Inside Pitch Magazine, Spring 2014

Cover Interview: Free Bases with Rob Smith, Ohio University

Inside Pitch Magazine Cover Ask any baseball coach after a loss and they'll probably point out a number of reasons why their team came up short. They're even more likely to mention walks, errors, stolen bases allowed, wild pitches/passed balls, hit batters and balks. In fact, most teams can probably point to the “free bases” they give up as reasons for losing a game or having a poor season.

For a number of years, Ohio University head coach Rob Smith has studied the effect of free bases on the game. Focus- ing his study on the concept that most baseball games are lost and not won, Smith has actually been able to quantify the ef- fect that free bases have on winning and losing.

“Limiting free bases certainly isn’t anything that I created,” Smith said. “Essentially what I did was in 2007, we had talked about it with the Creighton team I was a part of and at the end of the year, we knew that we did pretty well and I was curious as to how well we compared to other teams. I started with our own league and saw we were the best in the league. Then I compiled a handful of the Midwestern conferences—teams that were comparable to us—and noticed that we were the best of all those teams. Then I started adding in all the bigger conferences and then all the schools and sure enough, we were the number one team in the country in (preventing) free bases al- lowed per nine innings that year.”

“After that, it really became something I started looking closely at. I wanted to see how free bases correlated to winning, to winning teams, and to teams that made the NCAA tournament. From all of that data compiling, I really started to see some trends. Some of it is just common sense—if you do limit free bases, you’re probably going to play good baseball.”

While you may not have to be a base- ball expert to understand that free bases often determine the winner and loser of a game, knowing just how much they influence the final outcome is another matter.

“We emphasize it in practice and constantly come back to it post-practice, post-scrimmage, to ‘this is why you were successful’ or ‘this is why you struggled,’” says Smith. “When you start to understand how these free bases correlate to winning, players really start to attach a lot more value to it in the practice setting.” A former Collegiate Baseball Teaching Professional of the Year, Smith recently shared the results of his ongoing study with Inside Pitch. In addition to his findings, he also offers some tips for how you can work with your team to limit free bases:

THE FACTS ON FREE BASES

No. 1: Base on Balls
  • Biggest of the free bases per game (FB/9) at 44%
  • National average – 3.65 per game
  • Best in nation – 1.41 per game
  • Can be practiced and controlled via bullpen structure
  • Emphasize first pitch strikes: 75-80% of walks come from 1-0 count
  • First pitch statistics from 2013: 52% take rate, 18% foul balls, 14% outs, 9% swing and miss, 6% base hits, 1% errors

Tip for coaches: “Let’s say we’re working on 0-0 counts. We’ll work a lot of two pitch sets, and everything that we’ll do in those bullpens will be 0-0 count, it’ll be a strike or a ball, and from 0-1 or 1-0 we’ll move on to that next pitch and execute it. Then we’ll come back to that 0-0 count, so there’s constant feedback. We try to put it in a little bit of a competitive situation. We’ll also chart everything for some feedback at the end of the bullpen, so that they have some numbers to wrap their heads around. We are constantly trying to emphasize how important those strikes are and why they will help us win games.”

No. 2: Errors
  • 2nd highest FB/9: 16%
  • Encourage pitchers to work with pace
  • Spend time with defense on catching and throwing the ball
  • Create pressure in practice

Tip for coaches: “When you look at errors, I think you have to put a lot of emphasis on throwing and catching the ball. That starts with our throwing program during the first 15 minutes of practice. In the practice setting, you have to get guys to practice faster, you have to get game speed. The more often they do that, I think the more comfortable they get at that game pace. Ultimately that will help minimize or eliminate errors in a game. If you practice at a slower pace and the players aren’t going game speed, it will create errors when guys get sped up.”

Again, there’s a heavy emphasis in that practice setting on handling the ball and on throwing and catching. We realize that if we mishandle a ball in practice, we’ll ultimately mishandle the ball in the game. If you can find defenders who can make plays and pitchers that can throw strikes, it pays off.”

