MLB Managers Are Playing Less Small Ball Than Ever

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It's well documented we're in an era of dominant pitching, with declines in home runs and batting averages coinciding with the highest strikeout rates in MLB history. But there are also other, less prominent stats gravitating toward record rates that have slipped by most fans.

According to Baseball Reference, triples are near record lows at 0.17 per game. (The record-low of 0.16, was set last year.) As seen in the chart below from High Heat Stats MLB, the amount of total hits triples account for has been declining for about 100 years now. This is attributed to improved fielding, shrinking ball park dimensions, and stadiums getting away from using artificial turf (which affects declines since the 1970s). Triples are rare, and somewhat random, events, and always have been; but their decline has been continuous.


Sacrifice bunts have also declined. The last two seasons tie for record low rates, with 0.28 per game. This is probably because it's getting further engrained into managers' heads that sac bunting doesn't pay off mathematically, as Ned Yost has (sort of) demonstrated.

Intentional walks have also declined to all-time lows, now at 0.2 per game. With pitchers striking out more batters and limiting balls in play, intentional walks have less of a payoff, but these rates were already declining before pitchers began their recent dominance. Probably this comes down to intentional walking being generally, a bad strategy unless you're facing Barry Bonds.


Unlike triples, sac bunts and intentional walks involve calculated strategy. Triple declines come from changes in ballpark construction and player ability, while drops in bunts and walks come from strategic changes. With analytics entrenched in baseball, managers realize now more than ever that some plays are just poor calls; this is leading to their dying out, in nearly Darwinian fashion. The upshot? We'll probably see fewer intentional walks and sac bunts next season, and even fewer in the one after that.

Photo: Ed Zurga / Getty Images