Teams embrace smarter 'small ball'

A's, Nationals and Brewers are succeeding with old-school approaches

Updated: May 10, 2014, 12:27 PM ET
By Mike Petriello | ESPN Insider

EspinosaHarry E. Walker/Getty ImagesDanny Espinosa has bunted for seven hits already in 2014.

"Small ball." Depending on how you view baseball, that's a term that's either a fond reminder of better days gone by or an anti-intellectual phrase that makes your skin crawl. There's room for both interpretations, but there's little argument to be had that for most of the last decade, it's been a kind of baseball that's been disappearing. As home run power increased and advanced thinking explained the value in not giving away outs, the kind of plays traditionally associated with "small ball" -- stolen bases, sac bunts, etc. -- gradually appeared less and less often.

But baseball is once again changing, with offense at lows not seen in years -- or in some cases, ever. Through Thursday morning, teams are averaging 4.19 runs per game, down nearly a full run from 2000's high of 5.14, and the strikeout rate is on pace to set a record for the sixth season in a row, currently at 20.6 percent. Home runs are down to 0.88 per game, which is not only the lowest since 1992, it's only ever so slightly above 1950's 0.84.

With offense more difficult to come by, the value of a single base or run has increased. Managers can't simply wait for the three-run homer, as they might have in the recent past. If done smartly -- and that's the key here -- some of the more traditional tactics can have more relevance today than they might have before, and we can see a few teams finding success in 2014 doing just that.

Bunting the right way

Sorry, sacrifice bunt fans; you'll find no favor here. With rare exceptions, it's still a play that is largely misused in most cases other than when a pitcher is batting.

That said, bunting for a hit can be useful when done correctly, like when the defense is playing back or is heavily shifted.