Robin Ventura: Efficiency expert

"You there! Continue playing baseball!"

While trying to figure out what Robin Ventura would bring to the dugout in late March, I wrote a post saying that Ozzie Guillen left him plenty of room to improve on the margins. If Ventura's strategy aligned well, he would be able to clean up a typical Sox game without much help from his players.

Guillen's Sox, especially at the end of his line, became a wasteful enterprise. They ran too much. They bunted too much. They intentionally walked too many batters. They gave up too many steals. When a team freely forfeits that many at-bats, outs and bases in either half-inning, it puts a lot of pressure on the talent. Ventura entered the season running the thinnest White Sox team in years, so he would need to gain advantages elsewhere -- or, at the very least, stop with all the surrendering.

By and large, Ventura has held up his end of the bargain over his first half-season at the helm. He has opted to stay out of the way and let his players win or lose games with their execution at the plate and on the mound. This may not catch anybody off guard, since "low-key" is one of the chief adjectives associated with Ventura.

What's surprising is just how much the players have been able to pitch in. Maybe it's random fluctuation in performance, or maybe it's because Ventura doesn't pay lip service to preseason (and pregame) preparation like his predecessor did, but the Sox aren't undermining themselves nearly as frequently as in seasons past. In some areas, they've made unprecedented and completely unexpected gains.

(For instance, in that March post, I wrote that A.J. Pierzynski was "beyond help" when it comes to slowing down the running game. Well, it turns out you can teach old dogs new tricks.)

Ventura would probably downplay this, since he said his baseball philosophy didn't differ much from Guillen's. That might be true when talking, but it's horsehockey in practice. There are several areas where we can begin to quantify the impact of the strategical shift from Guillen to Ventura, and some stark differences have emerged at the 85-game mark.

Baserunning

  • 2012: 58 steals in 80 attempts (72.5 percent)
  • 2011: 33 steals in 65 attempts (50.8 percent)

Thanks to Juan Pierre's overnight transformation into the Little Engine That Couldn't Anymore, Guillen's Sox pulled off a helluva daily double -- they stole the third fewest bases in the first half of 2011, but were thrown out the third-most times. Guillen wanted his Sox to run, regardless of whether they possessed the ability, and they paid for it severely.

This year, the Sox are respectable in all facets of basestealing. They're right around the break-even rate, they're eighth in steals and seventh in efficiency. And they were in even better position before going 4-for-8 over their last 10 games. Perhaps Alex Rios needs to run more, and Alejandro De Aza needs to run less, or maybe it's just a temporary downturn not worthy of specific complaints.

Bunting

  • 2012: 22 sacrifice bunts (t-2nd)
  • 2011: 26 sacrifice bunts (4th)

Coming into the season, I prepared for Ventura to bunt too much. Lots of managers do it, and since he hadn't formed a managerial instinct, he might rely on conventional wisdom. It looked that way early on, especially when the Sox tried bunting six different times in a 14-inning loss to Oakland on April 25. The Sox had six sacrifice bunts over their first 18 games, and it should have been more, but the Sox botched four of them.

Since the bunting binge -- which was so excessive we had to cover it with two posts -- Ventura toned it down. The Sox went from a sac bunt every three games to one every four-plus. At the recent rate, the Sox would be sixth in bunts, not tied for second. That seems fine, especially since bunting is down across the league when compared to 2011.

Still, this seemed like a surprisingly high bunt total for the team itself, as I thought the Sox bunted far less in the first half this year, than they did in 2011. But wait -- sac bunts only count the successful attempts. It doesn't count unsuccessful bunt attempts (ones not put in play, or ones popped up, or simply pulling the bat back and taking a strike, etc.).

Giving it some thought, I figured out one way to take a quick look at how often the Sox are squaring around -- by looking at the number of times the Sox bunted a ball foul with Joe Lefkowitz's Pitch f/x tool. Through 85 games:

  • 2012: 31 foul bunts
  • 2011: 81 foul bunts

Theeeeeeeeeeeeere we go. These Sox may drop down sac bunts at a familiar frequency, but they don't make such a spectacle out of it. Hell, Juan Pierre had 30 foul bunts by himself!

Pitching

  • 2012: 10 intentional walks (13th)
  • 2011: 25 intentional walks (1st)

Guillen is an intentional walk addict. Over his eight years with the Sox, they led the league in this category four times, including his last two seasons.

Given that Guillen is an outlier in this category, I didn't think that Ventura would come particularly close to matching him. However, I didn't think that he would take the strategy in the opposite direction. Ventura is surprisingly stingy with calling for four wide, especially considering all those rookie pitchers might cause a manager to be conservative.

Then again, most IBBs are issued by relievers, and the Sox have thrown the fewest relief innings in the AL. Plus, Ventura has leaned heavily on veterans in tight spots (Matt Thornton is on pace for 79 appearances), so perhaps the pitchers he has further minimize any urges.

Defense

This one's in two parts.

  • 2012: .723 DER (third)
  • 2011: .703 DER* (10th)

Last year, the Sox finished with the second-worst defensive efficiency (batted balls converted into outs) in baseball. This year, they're fourth, and a thousandth of a point from being tied for second in the AL. Either way, the defense the Sox deploy is a whole lot better at making outs, and it's easy to see why. The outfield defense is vastly improved with De Aza in center and Rios in right, and Dayan Viciedo's reliable defense is a revelation, too.

(*Because defensive efficiency isn't sortable by halves, I did the simple calculation -- 1.000 minus BABIP allowed -- which gets you almost all the way there.)

  • 2012: 24-for-66 (second-fewest steals allowed)
  • 2011: 18-for-90 (third-most)

And this one we know very well. Pierzynski is throwing out 31 percent of basestealers, which is his best success rate since his first full season back in 2001. Tyler Flowers has been an even bigger surprise, gunning down eight of 15. And with both catchers, a fair portion of the successful steals have been directly attributed to the pitcher.

Out of all the ways a new manager could have affected the Sox, this one seemed like it was out of his hands. But the Sox did emphasize it during spring training after years of apparent neglect, which is a physical representation of Ventura's philosophy over his first 85 games. He's putting players in a position to succeed, and then getting the hell out of the way.

Of course, the hands-off game strategy works best when guys on the field deliver. Looking at these numbers and a few others (their league-leading .303 batting average with runners in scoring position), and it's evident the players are doing a great job of not forcing his hand. There might be some situations in the second half that require Ventura's intervention, but at the moment, this low-maintenance lifestyle suits everybody just fine.

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