May 8, 2014
The Masters of the Manufactured Run
Like many posts and podcasts before it, this one began with a question from a member of the Effectively Wild Facebook Group:
Hamilton scored the run Mike is referring to in an April 29 game against the Cubs. It wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, three of Hamilton’s 13 runs on the season so far have been scored without a hit. On April 21, Hamilton led off the second inning against Francisco Liriano with a walk. He then stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch, waited out another walk, and scored on a second wild pitch. On April 21, again with Liriano on the mound, Hamilton was hit by a pitch to lead off the game, advanced to third on a groundout back to the pitcher (he had been trying to steal), and scored on a fielder’s choice. Here’s what that looked like.
Okay, so Mike’s isn’t the most consequential question. Still, going home-to-first without a hit has a special appeal. In baseball, scoring runs normally resembles a relay race, requiring contributions from multiple batters. Once a guy gets on, he usually has to stand there and hope that another batter (or batters) right behind him gets a good pitch to hit. DIY runs are rare, and they leave you with the wonderful feeling of having gotten something for nothing. Outside of hitting a homer, doing what Hamilton did is the closest a baseball player can come to going coast-to-coast or completing a 100-yard kick return.
So let’s tackle both of Mike’s questions, beginning with the first. The table below contains the list of single-season leaders from 1948–2013 in runs scored without a hit, which I referred to as “manufactured runs” in the title so as not to scare you off but will henceforth refer to as “Hamilruns.” (You’re still free to leave, but your unique visit is already mine.) The “times on base” column counts any time a batter got on, via any means—hit, walk, hit by pitch, fielder’s choice, error, you name it. It doesn’t count times on base as a pinch runner, so if a runner replaces someone who walked and comes around to score without being advanced by a hit, that run won’t be reflected here. To record a Hamilrun, a hitter has to complete the circuit himself.
The right-most column, Hamilrun Rate, tells you what percentage of a hitter’s times on base resulted in a Hamilrun. (If for some reason you’d like to see the complete list of single-season and career leaders, you can find it here. Player IDs come from Retrosheet.)
Clearly, there’s a certain type of player who’s best suited to scoring without having a hit involved. Runners who can take second or third unassisted have a better chance to tally a Hamilrun than those who have to wait for a helping hand from the batters behind them, so premium speeders have a prominent presence on this leaderboard. Dick Howser’s 37 steals in 1961 (when he had nine Hamilruns) is the list’s lowest total.
Rickey Henderson has five of the top 16 top Hamilrun seasons, and Vince Coleman and Joe Morgan check in with two more. In Coleman’s 1986 season, which I’ve written about before, he stole 107 bases with a .301 on-base percentage, which was the sort of insanity we hoped for from Hamilton as soon as this season. Of course, the list isn’t without its one-and-done guys; Cuyler made it as a rookie, when he stole 41 bases for Detroit, but he never again played a full season and was out of baseball by age 30. One doesn’t necessarily have to be a good hitter to score a lot of Hamilruns: Cruz, a no-hit, good-glove guy at second, slugged .269 in 1978 with a .227 TAv but managed to make 634 plate appearances and steal 59 bases.
Here’s the career Hamilruns leaderboard (again, from 1948–2013). You can add Henderson’s 125 Hamilruns to the list of baseball records that might never be broken.
So what’s the prognosis for Hamilton? We know he has the speed to keep up with anyone on the list, and he also has the willingness to steal. Before being sidelined by a hand injury that seems likely to land him on the disabled list, Hamilton was off to a strong start in the Hamilrun department, despite not having been on base often. As long as he sticks in the leadoff spot, he’ll have the plate appearances it takes to rack up Hamilruns, and with Joey Votto batting second, he could refuse to steal and still advance to second on Votto walks almost 20 percent of the time. He’s not nearly the on-base threat that Hall of Famers Henderson and Morgan were, but he’s capable of getting on at a Coleman-esque clip.
However, Hamilton is at a disadvantage, because he’s playing in an era that isn’t receptive to Hamilruns. At no point in the last 60-plus years has the league-wide Hamilrun Rate been lower than it was last year.
League-average on-base percentage is at its lowest ebb since 1988, if not the early 1970s, and although that’s mostly because batting average is down, the league-wide walk rate has also seen some shrinkage. Thanks to the ever-rising strikeout rate, balls in play are relatively scarce. While that means fewer hits, it also means fewer opportunities for fielding miscues and “productive outs.” When batters do manage to make contact, fielders are making fewer errors: last year’s .985 fielding percentage was the highest ever.
Here’s a hard truth, for those of us who enjoy the statistical side of the game but also really like seeing players like Hamilton score without a hit: the sabermetric movement is really hurting the Hamilrun. Sacrifice bunts and intentional walks, two of the most overused in-game tactics in less enlightened times, are at their lowest levels ever, which takes away two non-hit ways for runners to advance. What’s more, stolen base attempt rates are down significantly since the heyday of Henderson and Coleman, perhaps in part because teams have a better sense of the breakeven rate than they once did. The stolen base success rate has risen, but not enough to make up for the decline in attempts, as far as Hamilruns are concerned.
Hamilton’s task isn’t impossible. Michael Bourn made the single-season leaderboard with nine Hamilruns in 2012, so there’s some recent precedent, and Hamilton has playing time and many of the skills we want to see in someone who can score without a hit. (Plus, he plays in the same division as Francisco Liriano, which seems to help.) However, between his on-base issues and the effect of his era, he’s facing an uphill climb.
Thanks for research assistance goes to Retrosheet and Russell A. Carleton, who make a fantastic team.