Debunking the myth of strategy in the National League

1 08 2010

My friend Tom Callinan tweeted last night one of the most common mistaken notions in baseball: that baseball strategy is more difficult and interesting in the National League than in the American League.

I’ll debunk this myth shortly, but first a few overall comments: I love that baseball has genuine differences between the leagues. The AFC and NFC are identical in how they play, and we’re four decades past the AFL-NFL merger now, so you have few true fans of just one conference. The eastern and western conferences in hockey and basketball play the same, so loyalties rarely extend past your favorite team. But because baseball has never gotten together on the designated-hitter rule, it truly changes strategy, so the game has subtle but significant differences between the leagues. So you have people who favor one league over the other because they like bunting or pinch-hitting more or because they fail to understand the strategy needed to succeed in the American League.

I don’t begrudge Tom or anyone who loves the National League their loyalty to the other league. (Tom’s a longtime Twins fan whose loyalty to the Reds is growing.) Fans of any team or league are welcome to their choices. The styles of play are different and that preference is a personal choice. But I do try to set them straight from time to time on this notion that making pitchers hit makes the game’s strategy more difficult. I also will not take on the linguistic matter that all of baseball’s “strategic” decisions are really tactical decisions. Baseball has long mangled and had fun with the English language (and we love what Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, Dizzy Dean and Rickey Henderson did with it), so for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say that the decisions a manager makes in a game are strategic.

First, much of the strategy of baseball has nothing at all to do with whether the pitcher hits. These decisions are identical from league to league:

  • Pitch selection.
  • Positioning of outfielders.
  • Bringing the infield in with a runner on third and less than two outs.
  • Shifting the infield against a pull hitter.
  • Hit and run.
  • Pitching out.
  • Platooning from game to game.
  • Instructing batters to take pitches and go deeper in the count.

Base stealing also has little relation to the DH rule, though the fact that runs tend to be scarcer in the National League probably raises a manager’s willingness to risk an out to move a runner into scoring position. This was more true in the era of lots of artificial turf, because the NL had more fake grass and more cheap singles that skipped through the infield to score a runner from second (which had nothing to do with the DH). Squeeze plays also might be more common in the NL because pitchers may be more skilled at bunting than hitting, or have a greater spread between their bunting skill and their ability to score the runner with a hit or another type of out. I don’t know the statistics on that, but the squeeze play is pretty rare in both leagues, especially the suicide squeeze.

The strategic decisions that are most affected by the DH rule are these:

  • Pinch hitting.
  • Bunting (and by extension, the decision of whether to throw to first or another base, but that’s generally a player’s decision, not a strategic decision of the manager).
  • Intentional walks.
  • Pitching changes.

If your definition of strategy is simply the frequency of those things happening, then sure, the National League has more pinch hits and bunts. But if every NL manager does pretty much the same thing in most of those decisions, it’s not really strategy, it’s managing by the book. And that is the case. Let’s break these decisions down and see what the real differences between the leagues are:

Pinch hitting

Here’s the decision the National League manager faces several times a game: Would I rather replace this batter who makes his living by pitching with another hitter who makes his living by hitting? And, let’s be honest, all but a tiny handful of position players, however good their defense, are primarily professional hitters; the great defensive hitter who hits as poorly as most pitchers doesn’t last long, but a good hitter who plays lousy defense can play for a decade or more in either league. And pitchers who hit well enough to change this decision are rare. You could count them on one hand in any year, perhaps on one finger.

So in the National League every manager usually makes the same decisions. Early in the game, unless the pitcher is getting rocked, he hits. Late in the game, the manager pinch-hits unless the pitcher is leading, pitching well and not tiring. The mid-game decisions are a bit more varied. But generally speaking, a pitcher who’s doing well will hit in the fourth and fifth innings and be more likely to be removed in the sixth and seventh innings. If runners are in scoring position, every manager is more likely to pinch-hit. If you’re one run down or tied and want to bunt, the pitcher might be more likely to hit. If the pitcher is doing well and has a low pitch count, he’s more likely to hit. If you’re behind, you’re more likely to pinch hit. The factors are all obvious. Every manager and all of the fans understand all of the factors, and most of them would make the same decision in nearly all cases. But it’s easy for fans to manage along with the manager, so fans flatter themselves that it’s a difficult decision that they’re considering. And in every case, you have a professional pitcher ready to replace the pitcher. There are a few tough decisions, but all National League managers make their decisions the same way and there’s not that much difference. A late-game pinch hit can win the game and the manager will be declared brilliant, but the truth is that almost all the time, the manager in the other dugout would have done exactly the same thing.

