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Stolen bases are one element of small-ball. Here, the all-time stolen base leader, Rickey Henderson, swipes third in 1988.

In the sport of baseball, small-ball is an informal and colloquial term for an offensive strategy in which the batting team emphasizes placing runners on base and then advancing them into position to score a run in a deliberate, methodical way. This strategy places a high value on individual runs and attempts to score them without requiring extra base hits, or sometimes without base hits at all, instead using bases on balls, stolen bases, sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly balls, the hit-and-run play, and aggressive baserunning. A commonly used term for a run produced playing small-ball is a "manufactured run". This style of play is more often found in National League game situations than in the American League due in large part to the absence of the designated hitter in the National League.[1]

Teams may incorporate a small-ball strategy for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. They are confident that their pitching staff will allow very few runs, thus one or two runs may win the game.
  2. The opposing pitching staff allows few hits, especially extra-base hits, and small-ball may be the best way to score runs at all.
  3. The team lacks consistent hitters and must find a way to score runs with few base hits.
  4. The team has several members who are very quick and are likely to steal bases, or go from first base to third base on a single.
  5. The team is in the late innings of a close game and a single run will tie the game, break a tie, or extend a narrow lead.

Most commonly, a small-ball strategy will be employed during the course of a game, such as in case #4, above. A team could also start the game with the intention of playing small-ball, but then change from this strategy at some point during a game, depending on circumstances, such as when the opposing pitcher is struggling or has left the game, or if the team is ahead or behind by several runs.



Small ball is a contrast to a style sometimes called the "big inning", where batters focus more on drawing walks or getting extra-base hits and home runs. This may produce many innings with little but strikeouts and flyouts, but occasionally innings with several runs.

By playing small-ball, the team trades the longer odds of a big inning for the increased chances of scoring a single run. This is because small-ball often requires the trading of an out to advance a runner so it will usually reduce the number of batting opportunities the team will have in that inning.

Small ball, which once could describe nearly any team's general offensive strategy, has become less common because of the designated hitter rule and the general era of smaller parks and more home runs. However, all big league managers are still skilled at managing from a small ball perspective, as it is sometimes necessary, especially in critical games. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén was widely credited for saying his 2005 World Series champion team played not small ball or big inning ball, but "smart ball", which has come to mean a more adaptable strategy.

The general idea of playing small ball is much more widely accepted and used in Japan; many good hitters will frequently be asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt in favor of advancing a runner if the lead off batter reached first or second base (thereby resulting in the batting team having a runner on with no outs to start the inning).


In a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning, the batting team needs to score a single run to win the game. The team's first goal, playing small ball, is to get a runner on base. This may be done in a conventional way, such as by hitting safely, drawing a base-on-balls, or by an opposing fielder's error. For this example, the batter uses the element of surprise by bunting the ball and safely reaches first base before a fielder can field the ball and throw him out at first. During the next batter's at-bat, the runner steals second base. With the runner at second and no one at first, the batting team either sacrifices the runner to third with a bunt or hits a ground ball to the right side, and the runner safely reaches third base while the batter is thrown out at first. The next batter hits a sacrifice fly ball to the outfield, and the runner reaches home plate ahead of the fielder's throw, scoring the winning run. The winning team scored the final run (a "manufactured run") using small-ball strategy instead of power-hitting, having advanced a runner around the bases with the only hit being a surprise bunt.

Alternative usages

Sometimes, the term may be used (also correctly, since it is an informal term) to refer to any of the parts of the broader strategy defined above. This may include a bunt single, the hit and run play, a sacrifice fly, etc.

Small-ball can also be used to refer to any of the important but less glamorous things players do to contribute to their team's success, such as a baserunner sliding toward a fielder to disrupt a potential double play, backing up other players in case of an overthrow, or taking an extra base during the defensive team's effort to throw out a fellow baserunner. In this sense, it is the plays themselves that are referred to as small-ball rather than the team employing a small-ball game strategy.

In a more collective sense, a team can be said to play small-ball by a collection of such individual efforts. For example, a team who capitalized on an opposing team's fielding error(s) to lead to a big inning. Additionally, in a game in which the team has several good defensive plays and has manufactured runs can be said, collectively, to have played small-ball.


The use of small-ball to win games has undergone criticism the last few decades as "sabermetrics" has developed. One such criticism is that when used earlier in games, the probability of scoring multiple runs is significantly decreased if an out is traded for a base. For instance, the average number of runs scored in major league games in 1999-2002 when there were no outs and a runner on first was .953 runs. The average number of runs scored when there was one out and a runner on second was .725 runs.

Other Usages

Commonly in kickball, small ball is used to manufacture runs. Given the relative difficulty of getting on base by simply kicking the ball, bunting is often used to start innings off and move or advance baserunners. It is often criticized and seen as a low brow approach to the game, but its effectiveness is undeniable. Scott Roland is often credited with bringing small ball to the forefront of the kickball stage.

The term is also used in tournament poker. Here it means playing a wide variety of hands and betting small amounts with them. The goal is to try and make your opponent fold his better hands while keeping the money you risk to a minimum.

See also




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