Tipping Pitches: Sports: Top 10 Sports Strategies that Make No Sense


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sports: Top 10 Sports Strategies that Make No Sense

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I've written some bitter stuff lately, focused mainly on baseball. Poor economic system. Lame baseball strategies. So this got me thinking.

What are the top 10 sports strategies that make no sense? Coaches and managers from all three of the major sports leagues are guilty of following conventional wisdom for the sake of avoiding criticism and keeping their jobs.

But that doesn't keep the moves from failing to make any rational sense. So here they are. My list. Let me know what I'm missing (and for those who don't like to read, the abbreviated list is on the right)...

1. Removing a star player in foul trouble
2. Closers and relief roles
3. The prevent defense
4. Defensive substitutions of star hitter
5. Refusing to go for it on fourth down
6. Clock management
7. Batting and pitching match-ups
8. Swing for the fences!
9. Down by 20, so start bombing threes!
10. The 100 pitch count
1. Removing a star player from the game due to foul trouble (basketball). I know a lot of smart basketball people, and they just shake their heads at me like I'm stupid. But this makes no sense. Let's say you're in a must win game. Playoffs. Star player collects his second foul in the first quarter. Or third foul in the second quarter. Whatever, doesn't matter. Coach always benches him.

Why? He's petrified that said star player won't be available for the final minutes of the game.

Let's talk about how silly this is. This is your star player. Your best chance of winning is having that star player on the court as many minutes as possible. The more he sits, the lower your chances go.

If that player fouls out early, the coach looks like an idiot. But is he?

The coach maximized that player's time on the court. Instead of sitting the player for 10 minutes during the game, he kept playing him until he fouled out with five minutes left. So in reality, that player was on the court more because he fouled out.

But this strategy is used for two reasons: 1) Because the end of the game is perceived to be most important; and 2) Because benching a player in foul trouble is conventional wisdom.

The fact is that no minute is more important than another. If you leave your star player in the game and build a lead, he may not be needed for the final three minutes anyway.

If you keep him out and you fall behind, the coach falls back on "well, he was in foul trouble."

So? Play him! If you bench a player in foul trouble and he ends up with four fouls, you overmanaged.

Let the player foul out. First half, second half, whatever. You're maximizing that player's time on the court which ultimately gives you the best chance to win.


2. Closers and Relief Roles (baseball).  Once the "save" was invented, pitching strategy went into the toilet.  Or maybe it wasn't when the statistic was invented, but when pitchers started getting paid for said statistic.

Suddenly, you needed to have a "closer."  And that closer should only be used when the team is ahead by one to three runs with one inning or less to play.  Only a save situation.

There would be rare exceptions, of course, to give the pitcher work.  And more often than not, or so it seemed, the closer would lose his head in those situations and give up four runs.

Because of the save, managers are more concerned about satisfying their pitchers and getting them stats than they are about winning.

Truth is, it shouldn't be too hard to get three outs with a three run lead.  Or two run lead.  Or one run, for that matter.  I don't think you really "saved" anything. 

You know what I consider a save?  If a pitcher comes in with a one run lead, the bases loaded and no outs in the eighth inning, gets out of it and pitches a scoreless ninth.  Now that's a save.

But you'll never see such an appearance these days.

Hasn't always been that way.  Before the "save" was a big deal, Rollie Fingers won the Cy Young and MVP awards as a reliever in 1981.  He finished with a 1.04 ERA, .872 WHIP, 28 saves and six wins.

But he wasn't pitching an inning per night.  That's the beauty of it.  In 47 appearances, Fingers pitched longer than an inning 30 times.  He pitched two innings or more 19 times; three innings or more four times; and even pitched four innings or more twice.

Why did he pitch so much?  Because he was the Brewers' best pitcher.  And he was used in crucial situations when they needed to shut the door.  Not just the ninth inning.

3. The Prevent Defense (football).  We've heard it before, but the only thing the Prevent Defense prevents is winning.  For those not in the know, this strategy is typically implemented when your team has a reasonable lead and is trying to prevent the big play.

It seemingly never works.

This is the thing.  You're ahead for a reason.  You've been pressuring the quarterback.  Getting in his face.  Making him throw off his back foot and into coverage.  Forcing turnovers.

