The Art of “Small Ball”

If you are a Nationals fan, you have to notice something different about this years team. Yes, Bryce Harper is not here. But if you look at this club more in depth, you can see it is not “just a new cast in this 2019 play.”

SportingCharts.com defines “Small Ball” as: An offensive baseball strategy that favors situational hitting and base running tactics over pure hitting in an effort to make efficient use of scoring opportunities in any given situation.

Personally, this is my favorite strategy in all of sports. I am a more strategic type of coach rather than a “set the lineup and release the hounds” type. As a Nationals fan, this is the first glimpse since the start of the Bryce era that we have had to follow the “small ball” model over the model of “get some guys on and let Harp crush a 450 foot mammoth shot to the upper deck.” In 2019, our lineup is focused more on batting average hitting rather than home run hitters.  Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton and company aren’t going to go out there and be the new Ken Griffey Jr. hitting over .300 with 30-40 homers every year. My gripe is more so with Davey Martinez than the players, but I do acknowledge that it isn’t all him and that the players have to execute as well.

With that in mind, “small ball” has to be executed with precision and accuracy. This is one reason, of the many, why I think Davey Martinez is getting criticized every day. To master this art, you have to set the tone in the clubhouse first and foremost. While Ben and I were coaching some rising High School players, everyday I emphasized two words: Responsibility and Accountability.

  • Be RESPONSIBLE for your job and what you need to do on the field.
  • Be ACCOUNTABLE for your mistakes.

Those two things are, what I think, most important in not only baseball, but any team game that deals with multiple pieces on the field at once (i.e. Football, Basketball, Soccer etc.). My biggest critique is the lack of energy and passion that has been set in the Nationals locker room thus far. There isn’t any fire on the bench to get guys amped up. We see errors, bad at-bats, and countless mistakes being made that you learn in Babe Ruth leagues. Not being able to lay a bunt down, striking out when you need to put the ball in play,  and bobbling routine grounders happens to professionals, but it seems like it happens more often than not with this ball club. We are 26th in Major League Baseball with 27 errors on the season. We have 12 in our last 10 games. There just isn’t any energy getting this team right or rejuvenating the passion on a nightly basis. We always have to understand that it’s a game and games are supposed to be fun, yet this team looks to be miserable at this point. The culture starts from the top and Martinez’ best friend type approach is starting to wear thin with each loss.

Strasburg speaking about the Nationals struggles

Next up, you have to manage each game with more strategy than just analytics. The “eye test” is so underrated in sports. You have a high baseball intelligence? Use it. For instance, you see Jeremy Hellickson out there with nine strikeouts in the 5th inning and a low pitch count, don’t take him out for a “lefty/lefty match up.” You have Brian Dozier get on base with Wilmer Difo batting (.232) up next, you bunt Dozier over getting him in scoring position allowing him to have a higher chance of scoring on a base hit. Most fans and on lookers would prefer you make a baseball decision rather than look at a booklet that says Difo has hit changeup’s well lately. We all want the same thing and that is to score runs. With a depleted lineup, you need to score a few runs and let your horses in the rotation bring it home. Putting excess pressure on Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin to always “great” and not just “solid,” is something you never want.

Davey Martinez

Lastly, you have to move runners “station to station” by singles and doubles, not home runs. You may get a long ball here and there, but when runners get on, you have to get base hits to move them around. Washington is in the bottom third of teams in the stats LOB (Left on Base) and Team RISP Average (Runners in Scoring Position). We are currently leaving over seven runners on base per game, while only hitting .246 with RISP. With that, you have to look at how you’re setting your lineup. Two guys that are performing horribly with runners in scoring position are Ryan Zimmerman (2 for 21 – .095) & Brian Dozier (2 for 17 – . 118). Notably, both of them are more known for power numbers instead of hitting for average and on-base percentage. Dozier has hit an average of 29.6 Home Runs per season dating back to 2014 with a career .323 OBP. Zimmerman has had five seasons with 25+ Home Runs and career .343 OBP. They are not made for small ball. Let’s look at their replacements stats.

First, Matt Adams is Zim’s replacement. Though his OBP isn’t that impressive, Adams proves himself with RISP (5 for 18 – . 278 – 11 RBI’s). For Dozier, Howie Kendrick is first man up. He is the prototypical small ball player. Kendrick is hitting (12 for 33 – .364 – 13 RBI’s) with runners on any base and (6 for 16 – .375 – .419 OBP) with RISP. Not to mention he gets on base at a .382 overall OBP which is top two on our team. Those numbers are considerably better and should show Martinez and coaches that to execute this strategy every night, you need to play the guys that fit the system more than ones that are getting paid more or have name recognition.

Howie Kendrick 2

To recap, this is what I believe Washington needs to do in order to succeed with this new squad:

  1. Set the tone in the clubhouse.
  2. Have a good balance of “eye test” and analytics.
  3. Produce a lineup that is more built for the type of baseball you play.

I was all for the Davey hire before the 2018 season. But the failure in the win column and lack of strategy almost every night has put my panic meter at a steep incline.

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