I love numbers. I’m not naive to argue that “numbers never lie,” but they, when properly used, can often strike down the evils of observational bias and provide some clear thinking based on actual facts. With that, let’s start a new series on these myths. Each article in the series might answer one myth or maybe two myths. Did I mention I started a new series? How professional is this shit?
1. Atlanta doesn’t make productive outs because of strikeouts.
A lot of the myths about the 2013 Braves stem from their frequency in strikeouts. The league average of all plate appearances ending in a strikeout is 20.1%. Atlanta has five starters above that mark along with often-used subs like Evan Gattis and Jordan Schafer. Atlanta has a whole strikes out 23.6% of the time, led by Dan Uggla’s staggering 34.3% of the time. To put that in more expressive terms…
DAN UGGLA STRIKES OUT A THIRD OF THE TIME!!!!!
Holy crap, that’s a lot. All those strikeouts must mean a lot of unproductive outs. Right? Well, considering this a “myth” column, I bet you know the answer. Baseball-reference tracks the statistic “Productive Outs” which goes a long way toward providing the evidence of the often talked about strategy. The number basically is found by adding up any of the following situations: Successful sacrifice for a pitcher with one out, advancing any runner with nobody out, or driving in a baserunner with the second out. Currently, the league average is in 32% of the situations, success is found. That runs in striking contrast to the mentality, perpetrated by probably 95% of baseball analysts, that making the productive out is the “easy” thing. To compare the league average, I picked three seasons from Atlanta Braves past (1985, 1995, 2005) to see, briefly, if there was any notable difference in the times. The league average for those three years were 34% success, 34% success, and 32% success in 2005. As the game has changed, the approach has altered, but only slightly. Someone with more time, resources, and a much better internet can do further research and my usage of the Productive Outs statistic is not to say it’s a perfect statistic, but it can help to tell a story.
If the league average is 32% this season, and the Atlanta Braves strike out a lot, and Harold Reynolds says that strikeouts are highly unproductive, the Atlanta Braves must be failing tremendously to even be league average. Mediocre. Run-of-the-mill.
Observational bias is inherent and we all suffer from it. It is almost impossible to approach everything in life without it. In arguments with our significant others, we often only recall the things that help our side, ignoring everything else.
But baseball doesn’t need to suffer from it with information so readily available. Again, the league average on productive outs is 32%. This number is pretty consistent with the last 18 years based on our sample. Atlanta is slightly below average in productive outs at 31%. However, if we just look at players who receive significant playing time, we come away with the conclusion that Atlanta, at worst, is at least average at the notion of productive outs. The trio of Andrelton Simmons, Dan Uggla, and Justin Uption have been successful in 35% or more of their productive outs opportunities. Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis are both slightly above league average, Ramiro Pena slightly below. Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, and B.J. Upton are both well below, especially the older Upton, who has only been successful in 3 of his 18 attempts. The sample size for all players is tremendously low, but it’s the closest thing we have to being able to quantify productive outs.
For what it’s worth, the 1985 Braves were successful in 31% of their opportunities, the World Series Champion 1995 Braves were successful in an abysmal 30% of their opportunities, and the 2005 Baby Braves were successful in 33% of their opportunities. Further observation seems to point to a small trend. Slap hitters are generally better at the successful productive outs, but that should be expected, though not just for the reason you expect. Mark Lemke was successful in 39% of his chances in 1995, but he was also 7 for 9 in sacrifice bunt attempts.
I hope you learned something. Productive outs are a key staple to the idea of small ball. Atlanta is not built for such a game, but they do an adequate job at successfully capitalizing on productive out opportunities, at least according to their peers.