‘Small-ball’ and the Evolution of Offense

Taking a look back at baseball a quarter century ago, during the 1985 I-70 World Series review, sparked interest for a more in-depth historical look at managerial strategies. Whitey Herzog, former Royals and Cardinals Manager, utilized some of the classic “small-ball” tactics to create runs with an offense lacking power. Herzog’s version of small-ball quickly gained traction as “Whitey-ball.”

“Whitey-ball” was an adaptation of the way the game used to be played for a more current baseball climate. True ‘small-ball’ hasn’t been seen on a Major League level in nearly 90 years.

Small-ball was once the standard play. Home runs and batting averages were at all time lows during the turn of the 20th Century. This forced managers to employ other tactics to score runs, teams relied more on stolen bases and sacrifice bunts.

The strategy places a high value on methodically scoring individual runs, rather than waiting for ‘the big inning.’ Teams rely more on walks, sacrifice flies, hit and runs, and aggressive base running than extra base hits. These types of weapons helped prevent teams from grounding into double plays.

‘Small-ball’ was best suited for teams like the 1917 Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox totaled 310 sacrifice hits in 1917, the most in MLB history. They also swiped 105 bags, while walking 466 times, good enough for a .314 OBP. Boston manufactured 556 runs on only 14 home runs.

A few years after the 1917 season, the way the game was played began to change. League officials outlawed pitches like the spitball, and equipment continued to evolve. A new cork centered baseball was introduced. One of the biggest influences on the shift away from ‘small-ball’ was actually a member of the 1917 Red Sox. At the time he was a southpaw hurler for Boston, later Babe Ruth would help usher in a new approach many hitters would come to envy.

With enhanced baseballs and the introduction of the slugger, baseball quickly forgot about ‘small-ball.’ The power players like Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenburg, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams made the base-to-base operations of baseball obsolete. By 1950, the game had evolved so much the AL Leader in stolen bases was Dom DiMaggio, with only 15.

Since the early days of baseball, ‘small-ball’ is seen less as a standard of play, and more of a tool to be utilized in specialized situations. Currently, you won’t see many sacrifice bunts outside of pitchers and tight, late-innings scenarios. A few sharp edged managers over time have found it useful after evaluating their roster’s talents.

Paul Richards took over the Chicago White Sox in 1951. He recognized the lack of power within the organization and implemented an offensive strategy similar to ‘small-ball.’ Richards was dismissed in 1954, but built the foundation of the team later known as the ‘Go-Go Sox.’ The Sox eventually took home the 1959 AL Pennant, going 94-60. In the 1959 season, Chicago had 84 SH, 113 SB, 580 BB, 669 R, and 97 HR.

A decade later, Earl Weaver changed the MLB landscape drastically. 1969 marked the first of three consecutive AL Pennant’s for Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles. Weaver was one of the first managers to exploit matchups based on splits and head to head statistics. The St. Louis, Missouri, native was best known for his on field tirades and his new wave philosophy on the field, “The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three run homers.”

Weaver led the likes of Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Boog Powell, to a 1970 World Series Championship over the Cincinnati Reds in five games. The O’s had 64 SH, 84 SB, 717 BB, clubbed 179 HR, good enough for 792 runs and a 108-54 record.

“On offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs,” said the Hall of Famer.

‘Small-ball’ was largely overlooked, especially in the American League, until Whitey Herzog displayed the first versions of ‘Whitey-ball’ in Kansas City. The Hall of Famer led the Royals to three division titles and a 410-304 record in his five seasons with the Royals. The differences between the 70’s Herzog offense and the 1985 World Series Championship offense are clear.