No. 3: Stolen Bases Allowed
  • 3rd highest FB/9: 13%
  • Get pitchers comfortable working quick to the plate (1.3 seconds or less)
  • Work on picks and changing hold times to help minimize attempts

No. 4: Hit by Pitch (HBP)
  • 4th highest FB/9: 12%
  • Eliminate wrong side or sloppy off speed HBP
  • Go inside aggressively
  • Practice throwing inside with batters standing in
  • NCAA average = 58 HBP in 56 games
  • MLB average = 52 HBP in 162 games

No. 5: Wild Pitches
  • FB/9: 10%
  • Create pressure in bullpen
  • Eliminate bounced fastballs
  • Catchers take ownership

No. 6: Passed Balls
  • FB/9: 3%
  • Don't cross up signs
  • Heavy emphasis on bullpen work for catchers: receiving is the most important element

Tip for coaches:
“Bullpen sessions really have to be elevated mentally. You have to challenge them in the bullpen. I don’t think the bullpen is the time for mechanics—we do a lot of our mechanics on flat ground so when we get into a bullpen setting, it’s about execution. 95 percent of our bullpens are execution-based. There’s an end result, basically. That includes things like wild pitches, hit by pitches and passed balls.”

Breakdown: catchers per game
• NCAA Division I averages: 20 foul balls + 9 hits + 21 outs in play + 80 pitches to receive = ~140 pitches per game
• Chances (pitches that are received, blocked, or thrown to bases)= 88% received, 10% blocked, 2% thrown to bases

Tip for coaches: “When you look at the catching side of things, you have to put heavy, heavy emphasis on the receiving part. A lot of times you get caught up in the throwing aspect. When you think about it, a catcher’s going to catch a ball many more times than he’s going to throw the ball in a game.”

No. 7: Balks
  • FB/9: 2%
  • Based on discipline and poise
  • Practice the various moves

APPLICATION: EVALUATING PLAYERS

“For defenders, their main measuring point is their fielding percentage, how they handle the ball. For pitchers, really it’s a combination. We’ll look at walks, wild pitches, hit by pitches and stolen bases allowed. Those four are very directly related to the pitcher. I will look at each individual pitcher and their free bases per nine innings. That certainly gives me a good gauge to who we can pitch in certain situations. If you have that pitcher who allows 7-9 free bases per nine innings, you probably know that’s not the kid to throw in a one-run game. If he gives up two free bases and a single, that’s a run.”

Fact: The top 50 college pitchers in 2013 (based on ERA) averaged 3.96 FB/9. Those who threw 50 or more innings with an ERA of over 4.00? 7.28 FB/9.

“If you look at the top 50 pitchers in the country in earned run average, they’re going to be the best at minimizing free bases. Normally when you look at pitchers that tend to give up more runs— one metric we use for this is an ERA of 4.00 or higher—they’re normally going to be anywhere from 5-9 free bases per nine innings. You can really see some correlations, and that’s another way to get that across to the pitching staff. Ultimately the guys who are doing it better are the ones that are going to pitch in critical situations.”

APPLICATION: EVALUATING TEAMS

“I don’t really look at it as we have to have less free bases allowed than our opponents. We have an internal goal—five or six per game. At Creighton, our goal was five per game and when we only allowed five free bases or less, we would win 85 percent of our games, so that number was pretty key. Right now at Ohio, we talk a lot allowing six free bases per game. I don’t really care about how many free bases the other team gives up because if our team can keep our free bases around five or six, I know that we’ll be in the game, regardless of how many our opponents give us. If our opponents give up nine or ten and we give up five, it’s likely that we’ll score more runs than they will. That’s the nature of how the free bases concept works.”

