outs to set up a force, with two outs and a pitcher on deck, in the bottom of the ninth or extra inning when the batter’s run is meaningless, or when a hitter is so fearsome (like career intentional walk leader Barry Bonds) they would just rather risk putting him on base so the can instead face the next hitter.

While some have argued that the intentional walk is a waste of time and should be granted automatically — as it is in college baseball — once every ten years or so a major league pitcher throws an intentional ball too close to the plate and the hitter smacks it for a hit. There is also a chance a pitcher could throw a wild pitch or the catcher suffer a passed ball during an intentional walk

Other drawbacks to the intentional walk are that it can throw the pitcher out of rhythm and that it could motivate the next batter up, who might feel like he had been disrespected.

Left-handed specialist
Left-handed specialist are typically relief pitchers who come in to face left-handed hitters. The most extreme of these specialists are called LOOGYs (Lefty One-Out GuY.) Since left handed hitters are less likely to face left handed pitchers than right handed hitters right handed pitchers most lefty hitter struggle against lefty pitching. This makes the strategy of subbing in a left-handed pitcher — even if just to face one left handed batter — generally sound. Of course the other team can counter by pinch hitting a righty for the left hander.

Hitters can be left handed specialist too, and they would come in to pinch hit against a right handed pitcher. Just like in the reverse scenario, the opposing team would have opportunity to counter this move with a same handed pitcher.

Outfield positioning
Outfield position is dictated by the batter at the plate and the stage of the game. Outfielders will be set back if a power hitter is up, and moved in when there is a slap hitter at the plate. A player who tends to pull fly balls will have the outfielders shift over toward the batter’s side of the plate, and against an opposite field hitter the outfielders will move away from the hitter. The amount of shifting each outfielder does in response to a batter is rarely uniform, and the differences in how much each outfielder shifts from his normal position should be based on more intricate batter tendencies.

Less batter-specific shifts include moving the outfielder’ slightly in when there is a runner on second base. This is so they have a better chance of throwing him out at home on a single. A “no doubles” outfield defense is employed late in games — typically when a team is tied or ahead by one — and it has the outfielders sanding almost against the wall so that no balls can make it into the gap. Another extreme outfield alignment is pulling the outfielders all they way in in the bottom of the ninth when the game winning run is on third with less than two outs.

Pitching around
The strategy of pitching around a batter is employed in the same situations where an international walk would be an option. But instead of tossing four intentional balls the pitcher tries to bait the hitter into swinging at bad pitches.

The inherent risk of this strategy is that a pitch isn’t bad enough and it gets struck for a hit. Deliberately having a pitcher miss his typical spots can also be bad for the hurler’s rhythm, and this is a strategy that should only be trusted to pitchers who have good control and don’t get flustered on the mound. If the hitter being pitched around runs the count to 2-0 or even 1-0 it isn’t uncommon for the pitcher to change tactics and finish the at-bat off as an intentional base on balls.

Platooning
Platooning is a strategy in which two players — usually one right handed and one left handed — share a position. They key to a good platoon is having players with opposite platoon splits, meaning they hit one handed pitcher much better than the other handed pitcher. Platooning has fallen out of vogue somewhat over the last few decades, although the Philadelphia Phillies of 1993 and the Oakland As of 2012 and 2013 were teams that successfully utilized multiple platoons.

It’s much rarer, but another type of platoon could be between a speedy player and a power hitter, with the speedy player getting the nod when a team plays in bigger ballpark. This type of platoon would work best for outfielders because that type of park based rotation would achieve both an offensive and defensive advantage. While it’s not typically thought of as a platoon, having one player consistently defensive replace another in the late innings of games in which their team is ahead is essentially a platoon.

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Run and Hit
Run and hit is strategy in which a player attempts to steal a base but instead of the batter taking a pitch for him he has the option of swimming. This is different from a hit and run, in which the base runner takes off after the pitch is in the air and the runner is obligated to swing at the pitch.

The benefits of a run and hit are that one of the middle infielders will be out of position if a batted ball is put into play, there is less of chance of a double play if a batted ball is grounded at an infielder and if the batter hits a single the runner on first should be able to make it to third.

he drawback to the strategy is that a line drive will lead to a double play. The runner also has a chance to be thrown out stealing, so a run and hit should only be attempted when the runner on first is a trusted base stealer.

Stolen base
A stolen base occurs when a player successfully advances to the next base while the pitcher is delivering the ball to home plate. Second base is the most frequently stolen base, but many base stealer will say third is actually the easiest base to swipe. Steals of home plate are very rare.

The popularity of the stolen base as a strategy ebbs and flows over time in fairly direct correlation to the number of runs being scored. This is because it is a “small ball” strategy including stolen bases works better in a 2-1 game than it does in a 7-5 one. Also, with Sabermetricians beating the drum about the high cost of having a player thrown out on the base path, these days if a player isn’t successful stealing at least 75 percent of the time they will probably be told to stop running by his manager.

Variations of the steal include the double steal, involving two base runners, and the delayed steal, in which the base runner doesn’t take off until the pitched ball is in the air in an attempt to lull the defenders into complacency.

Taking the first pitch
Taking the first pitch is a hitting strategy in which the batter decides not to swing at the first pitch of the at-bat no matter where it is located. By doing so, he is hoping to go ahead in the count 1-0, which gives him a big advantage over the pitcher.

The flipside is going down 0-1 on a hittable pitch. Batters who employ this strategy typically have above average bat control and don’t mind hitting behind in the count. Hall of Famer Wade Boggs is the most famous adherent to the taking the first pitch technique, and of current players the strategy is most associated with Joe Mauer.

Of course Boggs or Mauer or anyone who establishes themselves as a first pitch taker can still try to ambush the occasional first pitch if they want, and that just adds to the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter.

Wheel play
The wheel play is a strategy used when a defensive team is sure the hitter is going to bunt. During the play the third baseman, first baseman or both charge toward home plate and the middle infielders run to cover the bases that have been abandoned. It is almost always used when a pitcher is at bat.

The wheel play is risky because it takes a lot of timing and has the infielders playing out of their regular positions. There is also a chance the batter will pull back the bunt at the last moment and try to slap the ball over the heads of the charging fielders.

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