King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"Smallball": Overused word, overused strategy, as White Sox show again in Game 1 loss to Angels.

By Salon Staff
Published October 12, 2005 4:00PM (EDT)

One game into the American League Championship Series and I'm already sick of the word "smallball."

The Los Angeles Angels, using such smallball tactics as Garret Anderson's smallball into the left-field bleachers, beat the Chicago White Sox at their own smallball game 3-2 Tuesday night in the opener of the American League Championship Series.

The Angels did use smallball to score their second and third runs, which proved to be decisive, in the third smallball. I mean inning. After singles by Steve Finley and Adam Kennedy, Chone Figgins bunted the runners to second and third with one out.

Both men scored on infield grounders. Orlando Cabrera beat out his roller to third when third baseman Joe Crede hesitated, thinking he could get Finley at home even though Finley was racing down the line in front of him and Crede clearly had no chance.

Then Vladimir Guerrero hit a chopper back to pitcher Jose Contreras, who turned in a fine start. Contreras threw to second to start a double play. The Sox got the out there -- what should have been the third out of the inning -- but second baseman Tadahito Iguchi was thrown off by Cabrera's hard slide and threw away the relay, Kennedy scoring.

So yeah, the Angels won partly with smallball, with bunting and hard base running. Or another way to put it would be that they won partly because of Chicago's lapses on defense, a key element of smallball, along with pitching, speed and aggressiveness on the bases.

One of the things smallball does, of course, is put pressure on the defense. Fair enough.

But for all the paroxysms of orgasmic wonder smallball tends to send the commentariat into, for all the tiny trembling frissons of joy over stolen bases and moving the runner over and keeping the defense on its heels, what smallball does a lot of is cost the offense runs. That's what it did for the White Sox Tuesday, as it has for them all year.

What if the White Sox still had five outs to go? What if it were still one out in the eighth? Because that's at least as many outs as the Sox gave away in Game 1.

In the fifth inning, Scott Podsednik, who enjoys hunting, fishing and getting thrown out stealing at second, got thrown out stealing at second when the Angels, not particularly rattled by the running game, pitched out. In the sixth, Jermaine Dye, who hit 31 home runs this season and is not slumping, tried to bunt his way aboard. He popped out to pitcher Paul Byrd, who also pitched well.

In the seventh, Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski got thrown out stealing, erroneously thinking the hit-and-run was on. In the eighth, with Juan Uribe on first and no one out, Podsednik gave up two strikes trying to bunt, then struck out.

In the ninth, with pinch runner Pablo Ozuna at first and no one out, Uribe bunted into a force play.

There's no guarantee those five outs wouldn't have been outs anyway. But you only get 27 outs, and the Sox willingly handed over nearly a fifth of them. Not counting those five outs Chicago went 7-for-30 with a walk, a hit batsman and a man reaching on an error.

In other words, about 30 percent of the time, something good happened. Even with all those outs they give away, the Sox's on-base percentage this year was .322, meaning something good happens almost a third of the time. You have to like their odds of something good happening with at least one of those five chances they squandered Tuesday.

So yeah, maybe Dye or Podsednik or Uribe strikes out or pops up instead of bunting unsuccessfully and maybe Podsednik and Pierzynski get stranded at first base instead of being caught stealing, but how come people only like to talk about bunts and stolen bases when they work?

Even when sacrifice bunts work, they're of dubious value because you're trading an out for a base, which is sometimes a good trade, such as late in a tie game, but usually not. You're also giving up the potential for something more than a single base, like a home run, which Scott Podsednik doesn't hit, but the rest of the White Sox do. They were fourth in the league in homers this year.

Same thing with stolen bases. It's nice to get that base, but is it worth risking an out? The White Sox would like to have those two outs back that they lost on steal attempts Tuesday night, I'll bet.

The widely accepted theory is that base stealers have to be successful about 70 percent of the time or they're hurting their team. The White Sox were successful 67 percent of the time this year, fourth worst in the league, yet they were second in steal attempts with 204. The Angels led the way with 218, but they were successful 74 percent of the time.

No other team below 68 percent in stolen base success tried more than 107 steals.

The top five scoring teams, Boston, New York, Texas, Cleveland and Toronto, were all in the bottom half of the league in stolen bases, except the Yankees were sixth out of 14. Those five were also all in the bottom five in the league in sacrifice hits except the Indians, who were seventh.

Look no further than Chicago failing to understand its limitations and the consequences of giving away outs for an explanation why the White Sox, alone among the top five teams in the league in home runs, were not in the top five in scoring. They were ninth.

It's a good thing for the White Sox that they can pitch, because this smallball thing is bunk. It's also a good thing for them that the Angels like to play smallball too, though Los Angeles is better at it than Chicago is. The Angels don't get caught stealing as often and, while they also like to bunt, they don't do it as much as the White Sox do.

Still, they're happy to give away outs, and teams that give away outs are an opponent's best friend.

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NLCS: Astros in 7 [PERMALINK]

The National League Championship Series gets underway Wednesday night in St. Louis. It's a rematch of last year's NLCS, when the Cardinals beat the Houston Astros in seven games, the home team winning all seven.

The Cards have the home-field advantage again this time, and they waltzed away with the Central Division, beating the Astros by 11 games. Despite that, I'm taking the Astros in another seven-game doozy.

I like their Big 3 starters, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens, in the order they'll pitch in this series, and they have a better bullpen than St. Louis. Of course, in a close, short series, it doesn't necessarily matter that one team has superior arms. It just comes down to whichever team gets a big hit from whoever, right, Chris Burke?

No way to even pretend to know who'll do that, so it comes down to guessing. I'll guess Houston.

Previous column: Angels KO Yankees

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