Old Time Hockey

Jeff · February 4, 2005 at 2:28 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Before the final game the Charlestown Chiefs play in “Slap Shot,” Paul Newman’s Reg Dunlop tells his thuggish players that he wants to change. To go out clean. Reg instructs his top goons, the bespectacled Hanson Brothers, to quit fighting and instead play “old time hockey,” like greats Toe Blake, Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore.

But their opponents are a squad of ringers, tough guys who whallop the Chiefs into submission — until Regs takes the shackles off the Hansons, that is.

The Mariners shouldn’t try to go all Hanson Brothers on other teams — no, not even A-Rod and the Yankees — but neither should they uncritically accept traditional strategy if it alters what certain players do best. Yet in two stories today, Jim Street rings the bell for “quality” or “productive” outs. Excerpts:

New batting coach Don Baylor has the task of getting the hitters to buy into the “quality out” theory, advancing runners and driving them in from third base with less than two outs. Seattle’s situational hitting in ’04 was lackluster and was a huge factor in the team finishing last in the league in runs scored.

Another area that must be shored up is situational hitting. The Mariners were last in runs scored, but fifth in hits last season.

I would say something about how frustrated I’m going to be the first time Richie Sexson is instructed to dribble a grounder to the right side with Ichiro on second, but instead I’ll just hope there is no first time that happens.

Derek and others have rebutted the productive out theory in depth, but I’m a simple man. Simple like William of Occam, who said that correct explanations are usually the ones that require the fewest moving parts. Adding elements — “we got a lot of runners to first base, so why didn’t we score? Perhaps we didn’t sacrifice enough, or make wide enough turns …” — just obfuscates.

How’s this for simple: that run-scoring problem happened because the 2004 team hit a lot of singles. If the team had hit more doubles, triples, and home runs, runners would have had a better chance of scoring without giving up outs — items which, when given up in quantities equal to 27, end games.

Maybe this whole “last in runs scored, fifth in hits” deal has to do with a lack of productive outs after the hits, like Jim Street says. Or maybe it has to do with the absence of aggressive baserunning, as Mike Hargrove implies later in the article.

If you’re looking for the most likely explanation, though, the fact that the Mariners were last in the AL in team slugging percentage seems compelling to me. That’s why it was a fine idea to bring in talents that specialize in the long hit.

So should Don Baylor stress so-called “productive” outs? No. The all-time leader in getting hit by pitches would have better luck teaching players to lean into offerings, especially if Willie Bloomquist is still on the roster. It might hurt, but it doesn’t advance the out clock any closer to midnight.

Hitters, like folks in any other profession, ought to use the top skills they possess. Asking Sexson, Adrian Beltre or Bucky Jacobsen to refrain from hitting the ball a country mile is like trying to make the Hanson Brothers stop putting on the foil before games.


29 Responses to “Old Time Hockey”

  1. Bill Fugazi on February 4th, 2005 2:56 pm

    Nice peice. I’ve always failed to see the reason behind giving up 1/27th of your game for anything less than a win or a game-saving tie.

  2. wabbles on February 4th, 2005 3:05 pm

    Interesting. I remember during the team’s comeback from the dark years of 1998-99, there was a lot of talk about “speed never slumps.” Thus began our migration toward “small ball” and away from the Griffey-Buhner-Martinez three-run-homer model.
    The reasoning made sense to me at the time: In a pennant race, in the playoffs, in the World Series, you might only get a walk or a single or an error off a Roger Clemens-type pitcher. So you gotta steal second, advance the runner on a out and bring him home on another out.
    Against a Clemens-type pitcher, that might be the only baserunner you get. If you can homer off him, there sure ain’t going to be two other runners on base at the time. (All this is predicated, of course, on a pitching staff that also gives up few runs.)
    I think the problem was when we took this model to the extreme. We beat the Yankees 2-0 in Game One of the 2000 ALCS. We were leading Game Two by a similar score when everything fell apart in the late innings and suddenly we were down 3-1.
    (I don’t know what our team slugging percentage was during that era, somebody here probably does. By the way, Gillick spent the next two years 2002-3 saying we needed one more bat and one more arm but found neither.)
    My concern in returning to the Griffey-Buhner-Martinez model is that when we face the really good pitchers, they will shut us down entirely, like the 1997 Division Series against the Orioles.
    Not giving away outs, especially in the American League, has merit.
    I guess I just hope we can find a happy medium between the 1993-99 approach and the 2000 approach. Of course, given our pitching, we might need to score a lot of runs this year anyway.
    (In case anyone mentions 2001, that year we hit something like only 169 homers. The reason we scored a lot was unbelieveable — and probably not to be duplicated — situational hitting. Remember “Two Outs? So What?”)

