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Choices, choices: Utley’s dash, Albert’s throw

Posted by John Autin on October 6, 2011

In game 4 of the Phillies-Cardinals NLDS, Albert Pujols threw across the diamond to cut down Chase Utley, the potential tying run.

  1. Was it a smart play by Pujols?
  2. Was it a smart play by Utley?

The situation: Top of the 6th inning, Cards leading 3-2. Utley walked leading off, and was running on the pitch when Hunter Pence hit a bouncer to short. Rafael Furcal fired to 1st in time to get Pence -- but when Pujols saw Utley streaking towards 3rd, he made a split-second decision. Before that throw arrived, Albert took two steps off the bag, giving up the out there but reducing the time and distance for his throw to 3rd. He pegged a gentle belt-high strike to David Freese, and Utley was out rather easily, even though Freese had not quite gotten all the way to the base.

Pence was safe at 1st on the fielder's choice, with 1 out. Ryan Howard flied out deep to CF, Shane Victorino grounded out, and the Cards held onto their 1-run lead.

Had Pujols stayed on the bag to get the easy out at 1st, he might still have had a chance to nail Utley; but if so, it would have been a much closer play. Most likely, Utley would have been safe at 3rd with 1 out.

Albert took a calculated risk, trading a sure out for a chance to save 2 bases' advancement. The play on Utley was not very difficult, and Pujols throws better than most first basemen. But any 1st-to-3rd throw for a tag play has much more risk than a routine 6-3, and in this case Freese (for some reason) was a step in front of 3rd base. I'd estimate the success rate of this play, by those players, at 85-90%.

Was the reward of saving two bases' advancement worth the 10-15% risk of winding up with runners on the corners (or worse) and no outs?

From Utley's perspective, was advancing from 2nd to 3rd with 1 out enough reward to justify the risks he incurred, which included a sizable risk of swapping a man on 2nd for a man on 1st, and some risk of running into a double play?

It was a thrilling and fascinating play, and I certainly don't expect ballplayers to perform detailed risk/reward calculations on the fly. So I'm not criticizing either of these outstanding, aggressive players. But I think Albert's decision was borderline, while Utley's was too risky.

  • For Pujols, the reward was a substantial gain in the odds of preventing one run, the tying run. Using Tangotiger's run expectancy matrix, the odds of scoring at least 1 run starting with 1 out and a man on 3rd are about 66%; with 1 out and a man on 1st, they drop to 27%. The risk was the difference in run expectancy between the outcome of the safe choice and the failed outcome of the aggressive play. [1 out/man on 3rd] has an RE of about 0.9 runs; [0 out/3rd and 1st] has an RE of about 1.7 runs; the latter figure would likely be even higher if calculated on the basis of the power hitters due up (Howard, Victorino and Ibanez, with a RHP currently on the mound).

I could defend either choice by Pujols on the grounds that his team would have 4 more chances to make up any run(s) they might allow in the inning.

  • For Utley, the reward was an increase of about 25% in the chance of scoring at least 1 run (based on the RE table), from about 41% with [man on 2nd/1 out] to about 66% with [man on 3rd/1 out] -- although that latter figure is probably a little too high for the real-life situation, given Ryan Howard's K rate. The risk was the large drop in both 1-run odds and total run expectancy if he should run into a DP. The chance of scoring at least 1 run with [0 on/2 out] is just 6%, a drop of 35% from the "play-it-safe" option, and the total RE would fall from .67 to .09 if he were doubled off at 3rd. Lastly, the difference between staying put and what actually happened was a drop of 14% in 1-run odds (from 41% to 27%) and 0.18 runs in total RE (from .68 to .50).

Utley chose an aggressive 1-run strategy -- to tie the game -- in a situation that probably called for giving more weight to the chance of taking a lead. If Utley stays at 2nd, Howard likely gets to bat against a righty pitcher, probably the last such chance he'll get in the game; he hit 30 HRs in 459 PAs off RHPs this year, but just 3 HRs in 185 PAs off southpaws. (I can't see LaRussa walking Howard as the go-ahead run to face Victorino, a dangerous hitter who rarely gets doubled up. And I don't see him bringing in a lefty to face Howard in that inning with a man on 2nd and 1 out, given that he didn't do so with a man on 1st and 1 out.)

What's your opinion?

42 Responses to “Choices, choices: Utley’s dash, Albert’s throw”

  1. Cheese Says:

    going to third there is like stealing 3rd base. There are occasions where it might make sense, but for the most part he probably shouldn't have stretched it. Besides, the game was getting on in innings and he was in scoring position with less than 2 outs with Howard coming up. Seems to big a risk for the potential reward.

  2. Cheese Says:


  3. David G. Says:

    I thought Utley did the right thing. He waited until the ball was thrown to go and unless Pujols comes off the bag he almost definitely would've been safe. I think Pujols did the right thing too but only because he's Pujols. Not sure I'd trust most first basemen to make that throw.

  4. Jaxx Says:

    sometimes math does not apply...

    stealing 3rd (or Utley advancing on this play) could of (would of) rattled the pitcher, the team, the stadium.

    I also think that very few firstbasemen would have made that play. Certainly Ryan Howard wouldn't.

  5. mosc Says:

    Pujols has a great arm. He doesn't get to show it much but he's quite capable of playing third where you make that throw across the diamond routinely. He played third for decent parts of two seasons when he was younger and did it well. The biggest risk was the third basemen not expecting it. I think it was a very smart play to not even try to make the out at first just to make sure to take out the lead runner. Rushing the throw after getting to the bag at first would have increased the risk.