Now you're going to sit back and let him pick you apart.  No pressure.

I don't care how many defensive backs you throw out there.  If there's no pressure on the quarterback, he'll eventually find someone open.

4. Defensive Substitutions of Star Offensive Players (baseball). This is a classic Ned Yost move, but he isn't alone.  Ryan Braun enjoyed a historic rookie season, hitting 34 home runs in a partial season.  He was the Brewers finest hitter that season and won the Rookie of the Year award.

But he was terrible at third base.  With an .895 fielding percentage, he was very likely the poorest defensive player at his position.

But did that poor defense really outweigh his immense offensive talents?  Late in games Yost would routinely sit Braun for a defensive replacement like Craig Counsell.  Counsell, who hit about .220 that season, was a superior defensive player but clearly did not possess anything close to Braun's offensive abilities.

Now, I understand when this strategy may make sense.  Let's say it's the ninth inning and your team has already hit.  You're up by a run or two.  And even if the opposition ties up the game, Braun just hit so he won't be coming up again for at least two innings.

At that point, it makes some sense.

But Yost overdid it.  He'd remove Braun in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings.  And he'd do it when Braun was definitely going to hit at least one more time in the game.

Was it worth it?  The odds are that Braun might get one ball hit to him every three innings.  And based on his fielding percentage, he would handle nine of 10 of those opportunities properly.

So, there would be about a 3% chance that Braun would make an error during a three inning stretch.  So you take him out.  For Craig Counsell.

Never mind that no matter who the replacement, they are no sure thing to handle every ball hit to him.

But let's say the opposition ties the game.  Runner on second.  Need a hit.  And Ryan Braun's spot is due up.

But it isn't Braun.  It's Craig Counsell.

Was it worth it?  All because of a 3% chance of an error?


5. Refusing to go for it on fourth down (football).  Maybe I've played too much Madden over the years, but it drives me crazy when head coaches refuse to go for it on fourth down.  A classic example is fourth and goal from the one, and they kick a field goal.

Really?  Your team just drove 80 yards, you're one yard out, and you're going to kick a field goal?

Go for it.  Now, obviously, there are exceptions.  But particularly during the first half of the game, going for it makes a whole lot of sense.

If you don't get it, who cares?  The other team isn't going to drive 99 yards, in all likelihood.  Safety is a possibility.  And the chances you'll get the ball back in great field position are excellent.

And these are worst case scenarios if you aren't able to move the ball a yard.

But teams also need to go for it more often between the opposition's 50 and 40 yard lines, particularly in short yardage situations.  You can't kick a field goal.  You could punt, but for what?  As bad as today's punting is, you're probably only going to gain 20 yards or so versus not getting the first down.

Worst case scenario, you get stopped and the other team gets the ball back.  So?  They still need to drive and score.  You're not giving them points.

Go for it.  It is incredibly difficult to stop the opposition from getting a first down when you give them four chances. 

To be honest, pass it.  Defensive backs aren't the smartest breed.  Throw deep and hope either your player catches it or the ball is intercepted.

Knowing those defensive backs, they'll intercept it at the five yard line and dance around like they just did the greatest thing ever.

6. Clock Management (football).  Let me provide a scenario I've seen too many times.

Down by a field goal.  Three time outs left plus the two-minute warning.  Other team has the ball.  First down.

Time out with 2:45 remaining.  Second down.  Time out with 2:30 remaining.  Third down.  One time out left.

Play run.  Fourth down.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Two minute warning.

What in the world just happened?  The team used the two minute warning as a time out, saving their time out for under two minutes.  Because they didn't want to be left without a time out with under two minutes to go.

Silly.  If you use your final time out with 2:15 left, let the team run one more play, they'll kick the ball with two minutes remaining.  Instead, you saved that time out for after the opposition runs another play with two minutes, so you get the ball back with about 1:45 left.

You just wasted 15 seconds.

But of course this isn't the only example of poor clock management.  It happens regularly.  Another example is saving time outs for when you have the ball.  When in reality, the best time to use a time out is when the opposition has the ball since they will do all they can to run off the clock.

