Wednesday, October 31, 2012
WPS recap post-mortem: two plays in Game TwoPosted by Shane Tourtellotte
The World Series is over, a lot sooner than most fans were hoping. We're now stuck in that twilight zone where we can either look forward to the 2013 season, or backward to the season that was. I don't have my glasses with me right now, so five months ahead is just a blur. I'm looking backward, thank you.
Firstly, a couple pieces of unfinished business from WPS Recap. Prime among those is to congratulate the San Francisco Giants on their victory. May that flag fly forever.
Next, Game Four was exciting enough to rescue the World Series from being the least interesting Series of all time, as measured by the WPS Index. I failed to mention where it did end up: fifth least-exciting all-time, better than the 2007 Red Sox sweep, but not quite as thrilling as the 1928 Yankees sweep. I could nudge 2012 ahead on the basis of Pablo Sandoval's three-homer game to begin the Series ... except that Babe Ruth had a three-homer game to end the 1928 Series. Fifth place it is.
Now for the post-mortem that the title promised. The crucial game of the Series, if a sweep can be said to have one, was Game Two. Scoreless through the seventh-inning stretch, it was there for either team to take. Had Detroit done so, the complexion and psychology of the series changes markedly, and who knows what happens. That means it's time for, yep, second-guessing!
(Technically, I did touch on one of these matters in the original WPS Recap. I nearly made a between-game post of the second one, but I thought I had been writing quite enough THT Live articles. There, now you can second-guess me on something: that's The Circle of Life.)
The first turning point came as the Tigers rallied in the top of the second. With a hit-by-pitch Prince Fielder on first, Delmon Young doubled into the left field corner. When the ball ricocheted away from Gregor Blanco, third base coach Gene Lamont waved Fielder home. Blanco's long throw sailed over Brandon Crawford, but Marco Scutaro had trailed the play. He reined it in and threw on to Buster Posey, whose quick sweep tag got Fielder a foot short of the plate.
I reported on Thursday night that the break-even mark for sending Fielder in that situation is 87.2 percent (given the 2012 Run Expectancy numbers). Here's another figure to give you some perspective: The break-even mark this season for stealing third base with two outs was 87.8 percent. One of the archetypal bonehead plays in baseball; something players are coached to avoid and lambasted for forgetting; one of those old saws from the proverbial book that is actually dead-on correct. That play is just a tiny bit worse than sending the runner home on a no-out double.
Now, it is possible to be too hard on Gene Lamont for this snap decision. The factor that made sending Prince Fielder so obviously dubious—that it's Prince Fielder, lugging Prince Fielder's weight around the bases—would have worked against him had he halted at third. He would have had a similarly diminished chance of reaching home on a two-hop grounder or a medium fly ball. We could conceivably be lamenting how Lamont clogged up a rally by holding Prince at third, and how three straight teammates failed to bring him home. (Delmon Young got stranded on second, after all.)
It was still a mistake, but it was a mistake of aggressively going for an early run. Given how Detroit's bats were limp noodles for most of the series, it's easier to forgive, or at least understand, in retrospect. Of course, most of that power outage was in the future when Lamont windmilled Fielder home. It was a bit early to be acting desperate. On the whole, it was a blunder, but not something so stupid that it should haunt Gene Lamont forever. (Given the sweep, it probably won't. Had this happened in a Game Seven, though ...)
The second pivot point came in the bottom of the seventh inning, the game still scoreless. San Francisco loaded the bases on a single, a walk and a sacrifice bunt that turned into a hit when it rolled to an unmolested halt a few inches inside the third-base line. Bases loaded, no outs, tie game: That's a jam.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland had two options: He could play the infield in, hoping to cut off the run while risking a greater chance at a big rally, or set the infielders at double-play depth, trading one run for two outs. He did the latter, and got what he was playing for, a 4-6-3 twin killing that still made it 1-0 Giants. He strongly defended his tactical choice after the game. "We were absolutely thrilled to come out of that inning with one run," he told reporters.
One post-game analysis, by Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus, supported Leyland's call. He used Run Expectancy to compare the presumed optimum results of the defensive orientations: two out, man on third, one run scored for double-play depth; one out, bases loaded, no runs scored for playing in. The double play dropped the Giants' RE from 2.260 to 1.363, while a force at home would have lowered it from 2.260 only to 1.537. Lindbergh thus advised everyone to put away their pitchforks.
I'm going to keep something pointy at hand, myself.
Run Expectancy is an excellent tool for measuring general situations, especially those early in a ballgame. When the game is late and close, however, its general applicability gets overwhelmed by the specific situation. When that happens, analysis is served better by looking at the more complex but more precise Win Expectancy numbers.
Fortunately, there's an app for that, and it's right here at The Hardball Times. I fed the situations into Dave Studeman's Win Probability Inquirer. I assumed a run environment of 4.0 runs per team per game—the average in the majors this year was 4.32, and AT&T Park is a pitcher's park. These were the results.
Base/Out/Score Situation SF's Win Probability Bases loaded, no outs, 0-0 0.830 Man on third, two outs, 1-0 0.796 Bases loaded, one out, 0-0 0.738
Both optimum results improved Detroit's chances, but the comparison is clear. Getting the force at home gives Detroit a 9.2 percent boost; the run-scoring DP was just 3.4 percent. (I also checked the plays with a 3.5 run environment, and the spread was even wider.) It's difficult to balance the probabilities of getting these optimum results with the risks that both defenses, especially the infield in, offer. If you are hoping for the best, though, the infield in gives you a much superior best to hope for.
There's one other factor in play. Leyland was content to play a run down to San Francisco, a team whose bullpen was one of its greatest strengths. Maybe his team's two-run homer while down seven in the ninth the previous night affected his estimation of the Giants' pen, but one can argue he should have been working to avoid having any deficit to make up against those relievers. As it unfolded, Detroit did not score against the bullpen Giants, in that game or for the rest of the World Series.
That is how Game Two got away from the Detroit Tigers: a little too aggressive in the second, a little too conservative in the seventh. It's tough and kind of unfair to argue perfect causality in a contingent game like baseball, but a run here, a run there, and pretty soon that's the ballgame. And just maybe the whole season.
Shane Tourtellotte is a long-time, occasionally-nominated science fiction writer, currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. He will tell you all about the baseball novel he’s shopping if you give him an inch.