But in the American League, the decision is always whether to replace a professional hitter with another professional hitter. That’s always a tougher decision. The hitter in the lineup might be a better contact hitter and more likely to get on base, but the hitter on the bench has more power. Which do you want in that situation? And what will that do to your defense? Do you pinch-hit a right-handed batter for a lefty because the pitcher is left-handed? And if the other manager counters with a pitching change, will you be better off than you are now, or will you waste that pinch-hitter and use another? Do you platoon any positions within the game, switching automatically to get the righty-lefty matchup? If you do that too early, can you do it again later in the game if the other team changes pitchers again? You have American League managers who pinch-hit a lot, as much as an NL manager, and you have AL managers who pinch-hit sparingly. That can only happen because pinch-hitting in the American League involves more stragegy.

Bunting

Again, the National League bunts more than the American League, so if quantity equals strategy, I guess that’s more strategy. But again, every manager does it the same way. If a pitcher who’s pitching well comes up early in the game with no outs and a man on first (or especially with men on first and second bases), the pitcher bunts. Every time. There is no strategy to it and every manager does it the same. And the No. 7 hitter never bunts because if he moves the runner(s) up, the other team will walk the No. 8 hitter to face the pitcher. Every time. No strategy, just following the book. Only those few pitchers who can actually hit change the equation. Every manager knows that every pitcher is going to get out about 80 percent of the time, if not more. So they seek to use the out productively with men on base and less than two outs.

But in the American League, every hitter is more likely to get on base than almost any pitcher. The question of whether to give up an out (you only get 27 and each is precious) to advance runners is more difficult when the batter is more likely to get a hit. Again, you have AL managers who bunt a lot and some who rarely bunt. Because the decision itself is tougher.

Intentional walks

How crazy is it that National League managers frequently walk the weakest professional hitter on the opposing team, the No. 8 hitter? But when the No. 7 hitter is on second or third base, it’s often an easy decision to walk the No. 8 hitter to set up the double play with one out or to face the pitcher with two outs (except later in the game, when the other manager might pinch-hit.

Pitching changes

This is the biggest difference between the strategies in the two leagues. In the National League, a huge factor in pitching changes has nothing to do with how the pitcher is doing and who is the best pitcher for a particular batter or situation. The batting order often dictates whether a pitcher who’s doing pretty well but trailing comes out after six innings or seven. If it’s his turn to hit (and not a bunting situation), the manager pinch hits for him and he won’t come out for the seventh inning. But an American League manager has to know when his pitcher is tiring. He has to know who’s the best pitcher to face this batter or to pitch this inning. He never has the cover of I-had-to-pull-him-for-a-pinch-hitter.

Bill James did a study of this years ago (and I’m sure others have studied since) and showed the variation is much broader in how frequently managers pinch-hit, bunt and let pitchers throw complete games in the American League. That variance between the managers who do something the least often and those who do it the most shows the greater strategy of the American League.

The double-switch is a wrinkle of National League strategy that allows a little interest. But again, most managers use it the same. If you want the pitcher to pitch more than that inning, and he’s due up in the next inning, you double switch. Easy call.

A major reason this strategy myth is so widely believed is that television networks, by plan or coincidence (or perhaps reflecting their executives’ biases) hire mostly former National League players as color commentators: Tim McCarver, Joe Morgan, Orel Hershiser, Rick Sutcliffe. And when they comment on National League strategy, they repeat the myth. They do comment on strategy in the American League but I have never heard a commentator note how much easier those calls are in the National League.

I remember in the 1976 and 1977 American League playoffs, the Kansas City Royals had better teams than the Yankees. But Billy Martin managed rings around Whitey Herzog in both playoff series. In 1985, the Blue Jays had a 3-1 lead on the Royals, but Dick Howser outmanaged Bobby Cox (who moved to the easier National League and thrived, except when he faced American League managers in the World Series).