When you have the ball, you can run hurry up and stop the clock, which is just as good as a time out.

But whatever.  Keep doing what you do.  You're the professionals.

7. Batting and Pitching Match-ups (baseball).
Eighth inning.  Two on.  Two out.  One run game.  Left handed hitter up.  Right handed pitcher on the mound.

Time to make a pitching change, right?

It's automatic in today's game.  The truth is, though, that it shouldn't be an automatic, blanket solution.  How does this hitter fare against the pitcher on the mound?  How does he fare in general against left handed pitchers and right handed pitchers?  Is the alternative in the bullpen any better?

Not every hitter hits poorly against pitchers who throw from the side they hit.  Some do better.  And for some, the difference is negligible.

But the change is made 99.9% of the time.

Another has to do with pre-game lineups.  It happens every game.  Look at the lineup and some random scrub is starting.

Why is Bill Hall in the lineup?  Because he's 4-for-6 lifetime against (fill in the blank).

Because he's 4-for-6?  Really?  That's a pretty large sample size there, buster.  And how long ago were those at bats?  Were they when Hall was actually good?  Was the pitcher going through a slump?  Context, please.

But managers love those small sample sizes.  They love them too much.  And ultimately, it leads to overmanagement.

8. Swing for the Fences! (baseball).  I'll be the first to admit that managers may have bunted and attempted to steal too many bases back in the day.  But these days, those strategies are nearly non-existent.

Why?  The home run.  Why bunt or try to steal a base when you can just sit back and wait for the home run ball?

But my complaint isn't entirely that teams don't bunt or steal bases anymore.  It's that managers don't require power hitters to ever change their approach.

Don't bunt.  Don't worry about hitting it the opposite way.  Don't make sure you make contact with two strikes.  Don't shorten up.  Just do what you do.  Hit home runs.

A great example of this is a tie game in the ninth inning.  Runner on third, one out.  The worst thing you can do is strike out.  Just put the ball in play.  Please.

But what happens?  Power hitter swings from his heels.  Not sure why.  It doesn't matter if he hits a home run.  They only need one.  Two looks better in the score book (and his stat sheet), but it's a win either way.

It's selfish baseball, but it's an approach that managers encourage.

9. Down by 20, so Let's Start Bombing Threes (basketball).  It's a sign that a team has given up.  We couldn't play defense.  We couldn't make any high percentage shots.  So let's start hoisting up three-pointers.  You know, because they're worth more points.

Never mind that you're praying to the basketball gods, hoping to go against the statistical likelihood that you'll score more points shooting three after three when the opposition knows it's coming.

Never mind that a missed three pointer is more likely to result in a long rebound, setting up a fast break to the defender who was playing at the three-point line.

Never mind that high percentage shots result in points, are more likely to result in fouls (putting the opposition into foul trouble and the penalty), and could even result in three-point plays.

Tighten up your defense.  Take the ball to the hole.  Force the action to the defense.  It's your best chance.

But sure, go ahead.  Hoist up those threes.  And lose by 35.

10. The 100 Pitch Count (baseball).  Now, I'm not going to go so far as to say that teams should manage pitchers the way they did 60 or 80 years ago.  Sure, some pitchers threw 12-inning games or more.  Some threw upwards of 200 pitches in a game.  Some eclipsed 400 innings in a season.

Long pitching careers were also less common in those days.  Granted, that has something to do with poorer medical technology, but let's not pretend that pitchers avoided injury.

Still, the 100 pitch count limit is ridiculous.  Pitchers still get hurt regularly.  They're wimps.  As soon as they've thrown their 100th pitch, they're looking into the dugout, waiting to be taken out.

But this behavior is encouraged by management.  Because pitchers aren't expected to throw more than 100 pitches.

So pitchers wear down more easily in high stress environments.  And when their team needs them to throw more innings or on less rest, they can't.

The 100 pitch number isn't magic.  It shouldn't be universal.  It doesn't need to apply to all pitchers.  Maybe apply it to young pitchers with an injury history.

But in the end, is the pitcher still getting outs?  Leave him in there.  Is he your best chance of getting your team a win?  Leave him in there.

Does he stink?  Get him out.


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