"Get The Man In": Catchy Slogan, Successful Strategy, or Both?

I've been sitting on this topic for a week or so now, hoping I'd get the inspiration to go even more in-depth with the research, but that hasn't happened yet so here goes. By now, you've probably heard about how the Rays have a new catch-phrase: "Get The Man In" or GTMI. In short, the Rays have emphasized situational hitting, focusing on cutting down on strikeouts and making more contact with runners in scoring position. Derek Shelton has been getting lots of praise for the idea and implementation:

Shelton has not necessarily changed mechanics. His emphasis has been on the strategic approach. With runners in scoring position, a pitcher is more likely to stick with his best stuff, so a hitter has to adjust accordingly. The idea is not to find a pitch that you can hit a mile but to look for a pitch that you can handle well enough to get the runner in from third base.    

If you look purely at results, it seems like this approach is working; outside of last night's game, the Rays have been spectacular with runners in scoring position this season, hitting .297/.375/.470 in those situations (.845 OPS). That's all fine and dandy, but I'm skeptical; one of the principles of sabermetrics is that in the long run, players should perform the same regardless of if there are men on base or not. In small samples you may have have a player drastically over- or under-performing with runners on base - heck, whole teams can over- or under-perform in these situations for the course of an entire season - but that doesn't mean we should expect that performance to continue into the future. It's called regression - in clutch situations, players and teams should perform close to their career averages, so that's what we should expect going forward.

That said, maybe the Rays really are doing something different at the plate with runners in scoring position this season. If they're collectively changing their approaches to at-bats, then it's possible that they could be doing something that would influence their success rate. Let's take a look, shall we?

Recently, Andy Hellicksonstine shared a spreadsheet in the comments section of a post, detailing the Rays' numbers with runners in scoring position. I added a little bit to it, but for the most part it's the same; check it out here, or just read on for a summary. As of a few days ago, here is a breakdown of the 2010 Rays' plate appearances with runners in scoring position:

Hit%

BB%

K%

ISO

HR%

HBP%

RISP

25.28%

10.74%

17.23%

0.180

2.24%

1.34%

Other PAs

20.14%

10.13%

22.24%

0.131

1.98%

0.35%

Woh, okay. So the Rays are actually striking out less - significantly less - with runners in scoring position and as a result, they're putting more balls in play and getting more hits. They're walking at a similar rate, too, which shows that their plate discipline is relatively unchanged. What's odd, though, is that the Rays are actually hitting for more power with runners in scoring position, hitting more home runs and having a higher Isolated Power (ISO). If the Rays are focusing on just making contact and putting the ball in play, one would assume that their power numbers would suffer, right? I don't have a great explanation for this; it's not like the Rays are simply hitting more doubles, since they're actually hitting more home runs with runners on. Oh, and we're getting hit with the ball more with runners on, which doesn't have any bearing on anything but I found interesting.

Looking at those numbers, GTMI does appear to be having an effect on the Rays' approach, at least in that the Rays have cut down on strikeouts. Is this approach any different than last year, though?

Hit%

BB%

K%

ISO

HR%

HBP%

RISP

22.03%

13.55%

20.15%

0.156

2.28%

1.14%

Other PAs

23.07%

9.21%

19.44%

0.186

3.69%

0.58%

That's a definite "Yes." Last year it seems like the Rays were more concerned with working the count and taking walks with runners on base. Is one approach better than the other? At least so far, it seems so. Cutting down on strikeouts will help you increase your batting average since you're putting more balls in play (and by the law of Batting Average on Balls In Play, about 30% of those will fall for hits), and the Rays don't seem to be sacrificing any power yet by using that approach. It's an interesting approach and one that could work out for the Rays if they manage to keep it up.

Of course, I'd love to dig even deeper with the numbers is possible. If anyone out there has mad database skills and would like to run some numbers, I think it would be interesting to look at the Rays' plate discipline (O-Swing%, Z-Swing%, etc.) and batted ball (LD%, GB%, FB%) numbers with runners in scoring position, so we can see how they're achieving their results. In other words, why are they striking out less with runners on? Are the Rays being more selective, are they swinging at less pitches outside of the zone, or are they simply making more contact? Are they hitting more line drives and ground balls, and less fly balls? And how do these numbers compare with how they performed in 2009? Anyway, I'll throw that out there for you to think about - if you come up with anything, feel free to let us know in the comments or throw up a FanPost.

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