APRIL 8, 2004
Importance Of Putting The Bat On The Ball
(and a small sample size stipulations rant)
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

This week, we had an excellent trivia question posted at the NetShrine Discussion Forum. One worth sharing here:  Can you list just six players, in the order of their playing careers, where the players would then form a string of every active baseball season from 1871 through 2003?  [Answer to follow at the end of this feature.]

Switching gears, did you know that the last three World Champions in baseball (2001 to 2003) were “contact” hitting teams (in the sense that their batters had less strikeouts than the league average)?  Did you know that the 1996 and 1998 Yankees, who won World Series, were “contact” teams as well?

Did you know that the 1995 Indians (who lost the 1995 World Series in six games) were also a “contact” team?  Did you know that the 1996 Braves (who lost the 1996 World Series in six games) were also a “contact” team?  Did you know that the 1997 Indians (who lost the 1997 World Series in seven games) were also a “contact” team?  Did you know that the 1999 Braves (who lost the 1999 World Series in four games) were also a “contact” team?

Did you know that the 1994 Yankees and 1994 Expos – the two best teams in baseball that year when the post-season was called off - were also “contact” teams? 

Did you know that the two teams in the 2000 World Series, the Yankees and Mets, were just about able to be classified as “contact” teams (in the sense that their batters were very near the league average in whiffs)?

Piecing this all together, we have:

1994: Yankees and Expos, contact teams – likely headed to the World Series
1995: Indians, contact team – lost a close World Series
1996: Yankees, contact team – won the World Series
1997: Indians, contact team – lost a close World Series
1998: Yankees, contact team – won the World Series
1999: Braves, contact team – lost the World Series
2000: Yankees and Mets, near contact teams in World Series (Yanks win)
2001: Diamondbacks, contact team – won the World Series
2002: Angles, contact team – won the World Series
2003: Marlins, contact team – won the World Series

Seems to be a pattern there, no?  “Contact” teams in this Long Ball Era seem to not only make the World Series each year from at least one league – but often they either win it or come close to winning it.  This is something to note and watch this season as the statistics unfold.  Perhaps in the post-season, where teams face good pitchers every game, playing “contact” or “small ball” baseball (putting the ball in play, advancing runners, etc.) is more beneficial than the "live and die by the long ball" approach?

Granted, the 2000 A’s and Cardinals, as well as the 2002 Yankees, had teams that struck out often – and they did make the playoffs.  But, none of these teams made the World Series.  In fact, no team (to date) that was a strong “anti-contact” team has made the World Series in the Long Ball Era.

Now, I know that some of my good friends would be quick to say to me “Small sample size!” in regard to this study.  While that is a point, when is a sample size really big enough?  (If I may depart into a short “sample size” deliberation.)

If a batter happens to start the season going 15 for 33 (.455) and someone then wants to say he is the next Ty Cobb you can expect someone to counter with “Let’s wait and see what he does after 500 plate appearances.” The old “small sample size” defense application. (S3DA.)

But, is 500 plate appearances enough?  In 1992, after 649 plate appearances, someone looking at Pat Listach might have said then that he is the next Tony Fernandez.  And, to that, (in 1992) someone else would have likely offered back “Let’s see what he does after four years in the big leagues.”  S3DA strikes again. (And, in the case of Listach, "waiting to see more" made sense - as his career was all downhill from 1992.)

Still, is four years a suitable sample size?  If someone looked at Don Mattingly after his first four full years in the majors and then claimed that he was the next Stan Musial – well, today, we could tell that person “You should have waited until he had at least ten seasons in the majors before making that prediction.”  It would be a predictable S3DA on those four “measly” years.

However, is ten seasons enough?  After ten years in the majors, someone could have easily looked at Roberto Alomar and said that he would break Pete Rose’s career hit record.  And, again, today, another party could swat down that forecast with a S3DA statement of “Next time, let him play for 20 years and then see.”

Therefore, while 33 at bats may be too small of a sample size, ten years can be too small as well.  In baseball, any sample size can be a “small sample size.”  So, is the S3DA just another form of hardball conventional wisdom?  Besides, sometimes, the 33 at bats is more important than the ten years.  If you were playing a team now, this minute, and “Joe Batter” was up at the plate – and you could face him, or walk him and face the next batter, in a game breaking spot – which is more important, what he has done in the last ten years or the last 33 at bats, in helping you make your decision?  The majority of managers, pitchers and catchers playing the game would pick that “small sample size” of 33 at bats in a heartbeat.  Instead of "slamming" data sometimes with "small sample size" warning perhaps we should "endorse" them with a "snapshot and therefore topical sample size" seal of approval?

Speaking of “sample size” while at the same time going off on another digression, we would like to now share a unique picture of the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, which we recently came into our possession.  A short time ago, my wife’s uncle met a woman who had a family member that played golf with “The Bambino” back in 1939.  At which time, the family member (Frank Verna) had this picture taken with Ruth:

The woman graciously provided my wife's uncle with some copies of the photo so that he could share it with some baseball fans in the family - one of them being me.  Even at age 44, Mr. Ruth was an imposing figure (the "size" tie in) – as the picture shows.  No wonder he hit all those homeruns.  Just imagine what he could have done with the help of BALCO (or something like it)……ah, but that is another whole big deviation (to save for another time).  At the least, it is a nice picture of Babe Ruth and, without much question, one that you do not see everyday.  Hence, the reason to share the picture here.

Lastly, a major congratulations to the Montreal Expos Chad Bentz for making his major league debut last night.  For those not aware, Bentz was born with a deformed right hand - and he pitches and catches with his left hand, switching his glove between hands in a manner similar to the way former big leaguer Jim Abbott did when he played.  While Bentz does not want special attention because of his condition, we cannot ignore a great story like this - when it happens.  Baseball is a better game because of people like Chad.  May last night be the first of many more appearances for Bentz.

Trivia Answer:  Cap Anson, Bobby Wallace, Jimmy Dykes, Walker Cooper, Ron Fairly, and Rickey Henderson.

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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