Christian Yelich's run game and other lessons from Bill James Handbook

Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

So much happens during the World Series -- and there's always another game to look ahead to until the final one -- that a lot of small, important plays get lost in the big-picture takes. Two plays, quickly forgotten in aftermath of Stephen Strasburg's mastery and Anthony Rendon's brilliance and Howie Kendrick's home run and Max Scherzer's gutsy effort, helped swing the World Series to the Nationals.

In Game 6, the Nationals led 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth inning, but Strasburg was teetering a bit as the Astros put runners on second and third with one out. The bullpen was starting to scramble. Strasburg struck out Jose Altuve on three pitches, but Michael Brantley connected with a 1-1 fastball:

Brantley hit it hard -- 102.7 mph -- but right to shortstop Trea Turner, who was playing on the second-base side of the bag in a shift, even though Brantley isn't a hitter teams always shift on. A lot of attention was given to the Altuve strikeout -- he fanned with an off-balance swing on an 0-2 curveball in the dirt -- but if Brantley's ball goes through, the Astros take a 4-3 lead and who knows how the rest of the game unfolds?

In Game 7, the Astros had Scherzer on the ropes early, with several hard-hit balls. Yuli Gurriel led off the second inning with a home run and Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa followed with hard singles. Robinson Chirinos popped out on an ill-advised bunt and Josh Reddick grounded out with the runners moving up. George Springer then swung at a 3-0 fastball:

Again, the ball was hit hard: 105.2 mph. Again, the Nationals were in perfect defensive position, with Juan Soto dropping to his knees to catch the sinking line drive. If that ball falls, it's 3-0 Astros and who knows how the rest of the game unfolds.

During the regular season, teams hit .635 on balls with an exit velocity of 100 mph or greater. In the World Series, the Astros hit .521 and the Nationals .517. That was especially damaging to the Astros, as they had 48 balls in play of 100 mph compared to just 29 for the Nationals. But all series we kept seeing the Nationals in the right place at the right time and making some great defensive plays (Anthony Rendon in particular). That was no accident.

In watching the World Series (or all of the playoffs), it boggles the mind that some people still think using the shift is bad strategy. The Nationals don't receive much credit in comparison to the Astros for their use of analytics, but the World Series was a great showcase for their defense.

In flipping through the new edition of "The Bill James Handbook," it was no surprise to learn that shifts were once again up across the majors:

2017: 26,705 shifts
2018: 34,669 shifts
2019: 46,758 shifts

In the book, Baseball Info Solutions estimates 1.33 runs are saved for every 100 hits, or a total of 622 runs saved across the majors in 2019 -- about 21 per team.

What's the impact of the shift? Freddie Freeman faced the most shifts of any batter (left-handed hitters in general face more shifts) with 459 plate appearances with a shift on. He hit .227 on grounders and short liners with a shift deployed and .667 without one. Anthony Rizzo was the second-most shifted-on batter and hit .219 against a shift and .333 without the shift. Cody Bellinger was third on the most-shifted list and he hit .279 versus .600.

The handbook is full of nuggets like that. The first 50 pages include two long essays from Bill James, one related to the Hall of Fame and a deep dive into some suggested fixes to the game to prevent it from being swallowed up by home runs, strikeouts and three hour-plus games. It's a fun essay with some logical ideas (change the rules for using relief pitchers, keep batters from stepping out of the box), along with some ideas from out of left field (increase the width of bat handles, rule the batter out on a second two-strike foul ball).

Ultimately, James argues that MLB should set a goal for exactly what it desires. He suggests games of 2 hours, 30 minutes (the average game time was more than three hours in 2019); 0.75 home runs per game (it was 1.39 in 2019); 6.5 strikeouts per game (8.8 in 2019). The numbers can be up for discussion, but James is right that MLB's current nebulous "pace of play" objective doesn't set a clear goal.

Anyway, the meat of the book is the reams of data, including the career register for all active players if you prefer flipping through a book rather than scouring Baseball-Reference.com. A few more interesting items:

Christian Yelich is good at everything: The baserunning section is one of my favorite parts of the book, addressing an underrated part of the game. Players are broken down by stolen base value and value running the bases (such as going from first to third on a single or first to home on a double). Yelich had a net gain of 43 bases, tied with Jonathan Villar for the best mark. Yelich was 30-for-32 as a base stealer but also had a net gain of 17 on the basepaths.