If strategy were more difficult in the National League, AL managers would have a tougher time in interleague play. But the American League has had a better record in nine of the 13 years of interleague play, a collective advantage of more than 100 games. And in the World Series since 1976, when we started alternating between the leagues’ rules, American League teams have won 19 World Series and lost 14. If American League managers were at a strategic disadvantage under National League rules, you simply wouldn’t see such a disparity. The NL managers’ disadvantage under AL rules might not account for all of that disparity, but I’m sure it contributes.

If you like lots of bunting and pinch-hitting, enjoy the NL game. If you groove on that occasional big hit by a pitcher, then the National League has your game. If you like watching intentional walks to No. 8 hitters, enjoy. But let’s slay this myth about the strategy disparity.

In the American League, managers have to know when their pitcher is done before everyone knows the pitcher is done. And they have to choose between professional hitters if they want to pinch hit. Those are difficult decisions that baseball fans should appreciate.

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19 responses

15 09 2010
Allen

My first instinct was to say the writer is on a crack binge… The American League is a glorified softball league. They excel in matchups against the Natuonal League because they have an extra professional hitter on the roster.

… I think EVERY time a manager has to male a decision he is open to second guessing. American League managers fill out a lineup card and put it on auto pilot.

There is more to managing when playing REAL baseball.

Liked by 1 person

9 10 2010
hatedyankees

Apparently you don’t watch baseball.

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13 03 2011
reddeer

Seems that an NL manager has to make those same decisions about WHO to pich-hit as an AL manager needs to make. That’s not the case?

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14 03 2011
hatedyankees

No. National League managers routinely save their best pinch-hitters to hit for a pitcher. I don’t know if anyone has done statistics on how much managers in each league pinch-hit for position players, but I am sure that is much more prevalent in the American League. My experience is that you almost never see an NL manager pinch-hit for a position player until the last inning or so, when he knows the pitcher’s spot is only going to come around one more time, if that. And often, when he does pinch-hit in that case, it’s a double switch to delay the pitcher’s spot in the order.

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29 06 2011
A

If you’re a San Francisco Giants, there’s the frequent decision of whether to leave your hot starter in to hit whose ahead 2-1 with two on, one out in the 7th or 8th inning. This happens every other night as a Giant fan and is not an easy decision at all.

You make good points about AL strategy when it comes to bunting pro hitters and that’s something I have to consider but I still prefer NL ball. That weak spot in the order puts more pressure on the heart of the lineup.

The NL West in particular is an adventure due to its ballparks. The California teams have pitchers’ parks and you can feel teams like the Phillies tensing up on their plane in the flyover states. Then you have Denver with what is not a launching pad but still a huge playing field which yields a lot of runs to the point you just want the series to end sometimes so your bullpen can be fresh, no matter who wins.

Liked by 1 person

30 06 2011
hatedyankees

You give exactly the reasons that I enjoy watching both games. Each version presents different strategic decisions. NL managers pinch-hit and bunt more often, but in the overwhelming majority of situations, every NL manager would do the same thing. Those situations you mention make the NL game fascinating, just as the Grady Little/Pedro Martinez decisions make the AL game fascinating.

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11 10 2012
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31 12 2013
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27 10 2014
Jeff B.

“But if every NL manager does pretty much the same thing in most of those decisions, it’s not really strategy, it’s managing by the book.”

When we want to walk, pretty much everyone puts one foot in front of the other. That doesn’t mean it’s the only choice. It just means it makes the most sense. That’s the epitome of strategy: evaluate the options and make the best possible choice.

You aren’t negating the strategy involved by pointing out many managers at the highest point in their profession make similar strategic decisions.

Most of your “debunking” uses similarly bad logic.

Pinch Hitting: You’ve made the claim that every out is precious. It’s hypocritical to pretend this is only true on one side of the ball. If one batter is slightly more likely to get a hit than the pitcher, does that mean the batter should always replace the pitcher? Keep in mind you’re missing two things in this: the pinch hitter is already one of the weaker hitters. If they weren’t, they’d be in the starting lineup. The pitcher often has a better chance to get the out on defense. With outs being precious, this is important as well. At what point does this give and take benefit the team by using the pinch hit?

Bunting: Your entire analysis assumes bunting is only up due to pitchers bunting. Without anything to back your stats, it’s just ranting. If you want this point to be valid, you need to compare the number of bunts between the two leagues and then adjust the NL numbers based on the bunts laid down by pitchers to see if your assumptions are valid.