1976 – 71 SH, 218 SB, 484 BB, 65 HR, 713 R, .327 OBP, 103 GDP

1985 – 41 SH, 128 SB, 473 BB, 154 HR, 687 R, .313 OBP, 125 GDP

The Herzog driven offense had 30 more sacrifices and swiped almost 100 more bags. The ’76 Royals hit 89 less home runs, while scoring 26 more runs, grounding into 22 less double plays. Looking at the numbers Herzog implemented an offense which hit on all the major facets of ‘small-ball.’ The bottom line, the ’76 Royals lost in the ALCS, while the ’85 Royals brought it all home.

Herzog’s strategies evolved while managing the Cardinals, ‘Whitey-ball’ worked well enough for three pennants and a World Series victory in his 11 year tenure with St. Louis.

One of his most successful years happened to be 1985. Herzog’s methods were well documented in Missouri by the time of the I-70 Series, but new talent enhanced ‘Whitey-ball.’ The Cards had five players with over 30 swipes, headlined by NL Rookie of the Year, Vince Coleman’s 110. St. Louis amassed 314 stolen bases, while sacrificing 70 times. The Cardinals scored 747 runs on the strength of only 87 homers and 586 walks. They combined for a .335 OBP, while grounding into only 91 double plays.

While Herzog was in the infancy of building his stolen base machine, the 1976 Oakland A’s had already perfected it. The ’76 A’s stole a MLB record 341 bags. The A’s had 58 SH, 592 BB, 686 R, 113 HR, .323 OBP, and 91 GDP. They finished 87-74, good enough for second in the division in Chuck Tanner’s only year in Oakland. The second place finish ended the run of five consecutive division championships by a much more power packed A’s squad.

Since ‘Whitey-ball’ ended, the game has continued to evolve further away from its ‘small-ball’ roots. The 2005 Rangers perfectly portray how offenses have changed. The Rangers only sacrificed nine times, along with only 32 sac flies. Texas stole only 67 times, but mashed 260 dingers in route to scoring 865 runs. Despite the power display, the Rangers finished 3rd in the AL West.

Many different things have contributed to the death of ‘small-ball.’ It began with the introduction of new equipment, fresh sluggers continued the trend, but one of the biggest blows to the philosophy came with the introduction of Sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics proved factual evidence on the basis of Weaver’s earlier sentiments, outs were precious. It started to seem clear giving up an out to advance a runner wasn’t worth it. The average number of runs scored in major league games in 1999-2002 when there were no outs and a runner on first was .953 runs. The average number of runs scored when there was one out and a runner on second was .725 runs.

The owners realized the shift in baseball philosophies as well; naturally they found ways to profit. Owners noticed fans loved the long ball; often their favorite players were the ones who could hit it furthest. Owner’s started seeking sluggers and shortened fences to entice fans to come to the park.

Most recently, the use of performance enhancing drugs has had an obvious effect on the reliance of home runs.

Many team officials are now starting to value the defensive side of the ball, as well. One of the best defenses to a ‘small-ball’ offense is being able to throw out runners and field the ball cleanly. Currently all signs in baseball continue to devalue ‘small-ball.’

The flashes we see in today’s game of ‘small-ball’ usually are created upon individual talent. Many of the high stolen base numbers aren’t necessarily due to philosophy, but having a quality base stealer on the squad. When the two are combined they tend to feed off each other, like Coleman in 1985.

It’s interesting to look at how the various teams over time have had success through completely different methods. All have various levels of ‘small-ball’ intertwined, but the basis of offensive methods can be easily seen in statistics.

Now, ‘small-ball’ has been dissected into several different parts. Mangers have adapted a strategy to achieve the most out of a roster’s talents. A team may be successful at a part of ‘small-ball,’ while not utilizing other aspects. The ’76 A’s had more stolen bases than any other team, but still relied on the home run and didn’t sacrifice very often.

This is the type of ‘small-ball’ we are currently accustomed too. ‘Small-ball’ is considered one of the most pure ways to play the game, most likely because of its deep roots in the histories game. It’s intriguing to think what a game with today’s players would have looked like during the true ‘small-ball’ era of the early 20th Century.

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