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By The Numbers: Ned Yost

The offseason is miserable. No baseball? The worst.

For me, the winter is marked by milestones. A simple nod to the passage of time that pushes us ever closer to Opening Day. One of those events is the arrival of my Bill James Handbook. Longtime readers will be familiar with my notation of it hitting my bookshelf. It’s usually good for multiple posts when there’s absolutely no baseball. This offseason will be no different.

Those longtime readers will also note, one of my favorite things to do when I get the Handbook, is to flip to the managerial register. It’s always interesting to see how Ned Yost compares to his peers when it comes to strategy. Obviously, not all teams are created equal. You have your power hitting clubs, the speed rosters, and those who are fundamentally unsound.

Yost has developed a reputation (at least in my mind) of becoming what I like to term a “push-button manager.” His players have roles and the fill positions on the lineup card and it takes something catastrophic like an injury to force him to make a move. In 2015 he used 83 lineups, which is really kind of amazing. The only manager I could find in the Register (that covers current and recent managers) who consistently featured a more set lineup was Charlie Manual with the Phillies.

Last year, Yost filled out 108 different lineup cards. I suspect it was the injury problem on his roster that pushed him over 100. The AL manager with the fewest lineups was Terry Francona. Hmmm.

One thing where Yost has remained consistent is his aversion to the pinch hitter. He turned to his bench a total of 50 times last summer. I didn’t go through and check how many of those came in National League parks, but his total remained the lowest in the AL. Royals’ pinch hitters actually had a modicum of success. Collectively, they hit .267/.320/.356 with an sOPS+ of 110, ranking them fourth in the league.

An area where Yost has seen his strategy decline for the second consecutive year is his use of pinch runners. Much of that has to do with the absence of Billy Butler. And there was the fact Jarrod Dyson was usually already in the regular lineup. Yost called on a pinch runner 38 times last year, down from 40 the year prior. He led the league with pinch runners back in ’14 with 63.

A spot where Yost really changed his managerial modus operandi was with the sacrifice bunt. He had taken a little bit of misguided heat for having his players square around to bunt as the Royals started winning games,  but the numbers were usually easy to defend. The last couple of seasons, Yost and the Royals were around the league average in sacrifice bunt attempts. In other words, his reputation for loving the small ball was a little overblown while the Royals were winning their pennants.

No more.

Last summer, the Royals attempted to sacrifice 55 times. That’s tops in the AL by a wide margin. How wide? No other team attempted more than 47, and only two teams had more than 40.

Why? Why in the world did the Royals try to give away over two full games of outs to move a runner 90 feet?

Dyson, who should be better at bunting but is actually awful at it, attempted a team-high 15 sacrifice bunts. Alcides Escobar and Raul Mondesi had 13 and 12 attempts respectively. We know from past post-game press conferences that Yost allows his players to freelance on a frequent basis. So how many of those sacrifice attempts were called for from the dugout? Impossible to tell. I’ll fall back on an old argument that’s been relevant almost since day one of Yost’s managerial reign: If your players shouldn’t be doing something (like bunting in the first inning or bunting a runner to third with one out) tell them to knock it off. Hell, you should probably just go ahead and tell them not to bunt and remove it completely from the playbook. That would generally be fine.

Of course, the easy speculation is Yost and his Royals turned to the bunt when it became obvious this team would struggle to score runs. They averaged 4.2 R/G, which ranked 13th out of 15 teams, ahead of only Tampa and Oakland. That’s not company you want to keep if you think you can be successful. And Yost seems like the kind of manager who would try to “manufacture” runs when they’re hard to come by, ignoring the fact that to do so means giving up an out. The very thing a team having issues crossing the plate should not be doing.

Finally, how about Yost and his in-game strategy for his pitchers? Back in 2012, Yost led AL managers by issuing 44 intentional walks. Over the years that number has dropped. It hit an all-time low last summer with just eight free passes called for from the dugout. Eight. Obviously, you don’t see as many IBBs in the AL as you do in the NL, but just the same, I couldn’t find a manager who was at the helm for a full season who had an intentional walk number in the single digits. The AL average last year for IBBs was 22. The Royals issued eight. Good job, Yost.

One last number I’ll give you today and that’s zero. Nada. Zip. Zilch. That’s the number of pitchouts called by Yost in 2016. I guess when you have the golden arm of one Salvador Perez behind the plate, you don’t need to give yourself an advantage on a pitchout.

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3 comments on “By The Numbers: Ned Yost”

kcshankd

I’m fairly certain Yost crushed the league by putting his fourth or fifth best bullpen arm in the game in the most critical situation eleventy-seven times.

roarke

I wonder how many of those sacrifice bunt attempts were really bunt-for-a-hit attempts that turned into sacrifices when the hit didn’t work out. Given that bunting for a hit would seem to be a viable strategy for Dyson, Escobar, and Mondesi given their speed (if not their bunting ability), I wonder if the high number of bunt attempts wasn’t inflated by times when those three guys figured that they would go for a hit and if they failed, at least they’d move the runner.

MGL

I’ve said this a million (give or take about a million) times, but given that teams are generally very good now at positioning their infield optimally against a possible sac (or for a hit) bunt, it makes absolutely no difference whether any batter (who is a possible candidate for a bunt) bunts or not, according to game theory (which happens to be correct).

That being said, if a manager is bunting more or less than optimally from his perspective, it is possible that the defense is exploiting that. Hard to say. However, the optimal bunt percentages varies tremendously from team to team and player to player, based on the game situations they encounter, the pitchers they face, and most importantly, the speed and bunting ability of players, as well as their offensive prowess.

Bottom line is that we can’t tell anything from a team’s/manager’s bunt numbers, and most importantly, the notion that a “sac bunt is wrong because it gives away an out,” is an early sabermetric truism that has been debunked for 10 years now. Can we please bury it?

Just to explain why, one more time:

One, if the defense is playing anywhere near optimally, the win expectancy for any batter who is a potential bunter (some minimum level of bunt proficiency and speed and/or maximum level of offensive prowess given the game state) is exactly the same whether he bunts or swings away so a bunt attempt is neither right nor wrong.

Two, if the defense is NOT playing optimally, which the batter and manager should be able to see (although they can change at the last second), if the defense is playing too far back then the bunt attempt is correct (yields a higher WE than hitting away) and if the defense is playing too far in, then hitting away is correct.

So, as you can see in no case is the statement, “bunting is incorrect,” a correct one unless one and only one situation exists, which is when the defense is playing further in than game theory would dictate, and there is no particular reason for a defense to do that unless they know that the offense is going to bunt more often than game theory would dictate from their perspective (if they didn’t know where the defense was going to play), regardless of the fact that the defense was in fact playing “too far” up.

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