Intentional walks: You bring up several ways the intentional walk has more strategy involved in the NL vs the AL. In the AL, if you intentionally walk a batter, there isn’t a better batter they can bring in. It’s a much easier decision.

Pitching: You complained about quantity equating to quality in bunts. The larger variance is indicative of a larger quantity of strategies in the AL. That doesn’t mean they’re better strategies. It just means there’s a larger number that deviate from the normal strategy. You’ve mistakenly assumed this equates to being more strategic. A larger number of managers making poor decisions does not mean the group is more strategic.

Liked by 1 person

27 10 2014
Steve Buttry

I like how you say without anything to back my stats, it’s just ranting. And then you have nothing to back up anything you say. Nice rant.

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31 10 2014
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11 04 2015
Erik

It is ridiculous to say that AL pinch hits for position players more than NL. If it does happen more I’m sure not by much. I see pinch hits for position players all the time in NL. Especially in the west because of the pitching and ballparks. I actually rarely see AL managers pinch hit. Why would they? For a matchup? Then the opposing manager will make a switch to counter that matchup. Just because you are a Yankees fan or whatever doesn’t mean you should try to oppose a simple fact of the game of baseball. And have you ever coached or played at a high level? As for me, I’ve done both well.

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11 04 2015
Steve Buttry

No, I have not coached or played at a high level. The fact that you have does not make you right on this topic. National League managers, who have to save pinch-hitters to hit for pitchers, especially in games where the starter leaves early. This limits their options for pinch-hitting for position players. That’s a fact.

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11 04 2015
Erik

AL teams don’t pinch hit till late in the game either. That goes both ways.

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8 07 2015
Matt

I have a few quips with your analysis, but mostly I would have likes to have seen this written without bias. However, one major fact that you got wrong is that the 8-hole is the weakest hitting position in an NL lineup, which is not at all true. Your #8 should in essence be your backup lead off hitter (someone with a good contact rate and a good obp), it is important that he continue the inning so you a) aren’t starting the next inning off having to pinch hit or with your pitcher, and b) so you have a legitimate chance at having someone on base for your pitcher to bunt over. Generally, #7 is your weakest hitter for this reason.
Also, again you are just playing deeply into your bias, but you really over simplified the double switch. Regardless of what “the book” dictates, it is all circumstantial, every option when taking players in and out of the game is reliant on the state of your bullpen. This is not a factor in the AL when talking about pinch hitting, but it is circumstantial all the same. Lets say you have a late game situation, losing by one, runner on third with two outs, and your power guy hitting a robust .250 is up. You probably replace that guy for your highest average pinch hitter, because you need a hit, not a home run. That’s just as easy a decision as any pinch hit situation in the NL. Sorry, but you can’t call one side as just playing by the book without saying the other side is doing the same. I agree that quantity does not equal strategy, but a lack of quantity doesn’t either.

Liked by 1 person

8 07 2015
Steve Buttry

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I confess to bias. I’d like to see all the commentators who state the National League’s supposed greater strategy do the same. They state as fact something that is flatly untrue. I’d like to see a study of the 7 or 8 question (which is really tangential to the argument). For sure, no one treats the 8 like a double-lead-off. That happens in the American League sometimes, but with a pitcher in between, that’s a ridiculous argument. Whether the minuscule strategic advantage you describe makes a manager put a weaker hitter at 7 (where he’ll get several more at-bats each year) is questionable. And the whole argument is tangential. The No. 8 hitter is clearly one of the worst hitters in the lineup and clearly gets intentionally walked every time early in the game in the situations I described. That much is absolutely true.

As for the double switch, I can’t remember the last time I was surprised by a double switch. It’s completely predictable.

And the AL pinch-hitting situation is way tougher than any National League decision to hit for the pitcher. With the exception of a handful of pitchers who suck, it’s always an easy decision to pinch-hit late in the game for a pitcher in a situation where you need a run. The situation you describe is not as easy as a National League decision, even though you’ve chosen the easiest AL pinch-hitting choice. Your highest-average pinch-hitter probably hits .256. That’s why he didn’t start the game. Every AL pinch-hitting situation involves substituting a guy who makes his living as a professional hitter for another guy who does the same thing. Even weak hitters are in the major leagues because they are good hitters. That is always a tougher hitter than subbing a professional hitter for a professional pitcher. The only thing that ever makes that call tough is whether the pitcher has anything left.

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