Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is Jim Riggleman a Small Ball Manager?

I get credit for resisting the temptation to write "Jim Riggleman's Small Balls," don't I? Oops, I guess I don't.

Anyway, Jim Riggleman vented on Charlie Slowes today about how unfair it is that anyone would ever call him a "small ball manager." Nevermind the MASN commercials that prompted Joe Posnanski to tear into Riggles as if he's the patron saint of small ball. Those ads are just PR, I'm sure Riggleman didn't write the script, and regardless he should be judged on what he does, not what he says in an ad.

So does Riggleman attempt sac bunts and/or stolen bases more than the average manager? Let's look at last year to try to get a bigger sample.

First, we can't just look at the raw number of sac bunts and steals. The Nationals had a .318 OBP, 13th in the NL. This year they are second to worst. That means more outs, fewer base runners and fewer opportunities to steal and sac bunt.

Here are all the teams in the NL sorted by the percentage of time they attempted a stolen base (SBA) in stolen base opportunities (SBO)--situations when there was a runner on first or second base with the next base open (I'm told these tables are not displaying right on Internet Explorer. You can try with another browser or click here.):
NYM 2219 174 7.84%
SDP 2227 174 7.81%
WSN 2205 151 6.85%
HOU 2166 136 6.28%
LAD 2283 142 6.22%
COL 2290 141 6.16%
CIN 2344 136 5.80%
PIT 2138 123 5.75%
LgAvg 2272 128 5.63%
PHI 2311 129 5.58%
ARI 2314 127 5.49%
FLA 2278 118 5.18%
STL 2328 120 5.15%
MIL 2396 107 4.47%
SFG 2211 87 3.93%
CHC 2246 86 3.83%
ATL 2403 92 3.83%
So Jim ran quite a bit more than average. But he can still make the argument that he ran more because he had players who ran well. That's fair to an extent. Here's the success rate of those same NL teams in 2010:
Tm SB%
PHI 84%
FLA 78%
MIL 76%
NYM 75%
HOU 74%
WSN 73%
SDP 71%
PIT 71%
LgAvg 71%
COL 70%
CIN 68%
ARI 68%
ATL 68%
STL 66%
LAD 65%
CHC 64%
SFG 63%
The Nationals were in fact a bit better than average, and considering they ran so much, that's reasonable evidence that Jim was in fact playing to his team's strengths.

My quibble would be that so many of the steal attempts were Nyjer Morgan batting lead-off and attempting to steal with power hitters like Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, and Josh Willingham due up. First base is scoring position if Dunn hits it in the upper deck, and yet Morgan led the league with 17 caught stealings. That's the opposite of playing to a team's strength.

What about sac bunts? Again, looking at the raw number of sacs doesn't tell us much. We need to look at how often Riggleman bunted given the situations. Unfortunately, I don't have the raw data to run my own SQL queries, and I don't know of anywhere to get that info publicly, so I'm going to do a little workaround to try to get close by simply taking the stolen base opportunities referenced above (from Baseball Reference) and assume that 2/3 of these opportunities occurred with fewer than two outs. That's obviously introducing a margin of error, but so be it.

Running those numbers, here's what we get:
Tm Sac Opps Sacs Sac Att %
WSN 1470 118 8.03%
LAD 1522 122 8.02%
SDP 1485 111 7.48%
NYM 1479 109 7.37%
SFG 1474 106 7.19%
HOU 1444 101 7.00%
CIN 1563 100 6.40%
PIT 1425 91 6.39%
LgAvg 1515 93 6.14%
STL 1552 95 6.12%
ATL 1602 98 6.12%
CHC 1497 87 5.81%
COL 1527 83 5.44%
FLA 1519 75 4.94%
PHI 1541 70 4.54%
MIL 1597 62 3.88%
ARI 1543 53 3.44%
Lo and behold, no manager in the NL jumped on sac bunt opportunities more often than Riggleman. What about the "playing to my players' strengths" argument? Is it possible that Jim was simply asking his players to do something they were particularly good at? Here's the sac bunt success rate of each NL team last year:
Tm Success %
ARI 77%
HOU 74%
SFG 72%
SDP 71%
LAD 70%
ATL 70%
STL 69%
CHC 69%
NYM 68%
LgAvg 68%
FLA 68%
COL 67%
CIN 66%
PIT 64%
PHI 63%
WSN 60%
MIL 56%
Ruh-roh. That's not good, though in fairness if his guys couldn't bunt they probably couldn't hit away either, so we probably shouldn't make too much of this number.

Playing small ball doesn't make you a bad manager. The sacrifice isn't always a bad play, and we'd have to dig a lot deeper into the numbers to decide whether Riggleman is using the tactic well or not. The stolen base is a good play if you are successful about 72% of the time or more, and the Nationals were (barely). But the evidence shows that at least in 2010, Jim Riggleman was absolutely a small ball manager, and to argue otherwise is kinda silly.


Basil said...

In his "Guide to Managers" book, Bill James tried to develop a "manager's baseball card" of sorts that would include info on a manager's strategic tendencies. The book included data through the '96 season, so it had four seasons of data for Riggleman (with two teams). My copy of the book was consigned by the better half to an undisclosed location deep inside the attic, but my _recollection_ is that Riggleman displayed "small ball" tendencies back then.

Section 222 said...

At least on my screen, the team names, including the Nationals, aren't showing up in your tables.

I suppose any analysis of whether someone is an overly small ball manager would have to take account of the situtaions where a sacrifice bunt is called. Big difference between asking the pitcher to sacrifice with guys on first and second with no outs and and asking your cleanup hitter to do so. The first is an obvious move, the second is very questionable unless you're in a 1 run game in the 9th inning.

Steven said...

That's odd. I checked it in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari and it's showing up ok. What browser are you on?

Section 222 said...

Sadly I'm in Internet Explorer, the only authorized browser on my work computer. I'll have a look at home. Thanks.

And thanks for the link to the Posnanski piece on smart ball. Outstanding!

Basil said...

I'm having the same problem, but I assumed that this was due to my IE browser at work being older than Matt Stairs.

Harper said...

Riggleman seems to think that "small ball" means running and bunting with guys that shouldn't do those things. Like there's a manager out there that would ask Adam Dunn to sac or Ramos to try to steal a base. He has tendencies. Fans know it. You show it. Better for him to accept it and say "It's not small ball that's killing this team" than try to fight it.