  3. msb on February 4th, 2005 3:07 pm

    I know Baylor talked a lot about situational hitting when he was hired, but IIRC, when Hargrove was discussing such things at Fanfest he impled he was going to use the ‘right’ person to do such things, not wasting the big guns on it…

  4. PositivePaul on February 4th, 2005 3:11 pm

    I trust Hargrove’s statements a little more than I do Street’s, but have been converted to the Moneyball principle that outs are very precious, and not to be cheaply used.

    FWIW — although Beltre and Sexson are not exactly Ferraris on the basepaths, I don’t think they’re the AMC Pacers that Edgar and Olerud were last season. As much as I love Edgar, he sure was the only guy I knew that could consistently turn a sure-fire double into a single. Olerud was a close second. I think that’s more along the lines of what Hargrove is talking about.

    Throw in Reese, Olivo and Reed over Wilson, Aurilia, and Spiezio, and there’s more flexibility on the basepaths. It appears to me that the M’s have built a fairly well-balanced offensive team, with some speed, some power, and some contact hitters. It should be a fun combination!

  5. Jeff Sullivan on February 4th, 2005 3:25 pm

    I think you pretty much nailed it.

    The team sucked at situational hitting because it sucked at regular hitting. There’s not really any way around that.

  6. Jim Thomsen on February 4th, 2005 3:30 pm

    Another way to boil this to its essence is to say: “If you unintentionally give up too many outs to begin with, why would you want to intentionally give away more?” Bob Melvin’s 2004 Mariners are a textbook case in point that it just doesn’t work.

    This must be one area in which sabe-heads shake their heads in bitter frustration. Unimpeachable research has been done proving up one side and down the other than sacrifice hitting just doesn’t buy back as much as it proposes to give up. And yet we have to listen to crap like this by supposedly bright baseball men. I know it doesn’t mean much for a doofus like me to say “Don Baylor doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about” … and yet, what other conclusion can one draw? You don’t take the bat out of the hands of men who know how to get on base. The other team might choose to, via the intentional walk, but don’t defeat that possibility in the service of a theory that has proven on its face to be utterly false.

  7. Aaron on February 4th, 2005 3:40 pm

    Maybe someone should show the team how well (TB+BB+HBP+IBB)/4 relates to Runs scored (no, it’s not perfect by any means, but the two lines stay close). I’d bet that if you took the teams near the top of the “Productive Out” “leaderboard” every year, they’d be fairly consistantly scoring below the curve, while those that swing away score above it.

  8. Troy on February 4th, 2005 3:57 pm

    I doubt those that lead in Productive Outs would necessarily be below the curve, since it logically follows that teams that have a high OBP are going to make more “Productive Outs” than teams who have a low OBP. (You can’t move a runner with a ground ball to the right side if there’s nobody on). That doesn’t mean those outs are really productive, or that anywhere near a quarter of them are intentional, but I would reason that it’s not rare for a team with a lot of productive outs to be a fairly high scoring team.

    Aaron’s point, though, is well taken – productive outs do not help you score more runs, they hurt your chances to score runs. Hopefully our hitters are smart enough not to listen to Baylor’s old-school BS.

  9. AK1984 on February 4th, 2005 4:06 pm

    Don Baylor is one of the worst coaches in baseball. The worst thing he did, though, was during his time as manager of the Colorado Rockies, when he totally destroyed the arms of many young pitchers; he doesn’t understand the importance of one’s pitch count or stress level. Hopefully, Baylor will suffer the same fate as the M’s last several hitting coaches, and will be nothin’ more than a “one & done” kind of guy. (And you all thought I was jus’ a blathering idiot who promotes nostalgia…)

  10. Elliott on February 4th, 2005 4:09 pm

    Along the same lines, Finnigan on Jacobsen in the Times spring training Q&A:

    Finny: At this point, chances seem better that he’ll start the season in Tacoma because he’s coming off what turned out to be major knee surgery. The word is that he’s rehabbing hard and well. Beyond that, there’s his fit on the roster. His forte is the two- or three-run homer, but whether manager Mike Hargrove has room for that remains to be seen.

    It remains to be seen whether Hargrove has room for the two- or three-run homer?

  11. Dirk on February 4th, 2005 4:14 pm

    #10 — Not to mention — what skill is it, precisely, to hit two- or three- run homers as opposed to grand slams or solo homers?