While breaking down the accumulation of free bases throughout a given season is one thing, its effect to winning is another:

  • From 2007 through 2012, Creighton won 85% of games when they allowed five free bases or less (national average was 8.34).
  • In 2013, Cal State Fullerton owned the best FB/9 rate in the in nation, 4.03. The worst allowed 15.72 FB/9, resulting in an 8-41 record.
  • In 2012, Purdue allowed 5.08, good for first in the nation. They won 45 games. In 2013, they allowed 9.63 FB/9, 237th in the nation. They won 28 less games.
  • In 2012, Central Arkansas allowed 7.57 FB/9 (108th in the nation, 25 wins) and had a team batting average of .278. In 2013, they improved to 5.43 FB/9 (6th in the nation, 42 wins), even though they hit just .265 as a team.
  • In 2013, Bowling Green State was the only regional team with below .500 winning percentage. Prior to the MAC tournament, they went 20-28 and gave up an average of 8.58 FB/9. During the MAC tournament (which they won), the Falcons improved to 3.52 FB/9.

“It’s really the backbone of how I want to build this program at Ohio. Smith adds. “Again, it’s not unique to me or to teams that I’ve been a part of, but I think what’s been interesting is the research over the last six years and seeing how it affects winning on a national scale, and how interesting it is when you look at teams that have really good offenses but don’t win as many games as they’d like. And then you’ll see teams that struggle throughout the year with free bases but get into a conference tournament, for example, and do very well with it and next thing you know, they’re in a regional. “It always comes back to free bases and it holds true every year. There’s going to be a team under .500 make a regional that was an 8-10 free bases per nine inning club during the year. But, when they get in the conference tournament they’ll be in that 3-5 range for a few games and sure enough, they’re in a regional. That part of it continues to reinforce my belief in how valuable it is.”

Win Differential and TFB, 2012 to 2013
There is also a correlation between win differential from one year to the next and national ranking for free bases per nine innings. Here’s what Smith has found over the past two seasons across college baseball:

  • University of South Alabama: +20 wins, -145 (the second number indicates the lowering or increase in rankings nationally for FB/9)
  • South Dakota State University: +17, -134
  • University of Indiana: +17, -169
  • Purdue -28, +235
  • Baylor University: -22, +208
  • St. John's University: -17, +153

National Breakdown
  • 17 of the top 20 teams in winning percentage ranked in the top 85 for FB/9
  • Teams that allowed 6.0 FB/9 or less went 596-248, winning 70.6% of their games
  • 6.1-7.0 FB/9: .618 (1,681-1,041)
  • 7.01-8.0 FB/9: .552 (2,387-1,935)
  • 8.01-9.0 FB/9: .489 (1,668-1,741)
  • 9.01-10.0 FB/9: .430 (1,213-1,607)
  • 10.01 and up: .327 (817-1,680)
  • 14 of the 16 regional winners ranked in top 60 in FB/9, and 7 of 8 College World Series participants ranked in top 60

Parallels in professional baseball
  • The 2013 MLB average in FB/9 was 5.12
  • 4.29 was the best (St. Louis) and 6.30 was the worst (Houston)
  • 11 of the top 15 teams (according to winning percentage) were in top half of league for FB/9, and six of the eight playoff teams were in the top 15

LAYING THE FOUNDATION:

How to minimize your team’s free bases
Having won three Missouri Valley Conference titles while at Creighton, Smith has taken steps to ensure his teams know the value of free bases. “A lot of it starts at the very beginning in terms of how you plan the fall. When we talk about these free bases and how to implement them in a practice setting, I think you really have to start with some of the most basic fundamental elements of what creates free bases. “Going into a practice or a season, we can really sit down with the team and tell them why we stress this. I think a lot of the time players too easily discard making the routine play, throwing and catching, pitchers throwing strikes—players can take way too much of that for granted. They may think games are won and lost on the home run, or the play in the six-hole, or the big strikeout somebody gets in the eighth inning. But the truth is, games are really decided based on free bases. “I think it can also have a profound effect on how you recruit and the players that you look for and put into your system. If you can find guys who are good at those aspects and understand that, then you’re going to be in a position to win a lot of games.”

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright 2020 American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.