Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Different approach brings better results?

Last night brought the conclusion of the second World Baseball Classic with Team Japan defeating Team Korea for the title. This makes Japan 2 for 2 as winners in each of the only two WBC tournaments to date. Korea, the reigning Olympic champion, was a worthy opponent tying the final game in the bottom of the ninth only to lose in extra innings. Given the current dominance of these teams, are the Asians truly the superior baseball players compared to the Cubans, the North Americans, the Latin Americans, and the Dominicans who are often considered (along with the Asians) as the dominant groups?

While Asian pitching seemed the same to me as what I commonly see in the MLB (where, in fact, many Asian pitchers practice their craft), I thought the rest of the defensive scheme was played more aggressively by the Asians, with outfielders playing shallow to take away hits and infielders creeping in to cut runs at the plate and to save precious time on double-play balls. However, the major difference I noted between typical MLB play and what I saw in the championship game of the WBC was in the player's approach to hitting.

As I have described in this blog, the MLB has come to place a huge premium on power hitting. Whether it contributes to winning is not clear but it certainly leads to bigger contracts and so hitters, being rational decision makers, have responded with according effort. The best data supporting the trend towards hitters swinging for the fences in the past decade is the dramatic rise in strikeouts per at bat despite the shrinking strike zone. Here is how I thought the difference in "hitting approach" was so visually obvious.

In general (I know there are exceptions), MLB hitters tend to have one swing. It is a long swing through the strike zone designed for maximum power. The swing has parts of the strike zone where it is effective and parts where it is not. Players "holes" (pitch locations where their swing is not effective) are well known and MLB batters often take pitches for strikes if they are not thrown in a hittable portion of the strike zone. By "hittable", I mean hittable with their long swings designed for the home run. The Asians, on the other hand, seem to have a multitude of various swing forms depending on pitch velocity, location, and movement. They bat to make contact and put the ball in play using long swings when appropriate but more commonly using short, inside out, hands back, and/or lunging swings as needed. Each swing unfolds masterfully as a reaction to the pitch and I must say, it is both artful and entertaining to watch.

Is this small-ball, team approach to getting on base, advancing the runners, sacrificing, and scratching out runs more effective than the MLB approach of relying on the dinger? It was last night.


  1. Anonymous3/24/2009

    Interesting comments. I believe your favorite book, Moneyball, contends that “small ball” is statistically not the best approach. Of course, the book may have been referring to the regular season when we all know the formula must change once you reach the playoffs, world series and I presume the WBC final (see earlier blog titled ‘5 baffling sports-related questions’).

  2. au contraire....MoneyBall hypes on-base percentage as a lofty virtue and vilifies the strikeout as the most costly of all batting outcomes. Either way, perhaps a team of "MoneyBallers" could beat the Asians, my point was that a team of "sluggers" apparently cannot.

  3. Maybe "small ball' isn't entirely what you were talking about when describing the Asian's approach. I'm just saying that 'Moneyball' clearly rebukes the 'manufacturing runs' theory, particularly when it comes to sacrificing and hit-and-run plays. The book contends that the two most important stats are slugging percentage (helped immensely by homers) and on-base percentage (helped by walks). Thus the now ubiquitous OPS stat that did not appear on any of our 70's baseball cards. Of course, I only read the book once so I may not recall all the details.

  4. Baseball is boring. Period.