  12. Ralph Malph on February 4th, 2005 4:32 pm

    The M’s were last in HR’s, last in SLG, 10th in OBP, 12th in 2B’s, 11th in 3B’s, 11th in BB’s.

    But hey! how about some good news! They were 4th in SB, 7th in Sacrifices, 6th in SF and 3rd in SB%. Which doesn’t sound like a team that was bad at situational hitting and baserunning.

    The M’s were 11th in BA with RISP. As compared to 6th in BA overall. They batted .270 as a team and .263 with RISP.

    But it seems glaringly obvious from the numbers above that their main problem in 2004 wasn’t a lack of situational hitting, it was a lack of extra-base power and walks. Maybe they should spend time lifting weights, not practicing big turns at first.

  13. Flavor Flav on February 4th, 2005 4:33 pm

    I don’t know. You can come up with all these complicated theories or even less complicated theories as to why there are no productive outs but many years of watching Mike Cameron strike out looking with a man on third and 1 out really makes me wonder. Oh the timeless questions of baseball never cease. Every night and every morn into the world a baseball statistician is born.

  14. Ralph Malph on February 4th, 2005 4:34 pm

    What does the fact that he ruined young arms in Colorado have to do with whether Baylor will be a good batting coach?

    And as a Mariner fan, why would you hope he’d fail as batting coach? Wouldn’t you rather have him succeed — meaning that the team hit well?

  15. Jeff Sullivan on February 4th, 2005 4:40 pm

    Re: #13

    You know how many times Mike Cameron has struck out with a man on third and fewer than two outs?

    68 times. In 8+ career seasons.

    Given that he’s hit .324/.382/.516 in that situation, I don’t see how anyone can complain.

  16. Smith on February 4th, 2005 4:41 pm

    #11 – Numb chuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills

  17. stiletto on February 4th, 2005 4:41 pm

    agreed Ralph,
    I may not like Baylor either, but I’m rooting for him to get a raise after the team hits, oh, .292

    I just may learn to like him. GO DON!!

  18. Evan on February 4th, 2005 4:44 pm

    That the M’s were 5th in hits, but last in runs, is just a data point that says there’s not much correlation between hits and runs. There’s no disconnect. There’s no dichotomy. The two just don’t have much to do with one another.

    First of all, the M’s were actually sixth in hits in the AL in 2004. Lo and behold, we were also sixth in batting average (tied with Oakland). Gee, didn’t we already know that batting average wasn’t a good indicator of offensive performance? Sixth in hits, 12th in doubles, 10th in triples, last in HRs, 11th in total bases.

    And, looking at productive outs, we were sixth in sac flies. That’s right in line with our hit performance. If we were already sixth in hits and sac flies, but still last in runs, isn’t that yet more evidence that hits and outs shouldn’t really be your goals?

    We were 10th in OBP. We were last in SLG (one of only two teams to SLG under .400). Hey, guess which team led the AL in both OBP and SLG… The world champion Boston Red Sox.

  19. Flavor Flav on February 4th, 2005 4:58 pm

    #15 I guess your right the numbers don’t lie. I guess I just had a bias against seeing him striking out looking a few times in that situation that fixed into my subconscious and blew up my perception of him as a clutch hitter.

  20. McExpos on February 4th, 2005 5:01 pm

    I’ve heard before that one of the reasons people love baseball is that it is a game without a clock: you play until you win (or lose). Well, that’s not entirely true. You have 27 outs, 27 marks on the scoreboard, and if your team is behind when all of those outs are used up, then you lose the game. Like it has been said before, you should fight with everything you’ve got against losing a single one of those. Intentionally giving up an out just on the chance that you MIGHT score a run is like playing Russian roulette with an automatic handgun.

    This is really more of an anecdote than a groundbreaking statistical theory, but what if they didn’t have a clock in basketball? What if instead you lost time for every shot you missed? Do you think that NBA coaches would let their guys go out and have 7-21 shooting nights? No, they’d make sure that their guys had the best possible look when they shot. I think that aiming for “productive outs” is like taking a poor shot just hoping that someone will get the rebound and put it in.

    I don’t know why I put that there, I don’t even care that much for basketball.

  21. Lou on February 4th, 2005 5:35 pm

    #18 There’s not much correlation between hits and runs? The two have nothing to do with each other?
    Hmmm, how do you score runs then?

  22. Bill Fugazi on February 4th, 2005 5:36 pm

    I think that aiming for “productive outs” is like taking a poor shot just hoping that someone will get the rebound and put it in.

