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Boston College Baseball: Resetting Birdball, Part I - The Offense

For all its memorable moments, we start looking back and forward for Birdball. We start with a review of this year’s offense.

Johnny Adams Birdball John Quackenbos for BC Athletics

The 2016 Boston College baseball season will forever live as one of the finest results of any sport in Eagles athletics history. It was the deepest a Birdball team advanced into the NCAA Tournament, coming within a late-game salting by Miami of going to the College World Series.

During the team’s run, the prevailing attitude said that defense and pitching was largely responsible for the success, while the offense was anemic. Basic statistics backed up the theory; BC’s .264 batting average placed them 12th out of 14 teams, four percentage points ahead of the basement and a full nine points behind the next team in front of them.

Specialty numbers supported that stat. The Eagles ranked 11th in total hits, 12th in doubles, 13th in triples, and dead last in homers, total bases, and slugging percentage. They finished in the top half of the league in one offensive category, but it’s the one category where you want your team closer to the bottom - strikeouts.

So at first glance, the offense didn’t do the team any favors. Prior to the season, I predicted BC would need 569 total hits and 801 total bases in order to win 32 games, scoring 318 runs, and make the ACC Tournament. The Eagles didn’t just make the ACC Tournament; they finished eighth and qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed in a non-nationally seeded regional.

But they did it with 69 less runs, 114 less hits, and 195 less bases.

The Eagle offense wasn’t as bad as those numbers would indicate, however. One number I’ve used all season is the term “batting average on balls in play.” It subtracts home runs, but it also subtracts sacrifice fly balls and strikeouts to measure performance on balls hit solely inside the field of play.

Amazingly, after the tournament and the run through to Miami, BC rated at .327 on balls hit in play, a full 63 points better than their average would indicate.

At the dish, some of the team’s best hitters were also the team’s most habitual whiffers. So the numbers on the stat sheet can be a little misleading. Michael Strem, for example, hit .301 on the year but struck out 47 times, one less than Joe Cronin’s team lead of 48. Strem also only hit one homer and one sacrifice fly. When Strem got the ball in play, he hit .378. Unfortunately, he struck out nearly 19% of the time.

For Cronin, the team captain, the number is even more stark. Over the course of the season, he only hit .267, striking out the aforementioned 48 times while leading the team with four homers. On balls hit into play, he hit .327, a jump of 60 points, second only to Strem. Again, it shows that the middle of the order, when it got the bat on the ball, was capable of driving in runs. Unfortunately, it also reveals a tendency to strike out more often than a coach probably cares for.

What’s that mean? It means BC had to work harder to manufacture a run even though they had the ability to drive them in. If a player strikes out 20% of the time he’s at the plate, that means hits, sacrifice flies, sacrifice hits, walks, and the little-used defensive interference makes up the remaining 80%. If a batter is only hitting .267 or .300, it’s very nearly just as likely that one of two things will happen - a base hit of some sort or a strikeout.

At the same time, the team mostly hit singles. Only 24% of BC’s hits went for extra bases, a number that drops to 6% of all at-bats and a smaller number still of all plate appearances. So the likelihood of doubling a runner home from first stood microscopic in the face of their ability to actually get hits when the ball was actually in play.

A goal of a head coach is to play to the odds and minimize the damage that can be caused by negative outcomes. For that, he turns to the other 50%, which include higher-percentage plays to move runners into certain situations. While a bunt or sacrifice fly may give up an out, it also moves the runner ahead a base. It guarantees the runners stay in motion.

That’s also why the offense would utilize stolen bases in the manner they did. BC attempted 98 stolen bases, succeeding nearly 75% of the time. With that percentage, it’s better to steal a base and then play to the percentage that can move the runner up another base rather than play to the high risk, high reward type plays.

That’s just a rational explanation through the numbers, but it doesn’t take away from what was an incredibly interesting season. The baseball numbers for BC are one of the first teams I’ve ever seen that support nearly argument.

For people who want to say BC should be playing station-to-station and avoiding the small ball game, they have their answer with the BABIP. They can argue that bunting takes the bats away team that was capable of getting hits when the ball was in play inside the park, and to be honest, the numbers do support that they might be right.

At the same time, though, the inconsistency and irregularity with which it happened supports the methodology. If a batter is just as likely to strikeout as he is get a base hit, that’s not a gamble a coach can hit the reset button on. He would rather get the team in a position to play into greater percentages and better situations. With a runner on first and nobody out, the batter may be just as likely to single him over as he is strike out.

The guarantee of moving a man over then comes into play. That’s where small ball has to happen. The percentage of moving runners along the paths using an element of small ball becomes more transparent and, in some cases, necessary. They make sense, and, in the case of the 2016 Eagles, they worked thanks to the team’s chemistry and ability to feed off one another.

This year’s Boston College baseball team was one of the most unique offensive teams we may see in college baseball. The Eagles were one of the most capable teams of batting around with singles, a boxer capable of winning a fight based solely on dancing around the ring and jabbing his opponent’s eye shut over eight rounds. But they were also a team that needed to clench and grab, use every advantage they could, because there was no guarantee that would work in any given game.