With all of the amazing new technology giving us all kinds of amazing new stats and billions of new data points with which to analyze every.possible.thing. on the field, I'd like to take a moment to take a closer look at some areas of analysis that don't get a lot of attention - yet I think do a very good job in helping us evaluate team play. Old(er) school stuff, but Old School stuff that has stuck around through many - many - years because it reflects a certain style of play that leads to winning baseball. I speak, of course, about manufactured runs, productive outs - preventing those two things - and good baserunning.
And I wanted to post while we're still in Cleveland, because this is the home of the manager who perhaps does the best job of squeezing the most out of a small market, limited payroll team, year after year.
I remember thinking when the Indians hired Terry Francona before the 2013 season that he was one of those "difference-making" managers in the game - a guy who just had a unique ability to connect with players so he can get the most out of them, while making sure they play the game the right way. But it was kind of a feel thing - it's always hard to measure what impact a manager has on a team in any given year.
But it wasn't until the Tigers started playing a Francona-managed team 19 times a season that I started taking a closer look at the why part of the equation. Why do Indians teams under Francona always seem end up a little better than expected? Why does the whole always seems to be greater than the sum of their parts? Sure, they won 94 games and got to the World Series in 2016, and were expected to be good in 2017. But they won 102 games - 22 straight at one point - and outscored their opponents by 254 runs. Don't think anyone saw that coming.
The Indians under Terry Francona excel at run prevention. Year after year, they allow fewer runs than league average - and last year they lapped the field. Run prevention is about good pitching, of course, but it combines that good pitching with good team defense, and a certain mindset that every 90 feet matters. A mindset that says you will not give bases away - and you're going to push to gain an extra 90 feet whenever you can.
So - why are the Indians so good at run prevention? I think part of the answer - the secret sauce, if you will - lies in the pages of the Bill James Handbook. Like many of you, I get the Handbook each November....as soon as it arrives, my wife Lori Anne knows I'll be useless for the next several days as I dive into its 600-plus pages like a kid on Christmas Day. Every year, the Handbook devotes several pages to a breakdown of each team's manufactured runs and productive outs, and each teams' ability to prevent the same. And for many years, this was a section I simply skipped right over. But each year, there it was again. The Handbook was the only place I'd seen that tracked this stuff, and the fact that the good folks at Baseball Info Solutions kept including it made me think - hey - if Bill wants this in there year after year, maybe I should at least take a closer look and see why.
And on closer inspection, you couldn't help but notice - year after year - there were the Indians, consistently among the league leaders in the four categories - Manufactured Runs, Manufactured Runs Allowed, Productive Outs and Productive Outs Against (see note at bottom for definitions). They drop on and off the leaderboards for manufactured runs and for making productive outs - but they are always Top 3 in preventing opponents from doing those things. And that's a reflection of the philosophy of paying attention to every 90 feet - making sure you're taking every extra base you can while preventing other teams from doing the same. I asked Francona about this one day a couple of years ago - and he smiled and said something to the effect of - "we're a small market team, we have to play that way if we want to win."
What it adds up to is run prevention - combining all elements of pitching and defense to give you the best chance to outscore your opponents by enough runs to get you to the postseason. And boy, have the Indians been good at run prevention under Francona. In the four years before Francona arrived, the Indians allowed an average of 805 runs each season. They won more than 70 games once. Since he took over in 2013, the Indians have allowed an average of 639 runs each season, 69 runs better than league average, and have had a winning record each year. Last year, the Indians gave up just 564 runs - 100 runs better than the next-best team (Yankees), and almost 200 runs better than the league average of 756 runs.
And it's not just the Indians - the four leaderboards last year were filled with playoff teams. I know there are more than a few people who are pretty adept at analyzing things who recoil at the concept of a Productive Out being a good thing. But look at the analytically-inclined teams who clearly feel an offense that can score runs in different ways is a good thing. The Astros went from not caring about how many times their hitters struck out to making roster changes that took them - in one year - from being the second-easiest team to strike out to the toughest team to strike out. They went from 8th to 1st in runs. Yes, they could bomb the ball, but they were also 2nd in manufacturing runs and 2nd in making productive outs. They could beat you many different ways. Minnesota's big improvement last year could be directly tied to better team defense, and a much-improved offense - the best in baseball in the second half. The Twins finished in the Top 5 in manufactured runs and productive outs.
This is one of many reasons I was so excited when the Tigers hired Ron Gardenhire. His Twins teams played the game a certain way - and he always got the most out of a small market, low payroll team. And his beliefs about how to play the game are already having an impact - it's noticeable through eleven games. And the longer he's here, the more it will just be ingrained in each player's DNA.
Whatever the win total is this year - just think about how refreshing it will be to see the Tigers play a better brand of baseball. Because in many ways, the brand hasn't been great in recent years:
- by defensive runs saved, the Tigers have been a terrible defensive team for five of the last six seasons - five times finishing 13th, 14th or last in the AL in runs "saved."
-their baserunning is consistently awful. By the Bill James Handbook method of measuring team baserunning, the Tigers are 366 bases below-average the last seven years. Three hundred and sixty-six. Does this Tigers roster have great team speed? I wouldn't say great - but there's enough speed. And they're already proving that by paying attention and picking your spots, you can take that extra 90 feet with regularity - and force teams into mistakes by being aggressive.
I have always loved the numbers that go along with baseball. It's what helped suck me into the game as a kid (true story, as I date myself: I loved figuring out how to calculate ERA on my slide rule. You youngsters will have to look that one up). I love the advanced stats - and reading all the good stuff from writers who are helping us figure out how to best use those stats. But sometimes, it's the more traditional - or less talked about - stats that can really be illuminating.
All managers talk about playing the game the right way and paying attention to detail. I just think some are better at making sure their players embrace those concepts, and then play a certain way. And it shows up in areas that may not get talked about a lot, but end up making a big difference by the end of a 162 game schedule. With the explosion in data, every team is diving deep to try and figure out how best to use that data to win more games. And the advance in analytics can absolutely help teams gain an edge in their day-to-day preparation. But I think the best managers and teams realize that it all starts with a certain mindset about how you play the game. And that certain beliefs about how to play the game are unchanged through the years - because they lead to winning baseball. Terry Francona has proved that in Cleveland, and I think Ron Gardenhire will do the same in Detroit.
Note: The Bill James Handbook defines a manufactured run as: 1) any run that scores without benefit of a hit, or where the only hits are infield hits, 2) a run that scores if two of the four bases don't result from the runner being move along by a walk, HBP, or hit that leaves the infield, or 3) a run that scores on a double or triple can be a manufactured run if two of the four bases result from advancing by a Sac bunt, SB, hit and run or bunt single.
A Productive Out is simply any out that moves a baserunner at least one base.