Removing stolen bases from the equation, the best baserunner was Adam Eaton at plus-26, followed by Danny Santana and Niko Goodrum at plus-23, and Mike Trout -- yes, he's good at everything too -- at plus-22.

The worst baserunners: Josh Donaldson at minus-30, Josh Bell and Jonathan Lucroy at minus-27 and Wilson Ramos at minus-26. Donaldson has a positive rating in his career, but maybe the calf injuries have slowed him or at least eliminated his aggressiveness. He went first to third just five times in 36 opportunities (MLB average is 28%) and first to home zero times out of six chances. But he was also credited with 12 outs on the bases -- he was doubled off seven times when only one other player was doubled off even four times.

By the way, the top baserunning teams were the Diamondbacks, Brewers and Rangers, with the Marlins way at the bottom. The Nationals ranked sixth in net gain of plus-71 while the Astros were 21st at plus-2, even though they were described throughout the postseason as an aggressive team on the bases, which was clearly not the case, at least in 2019.

Team efficiency: This is a category that builds off expected runs scored and allowed compared to actual runs, then is translated to expected wins and actual wins. The second-least efficient team in the majors? The Astros, who should have won 115 games rather than 107. The Astros scored 34 fewer runs than expected and allowed 33 more than expected. The weird thing is they had an .855 OPS with runners in scoring position versus .840 overall, although they weren't quite as good with two outs and RISP (.239 average, .796 OPS). The below-average baserunning factors into that equation as well.

Bruce Bochy's managerial record: Bochy retired -- at least as Giants manager -- and it's fun to see how much strategy has changed since his first gig with the Padres in 1995. Using 1996 for comparison (since 1995 was a shortened season), take a look:

Stolen base attempts
1996: 200 (career high: 241 in 1999)
2019: 75 (career low)

This can be tied to personnel, but there were 3,239 stolen bases in 1996 across the majors and 2,280 in 2019, the lowest per-game average since 1971.

Sacrifice bunt attempts
1996: 73 (career high: 102 in 2010)
2019: 37 (career low)

Why bunt? Everybody is a power hitter these days. The '96 Padres actually didn't bunt that much, with only 17 sacrifice bunts from non-pitchers. The 2019 Giants had six.

1996: 65 (career high)
2019: 4 (career low: 2 in 2018)

The pitchout is dead.

Intentional walks
1996: 47 (career high: 64 in 2013)
2019: 26 (career low)

Note: A.J. Hinch of the Astros had neither a pitchout nor an intentional walk in the regular season. He did issue a free pass to Juan Soto in the World Series.

Relief appearances
1996: 411 (career low: 369 in 1998)
2019: 587 (career high)

No surprise here.

Yankee Stadium was a ... pitchers' park? The Yankees and opponents hit 297 home runs on the road ... and only 257 at home. The book gives Yankee Stadium a home run factor for 2019 of 91, meaning it decreased home runs 9 percent (it's still at 110 over a three-year factor, however). It's run-scoring index is even lower: 82. (Yankee Stadium is very low for doubles and triples.)

The lowest home run factor goes to San Francisco's Oracle Park at 69 for 2019 (and 68 over three years). You wonder what that might mean for Madison Bumgarner if he leaves the Giants. Consider his ERA splits the past two seasons:

Home: 2.93
Road: 5.29
Home: 1.63
Road: 4.97

RBI men: The general public hasn't lost complete interest in RBIs, but awareness that the stat is often driven by opportunities is much more prevalent than it was 20 years ago. Still, a lot of announcers will describe somebody as a "good RBI guy." The James handbook has a category called "RBI percentages," which factors in runners on base. (The batter also gets credit, for example, for hitting a single with a runner on first, even though there was no RBI.)

Anthony Rendon led the majors with 126 RBIs and he was also a good RBI guy, ranking sixth in RBI percentage with a score of .462. Jose Abreu led the AL with 123 RBIs, although he ranked 49th in the majors in RBI percentage at .407 (good, but not great).

The top five: Nelson Cruz (.486), Mike Trout (.472), Will Smith (.467), Mitch Garver (.464) and Christian Yelich (.463). The worst are the bad hitters and non-home run guys: Billy Hamilton (.159), Travis Shaw (.171), Bubba Starling (.175), Jeff Mathis (.175) and Gordon Beckham (.176), who, yes, is still floating around.

Anyway, those are just a few highlights from the handbook. Check it out. It's a fun investment.