As I’m sure you all have heard, Johnny Damon took advantage of the shift to advance an extra base on a steal of second last night. It was 2 outs in the ninth, and after a walk to Texeira, next batter A-Rod hit a walkoff double. As you can expect, Damon’s steal was given a lot of credit for impacting the outcome of game. However, while it was a very heads up and exciting play, it simply didn’t make that much of a difference. As Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing notes:
# Advancing to third base with two outs provides a boost, but a small one, as runners will generally score from second on any hit. The win probability added of the first steal was +4%, as Damon got himself into scoring position. The win probability added of the second steal was +1.6%. The steal of third did not dramatically improve the Yankees’ odds of winning.
However, that fact didn’t stop the steal from becoming mainstream media fodder.
Yes, Damon’s daring steal of second and third, after a memorable nine-pitch at-bat against Brad Lidge in the ninth inning, was as unique as it was brilliant. The bottom line was the Phillies went to sleep on the play, forgetting that third base was wide open because of the shift they had on Mark Teixeira, but it was Damon who saw the potential for how it could change the game dramatically.
Mainly he was thinking of how much pressure it would put on Lidge.
“I felt like being on third base, it possibly takes away his slider – that tough slider in the dirt,” Damon said. “Alex got two fastballs so it did work out for us.”
So while advancing on the steal didn’t actually improve the Yankees odds of winning that much, Damon argues that the added pressure it put on Lidge was significant in itself. The main justification behind that is that being on third instead of second forces pitchers to thrown fewer offspeed pitches than they normally would, for fear of throwing one in the dirt.
Is that claim verifiable? Well, let’s check it out. Using Pitch f/x data from 2007-2009, we can see that with a runner on 3rd base, pitchers threw breaking balls 29% of the time. When there was no runner on third, pitchers threw breaking balls 25% of the time. Amazingly, we see that the opposite is true! Pitchers actually throw more offspeed pitches when their is a runner on third base.
The reason for this is likely that pitchers are trying to strike out more hitters when they have a runner on third, as most contact will score a run, and the improvement in strikeout odds overrides the risk of throwing a wild pitch. For Lidge, the same pattern holds true. Over the past 3 years, with a runner on third base, he’s thrown his slider 54% of the time compared to 49% of the time in all other situations.
Now, it’s still possible that Damon on third improved A-Rod’s odds of getting a hit in that at bat; however, that would already be included in the Win Expectancy figures. So while it was a very heads up play, let’s not pretend that it had much of an effect on the outcome of the game. Damon’s single, and A-Rod’s double were much, much more important.