Last night’s game – the whole series, in fact – is really easy to talk about. There have been crazy momentum swings, big home runs (in both the distance and the clutch sense) and some great pitching performances.
But I want to follow along with a theme in baseball over the past few weeks and connect it to last night’s game. As has been discussed both here and elsewhere, managerial changes have followed a particular pattern lately: Managers with long track records of success finding the unemployment line, presumably due to in part, to a disinclination for following the numbers. A proclivity to do things the way they’ve always been done as opposed to what the highest percentage move is. No, it seems old school managers making old school decisions and eschewing data and percentages isn’t going over very well with the new school front offices in baseball.
John Farrell may have had success in spite of using Craig Kimbrel in unimportant situations in about half of his appearances. Dusty Baker may have had success despite batting two of the best hitters in the National League 5th and 6th in the order while average batters went 1 and 2. And Joe Girardi may have taken a rebuilding team to the brink of the World Series, but his game decisions were questionable all season long as well. All three are currently “former” managers as a result, despite their pretty impressive resumes.
Enter the Dodgers and the Astros. Two very analytically driven teams run by front offices who expect their managers to make decisions based on organizational philosophies and information, not “their gut”. And obviously, both have been very successful with that modus operandi.
Which makes what happened last night so damn puzzling…
Flash back: Top of the 7th inning, game tied at 7: The Dodgers are sending batters 3, 4 and 5 in the order to the plate. Justin Turner leads off with a double. That brings Enrique Hernandez to the plate, who has a 3 HR game this post season, followed by Cody Bellinger and his 39 regular season home runs to go with a home run earlier last night, and Logan Forsythe who already had 2 hits earlier last night, to the plate.
Big inning potential: VERY high.
I did some reconnaissance: In the Major Leagues in 2017, the average run expectancies for the following situations are:
Runner on 2nd, no out: 1.1 runs per inning, average.
Runner on 3rd, 1 out: .93
Runner on 1st, 1 out: .54
So of course, the logical play there is to bunt. This way if the bunt is “successful”, you’ve reduced the average number of runs you’ll score by almost 20%. And if the bunt doesn’t work, you’ve cut your team’s run expectancy by more than half.
I’m hoping my sarcasm comes through in type. Bunting with a runner on 2nd and nobody out is mind numbingly nonsensical. You are guaranteed to reduce the average number of runs you’ll score, no matter the result. (Or “irregardless” of the result, as John Smoltz would say.) Again, this isn’t football where a late FG can be justified after kneeling on the ball 3 times and taking time off the clock – there’s no clock in baseball. Houston is getting 12 more outs regardless of how many runs the Dodgers score or don’t – the play, as always, is to maximize the number of runs you score.
Also, keep in mind, those are averages. If we took only situations where batters 4 and 5 were coming up, I’d bet a good sum of money they’d be more drastic.
So of course, Dave Roberts has Kiki bunt. Kiki bunts it back to the pitcher Brad Peacock, who tosses it to Alex Bregman at 3rd base, and the Dodgers make it official: Their average run expectancy dropped by more than half of what it was, if you had just…swung…the…bat.
Somewhere, Jeff Luhnow could be heard laughing.
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, the game was tied after 9. The Dodgers lost in extra innings. A major opportunity to avoid a tied 9th and an extra inning loss was blown because of an unbelievably bad managerial decision. Would it have made a difference? We’ll never know. But we do know the way it was played most certainly did not work.
If the Dodgers lose this series, I’m wondering to what extent that sequence will be remembered. After all, Cleveland manager Terry Francona* had a similar gaffe in last year’s World Series game 7 that seems to have gone unnoticed and forgotten. But this isn’t last year. Mangers are losing their jobs in part, because of decisions like this one – decisions based on old school nonsense instead of data, percentages and logic. Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi call the shots for the Dodgers and they don’t seem like the reactionary type, but I’m sure this didn’t go unnoticed.
But as I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think there are any good managerial strategists. I think there are managers who can manage people well enough to get to the post season, and then it’s a “who screws up less” contest from there. Someday, probably not anytime soon, there will be a staff of numbers crunchers just behind the dugout who are going to tell the manager what to do in real time.
Until then, we’ll still be reviewing run expectancies and asking WTF.
*Baseball is not without a sense of irony, part 762:
In the 2004 ALCS Game 4, Dave Roberts stole a base for the Red Sox in the 9th inning against the Yankees. He would eventually score, and we all know what eventually happened. Terry Francona, the Sox manager at the time, has said that if were Roberts were thrown out, Francona expected to lose his job. A job he attained, in no small part due to his predecessor Grady Little, going all old school on the nerds and leaving Pedro Martinez in the ’03 Game 7 far too long. Maybe Roberts does have something to worry about if the Dodgers don’t win…