The Three Most Distinctive Team Philosophies

Teams are behaving more and more alike. There’s less separation between front offices by the month, and talent is fairly equally distributed, and people everywhere believe many of the same things. There are, of course, better situations and worse situations, but when it comes to team strategies, generally speaking everyone agrees: play the best baseball. Pitch the best pitches, swing the best swings. The Dodgers have a better on-field product than the Rockies, but they try to go about their business similarly. Neither really has a signature philosophy you can observe in the numbers.

Such philosophies are few and far between. People believe one of them is the Diamondbacks and pitching inside, but in reality the Diamondbacks pitch inside as a staff an average amount, and they’ve hit a roughly average amount of batters. They’ve just had a tendency to talk. The Diamondbacks don’t have a team philosophy of brushing hitters back. You don’t see a lot of philosophies that stand out, because successful ones will be copied, and unsuccessful ones will be abandoned. But some do still exist. You’ve presumably heard about each, but I feel like they should be put together in one place. I can think of three standout examples. Do let me know if I’m missing any others.

The Astros and Shifting

  • Team shifts: More than 1,500
  • League average: Around 600
  • Team rank: No. 1 in baseball

(Numbers from here)

Background

The Astros are an organizational science experiment, powered by cold analytics, and as baseball has leaned toward shifting more and more, the Astros have embraced the revolution and then some, putting their trust in the numbers and moving defenders around like apartment furniture. The Astros are by no means the only team to shift aggressively, as you’ve also got teams like the Rays, Yankees, and Orioles aligning infields just so, but the Astros have taken things to the max, blowing away the runner-up in terms of shifts utilized. The funny part of it is that the Astros have been trying to get as many outs as possible, while playing very much meaningless baseball, but I suppose all baseball is ultimately meaningless baseball, and this is a way to get players familiar with the system.

Has it worked?

Impossible to say! We can’t compare the Astros to a version of the Astros that doesn’t shift as much. Some of the numbers indicate that the shifts have saved the Astros several runs. Absolutely, some of the shifts have turned hits into outs. But from an article from the middle of August:

“I’m giving you what I see with my eyes and also what are our internal metrics are showing as far as our defensive efficiency,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “We were definitely lacking some in the beginning of the year. We’ve improved.”

As a team, the Astros have allowed a .301 BABIP, a little worse than average. On grounders, they’ve allowed a .244 BABIP, basically dead on average. We don’t know what these numbers might look like otherwise, but with the personnel they’ve had, the Astros haven’t stood out, and there’ve been a few occasions of pitchers not entirely buying in. That’ll be less of an issue going forward, and the shifts might improve going forward as the Astros learn from this, but for the time being, while there’s reason to believe the shifts have helped, we can’t conclude they’re helping a ton.

The Pirates and Pitching Inside

  • Team inside pitches: 37%
  • League average: 29%
  • Team rank: No. 1 in baseball

(Numbers from here)

Background

The Pirates like to preach working inside. As more and more data has come out showing that the weakest spots are down and away, the Pirates have still turned their attention in more than anybody else. This season they’re second in baseball in inside-pitch rate against righties, and they’re first in baseball in inside-pitch rate against lefties. Their overall inside-pitch rate is higher than second place by three percentage points, and while that might not seem like a big gap, that’s three pitches for every 100 that are going somewhere else, and the gap between first place and last place is just 13 percentage points. From Ben Lindbergh, Tuesday:

Fitzgerald provides one specific example of a Pirates philosophy that was born out of collaboration between coaches and analysts: their belief in the benefits of pitching inside. “That’s a good example of one of the things that we did not have as an idea coming in,” Fitzgerald says. “And that’s a thing that [Hurdle] and [Banister] and probably many other guys had brought up, of, ‘Hey, listen, can we prove this? Because we think it’s true and we have a pretty decent idea of a handful of guys who [are susceptible to it]. Is there a way to go through and identify other guys who may be susceptible to it as well?’”

The Pirates have also in part selected for pitchers they think would be effective pitching in. Lots of inside sinkers. The Pirates kind of quietly pitch like people think the Diamondbacks pitch. Just, when the Diamondbacks do it, people assume it’s with malice.

Has it worked?

Impossible to say! We can’t compare the Pirates to a version of the Pirates that doesn’t pitch inside as much. As a team, the Pirates have allowed the third-lowest slugging percentage on inside pitches. They’ve allowed an average slugging percentage on non-inside pitches. Overall, the Pirates’ pitching staff is tied for baseball’s ninth-lowest BABIP, with a slightly worse-than-average dinger rate, despite a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. The Pirates do have one of baseball’s best differences between ERA and FIP. Unsurprisingly, they’ve hit more batters than anyone else, by far. They’ve allowed an average wOBA to righties, and an average wOBA to lefties. If the Pirates didn’t pitch inside as much, they’d have different numbers. If this weren’t their philosophy, they’d also probably have some different pitchers. Perhaps this way they can find cheaper pitchers. Perhaps not!

The A’s and Hitting Fly Balls

  • Team Fly Balls: 41%
  • League average: 34%
  • Team rank: No. 1 in baseball

Background

This is an on-field strategy, but this is also a team-building strategy, since players generally come with their swings, leaving room for minimal tweaks. The players don’t approach the plate looking to try extra hard to put the ball in the air — they’ve just been selected for those swings, and they’ve had those swings cemented in. Years ago, in The Book, it was demonstrated that fly-ball hitters have an advantage against groundball pitchers. Andrew Koo demonstrated at Baseball Prospectus how Billy Beane has built his offenses. An excerpt from Business Week:

But here again, advanced data yielded a useful insight: Major league hitters had become so adept at hitting low pitches that they were vulnerable to high ones. Beane had discovered a particularly clever countermove. “Beane stayed ahead of the curve,” says Strom, “by finding hitters with a steep upward swing path to counter the sinking action of pitchers trying to induce ground balls.”

More and more, pitchers are working down. The strike zone keeps sinking, so there are more rewards to be gained. The A’s have looked for hitters who are particularly good at hitting low pitches, on account of their swing planes.

Has it worked?

Impossible to say! We can’t compare the A’s to a version of the A’s that doesn’t hit as many fly balls. This year, the A’s rank seventh in baseball in slugging percentage against low pitches. Meanwhile, they rank 28th in slugging percentage against high pitches. Brandon Moss, from just earlier today:

I know that up in the zone is a big hole in my swing because I have an uppercut swing. So up in the zone is going to be a problem. I felt like, early in the year and in spring training, that was an area of weakness I was going to work on. Not necessarily hitting that pitch, but not chasing that pitch.

What we most care about is overall performance, and as a team, the A’s are sixth in the American League in wRC+, sandwiched between the Indians and the Twins. They’re third in the AL in runs scored, and aside from Adam Dunn, their most expensive position player is Coco Crisp. Perhaps this way the A’s can find cheaper production, such that they can score runs with their budget. Perhaps not! But here are the year-to-year differences between Oakland’s FB% and the average FB%:

2010: 1.0%
2011: 2.2%
2012: 5.6%
2013: 7.4%
2014: 6.5%

It’s been about three years of this, and it’s not like 2014 is going to cause Beane to stop believing in his strategy. Oakland isn’t going to quit; it’s just a matter of whether another team will try to mimic them.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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