It was the top of the sixth inning in Game Six of the American League Championship Series, and the Detroit Tigers were in a very good position. Victor Martinez had just driven in two runners to put his team up 2-1. He and Prince Fielder were on the corners, and nobody was out. Detroit had a chance for a blowout inning to break the game open, and excellent prospects of at least one more run across to widen its lead. Win Expectancy, depending on your source, hovered somewhere between 79 and 80 percent. Beyond that hovered Justin Verlander, ready to take the ball should Detroit tie the series and force a deciding Game Seven.
Then Jhonny Peralta hit a ground ball, and it all came undone.
You’re probably familiar with the play by now, but if you aren’t or want a refresher, you can check the replay and follow my summary. The grounder went to Dustin Pedroia at second, who moved into the basepath intending to tag Martinez. Martinez held up, trying to avoid the tag long enough for Fielder to score and Peralta to get to first—but Fielder had stopped midway between third and home. Pedroia caught Martinez as he tried to dodge around on the infield grass, then threw to Jarrod Saltalamacchia at the plate. He ran down Fielder, who barely moved back toward third until the catcher got close, then made a dive that left him several feet short of the bag. Saltalamacchia tumbled over Fielder, making the tag for the double play.
It was a disaster play for the Tigers, though possibly not an absolute one given the four runs Boston would score in the seventh to snatch away the game. Despite Peralta alertly taking second on the rundown, Detroit got nothing more out of the inning. Fielder’s base-running brain-lock seems inexplicable: of all the players in baseball, he is probably the last one you want hanging between bases, asking for a rundown.
Obviously he should have done something different. But what, and how much would it have helped?
I decided to take an analytical look at the question, using The Hardball Times’ own Win Probability Inquirer. The WPI, in case you haven’t used it yourself, can take a combination of bases, outs, inning, score, and run environment, and calculate the Win Probability for that state, as well as the change between that state and another one. I ran some Fielder-related scenarios through the algorithm.
To start, let’s orient you with what did happen. The WPI says that before the rundown play, the Tigers had a 79.65 percent chance to win the game. After the double play, that had dropped to 64.61 percent, a drop of 15.02 percentage points. That’s a big drop for a single play happening in the middle innings. (This assumes a run environment at Fenway Park of 4.5 runs per team per game. It was 4.56 during the regular season, and the WPI works in half-run increments.)
Fielder could have made two different choices: go all-out for home, or stay at third. We’ll look at the aggressive play first.
The worst-case scenario there is that Pedroia still makes the play on Martinez, then throws home to cut Fielder down at the plate, while Peralta has to hold at first. This would drop Detroit’s Win Expectancy by 16.28 percentage points. Should he get Martinez but Fielder beats the throw, putting the Tigers up 3-1 with one out, the WE drop is just 1.23 points. Pedroia’s play would have to succeed at least 91.6 percent of the time to produce a better play for Boston than what did happen. Watch how long Martinez keeps away from Pedroia, and it won’t seem that likely he could pull it off.
Pedroia would have a couple other choices himself. He could forget the elusive Martinez and throw home to nail Fielder, or he could pivot and start a very probable double play. The play at home would drop Detroit’s WE by 9.48 points; the double play, by 4.25 points. (This hints that Boston should have been playing in, but that is a much more complex question, one I’ll dodge.) Assuming the DP comes off all the time, and that runners don’t take extra bases on any rundown that occurs this time, Pedroia would have to throw Fielder out at least 63.7 percent of the time to make coming home the better play. It’s pretty obvious from the video that that’s the better option.
Pedroia could instead go for the best of both worlds: tag Martinez, then throw to get Fielder coming home. To be better than taking an automatic 4-6-3 double play, this would have to work at least 20.1 percent of the time. Martinez used up vital time dodging Pedroia, around a second and a half. (Time index 0:34 on the video link above.) Fielder got a good distance down the line before holding up while Martinez and Pedroia were still dancing. Had he kept going, he probably scores. At best it’s close at home, with the distinct chance that Fielder could jar the ball loose while knocking Saltalamacchia into his own dugout.
No matter what happens as Fielder is coming home, Detroit stands to lose Win Expectancy barring some unlikely defensive misplay. Should Fielder just have hugged third base?
No. Fielder staying at third while Pedroia starts the double play lowers Detroit’s WE by 14.50 points, while if Pedroia can only get the force it falls an even six points. Boston would have to turn the two just 40.9 percent of the time to reach break-even against Fielder getting thrown out at home. That DP should easily be 90 percent sure or more, so it’s a bigger error for Fielder to stay where he is.
In fact, staying at third for the DP is almost as bad as what he did halting halfway down the line, by 14.5 lost points to 15.02. The reason for this is that, with two outs, a runner on third (Fielder) is not much more valuable than a runner on second (Peralta). Both players come home on very many base hits, and there’s no opportunity for a sacrifice fly. According to the Expected Runs Matrix for 2013 at Baseball Prospectus, second with two outs has a Run Expectancy of 0.3054, third with two outs 0.3527. (That is actually a historically wide margin between the two, despite the current low run environment.)
I broke down a play in last year’s World Series where Prince Fielder was sent first-to-home rather unwisely on a no-out double. Perhaps Fielder learned the wrong lesson, because in this situation he should have gone aggressively for the plate. Taking off the double play was a greater benefit to his Tigers than getting tagged out was a loss.
If he was heeding the advice of third-base coach Tom Brookens, it would mark the second time in a big postseason spot that coaching misled him, after Gene Lamont sent him against the Giants. Lamont’s mistake wasn’t critical in what ended up a sweep by San Francisco. Brookens, if he was telling Fielder what to do, made a much more important blunder, but we’ll likely never know if that was the case.
The more probable scenario is, it was Prince Fielder’s goof, one big enough to draw tittering comparisons to his own weight. He didn’t goof on the biggest stage, but he helped insure that his team wouldn’t reach that biggest stage this year. With a subpar regular season and a downright weak playoff stretch, Fielder didn’t need to give Tigers fans added reasons to start regretting the $200 million-plus contract that brought him to Detroit. But he did.
If that’s too depressing a note on which to end this, I can do better. Boston executed when given an opportunity. Do that often enough, and you’ll find yourself taking a champagne shower on live television.