    Maybe it’d be more like bouncing the ball off the backboard hoping for an alley-oop.

  23. Paul Covert on February 4th, 2005 5:49 pm

    Re. #15 and #19: That, I think, is exactly why sabermetrics is so controversial: It doesn’t believe in trusting anecdotal evidence, on which the vast majority of baseball’s conventional wisdom is built, both among insiders and among casual fans.

    In the late 90’s I used to room with a guy who, on several occasions when we had a game on and Dan Wilson came up with somebody on base, said, “Good old Dan Wilson… he always seems to come through in the clutch.” Which, as far as I could tell, meant that he’d seen two or three times where Dan got key hits, and so Dan was fixed in his memory as a clutch hitter forevermore.

    In one of the old Abstracts, Bill James noted that “hitters are judged on results; fielders are judged on form”– that lots of people judge fielders on the basis of “one time he made a play where…”, but nobody judges hitters by “one time he hit a ball so far that….”

    This was mostly correct, of course; but perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that fielding, like clutch hitting (or pitching), is judged by memories; that where there isn’t a clearly established systematic way of counting something (because we can’t define a “clutch” situation, or because we can’t define how many plays a fielder “should” have made), there’s nothing to override the selective memories that anyone happens to hold. And many people seem to find these opinions comforting, and therefore resist anything that threatens them.

    …And now I suppose I should avoid the guilt of thread-hijacking by tying this back to the Productive Outs vs. Old-Time Hockey issue! On that one, let me just say that, even though Olney and friends are indeed collecting a systematically accumulated statistic, the claimed importance of it rests on the same selective-memory foundation as do clutch-hitting theory and certain fielders’ reputations. If you’ve been taught all your life that hitting grounders to advance the runner is the (morally?) “right” way to play the game, then you’ll find it easy to remember times when a “productive out” helped your team. It will be harder to remember times when a “productive out” cost you a run (e.g. when the next inning’s leadoff man got a hit, but nobody was on base because you made too many outs the previous time up). And so the theory perpetuates itself, regardless of the underlying reality.

  24. John Hawkins on February 4th, 2005 7:00 pm

    Making a productive out is sort of like walking away from a car crash. It could’ve been worse, but you’re not supposed to crash in the first place.

  25. Shoeless Jose on February 5th, 2005 1:15 am

    Off topic, sort of, but hey you brought it up: if you have a vaguely warm but distant memory of “Slapshot” do yourself a favor and go out and rent the 25th anniversary edition DVD (Scarecrow has it if you can’t find it elsewhere). The commentary track — by the Hanson brothers, who else? — is absolutely hilarious. They comment on the 70s fashions, various people’s hairstyles, tell hockey stories that put the film to shame, and describe all the real incidents that were the basis for all the best bits in the movie. I have never enjoyed a commentary track so much, not even the one on Spinal Tap.

    Oh, and they were indeed banned from putting foil on their knuckles. So they started using leather golf gloves that they soak and froze. Of course that meant they had to pick their fights in the first period before they warmed up and got soft….

  26. damienroc on February 5th, 2005 8:40 am

    Fun stuff: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/stats/productive.

    Also, a small point about last year. Ichiro accounted for about 17% of all M’s hits. About 1 in 6. This is a huge disparity, as the only other player on the team who even topped 10% of the team’s hits was Randy Winn. Since Ichiro can’t move himself along, and since he hits singles, it’s not likely he’s going to score much despite the relatively good showing of the team overall.

  27. jim on February 5th, 2005 2:08 pm

    #15 misses the point. The Mariners needed a hero to carry the team in August and September 2003 and Cameron didn’t produce. He seemed pitiful and clueless at the plate in the critical stretch run.

  28. eponymous coward on February 5th, 2005 4:32 pm

    So obviously, the solution was to dump him and make sure there was no stretch run by putting together a team that’s a bunch of singles hitters. That way nobody has to carry the team as a hero. That seemed to work well as a strategy in 2004.

    I’d also like to point out that none of Edgar, Ichiro and Olerud exactly did well those months either. The difference is that Ichiro and Cameron (the younger players of those 4) went on to have better seasons in 2004 than the last two months of 2003, and the old players in question went on to implode. Hmm, I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

  29. roger tang on February 5th, 2005 4:38 pm


    Seems like the person missing the point is the one who expects Cameron to “carry” the team. Not that kind of player, nor was he expected to be.

    The point of looking at the stats is that you’re looking at what he DID, instead of the memory of what you thought he did.