  6. Steve Says:

    fascinating play. of course Pujols didn't know the next batter would hit a SF to score the run, but he did minimize the chances of the Phillies scoring a run by trading a runner at 3rd for one at 1st. He would have gotten pretty beat up in the media if he didn't make the play.

  7. Chuck Says:

    "Certainly Ryan Howard wouldn't."

    Right, because he's lefthanded.

    Despite the fact Pujols SAW Utley the whole time, it was Furcal's throw that dictated the play. It was perfect, right at Pujols' chest.

    Anywhere else and Pujols not only couldn't have come off the bag in a throwing motion, he would have had to make some kind of adjustment, and the play couldn't have been made.

    The move was questionable, but understandable from Utley's point of view, he was hoping to catch the Cardinals on their heels.

    It was a great play by Pujols for sure, but he had the whole play in full view and the advantage of being able to read Furcal's throw before he committed, so, all in all, not that big a deal.

  8. John Autin Says:

    @4, Jaxx -- "very few firstbasemen would have made that play"

    Agreed. But Utley knows who he's running on, right?

    Disagree about rattling the pitcher. Stealing home, maybe; stealing 3rd, not so much.

  9. Asher B. Chancey Says:

    I thought it was a good play by Utley and a great play by Pujols. Given it to do all over again, I would still have Utley try to stretch it, and I would still have Pujols come off the bag to make the play.

  10. Peter Says:

    Adrian Gonzalez did this twice this season. The one time I saw, it was Torii Hunter on second, but the ball was grounded to Gonzalez. Instead of getting the runner out at first, he gunned down Hunter at 3rd. I don't know what happened the other time (if the ball was hit to Gonzalez).

    In the Sox' case, having Youkilis at 3rd helped - he had experience digging out balls at 1st for several years. Having a good defensive 3b helps mitigate that risk.

    Good move on Pujols' part. It's unexpected, and you have the talent to do it.

    While he was running on the pitch, I don't think Utley should've gone to 3rd. Now, had he been on 2nd already, then you can make the argument.

  11. John Autin Says:

    @7, Chuck -- Good points.

  12. Voomo Zanzibar Says:

    Stealing third with one out? Sure, go for it.
    What is surprising is that Utley's helmet managed to come off. You would think all that hair gel would stick it on tight.

  13. Devon Says:

    I think they both made smart plays. Only problem was, Albert outsmarted Utley, 'cause...well... why would you (as a runner) think the first baseman wouldn't take the easy out? They "always" do. So from Utley's view, it was a great idea....and 99% of the time it'd work. From Pujols point of view, it was also a great idea, which motivated him to try to nullify it, which happened to be another great idea. All around awesome.

  14. John Autin Says:

    @3, David G: "unless Pujols comes off the bag he almost definitely would've been safe."

    I don't think that is borne out by the video. Utley is out by a substantial margin, even though (a) Albert took a shuffle step after he caught the throw, and (b) Albert did not fire the ball as hard as he can.

    I think it's possible that Albert could have gotten the out at 1st and still gotten Utley -- that's why I think the play is so fascinating. But again, I'm not criticizing his choice.

  15. Jaxx Says:

    I don't think we "know" which firstbasemen would make that play, until they are tested. I think we can rule some out, like Howard (not just because he is left-handed either), but I think others *might* be heads-up enough to make the play.

    You really disagree about rattling the pitcher? Do you not believe in momentum?

    tying run on 2nd base with one out = tying run on 3rd base with one out

    Not to mention the fact that Utley wouldn't really deserve, for lack of a better word, to be on third had the play been successful.

    If that happens against my team, as a fan, I am scared. I have also watched plenty of games where a pitcher looked "rattled" after similar events.

  16. Howard Hartig Says:

    What a bunch of morons...beating this to death like you all did. This is the consummate professional you are stroking yourselves over. Who the hell are you all to question what Albert did or didn't do? What are YOUR credentials?

  17. Larry R. Says:

    You're on the road, up 2-1 in the series and in the middle innings. If successful, Utley looks great. Didn't turn out that way.

    I remember him being out by alot, but I'd like to reserve that opinion until I saw the play again. The way I remember it, though, I think it could have (should have?) been a DP. But all this happened in a few seconds, so I can't fault either one of them.

  18. John Autin Says:

    I think I'm asking too much of this play. I keep looking at the video for an answer to this question:

    Did Utley have a chance to deke Albert? -- i.e., by rounding 2nd at full speed to lure him off the bag, then doing a pop-up slide and scampering back to the bag?

    But I think the answer is no. You can't pull that off on 90-foot basepaths when the play is on the infield and all the action is right in front of the guy you're trying to deke.

  19. John Autin Says:

    @16 -- My credentials are that I'm a thinking person, rather than a fawning worshiper.

    My credentials to question Albert are apparently better than yours to question me.

  20. Chuck Says:

    "I don't think that is borne out by the video. Utley is out by a substantial margin, even though (a) Albert took a shuffle step after he caught the throw, and (b) Albert did not fire the ball as hard as he can."

    Harold Reynolds did a breakdown on the replay and was pretty convincing the distance Utley was out by was the distance Pujols came off the bag.

    Pujols does not have a good arm, average maybe, but he doesn't throw as well as Teixeira or Gonzalez do, for example.

    His momentum behind the throw made the throw, if he came off the bag flat-footed after gettting the out at first, there's no doubt in my mind Utley would have been save because Pujols' throw would have had nothing on it.

  21. John Autin Says:

    While browsing some of the other PHI/STL videos, I heard ol' Charlie Manuel tell a story about his playing days, with the Twins under Billy Martin:

    They were taking batting practice in Detroit, sez Charlie, and Billy told him that he could start the game if he put one over the roof. Charlie sez, I put 7 on the roof, he puts me in the starting lineup, I go 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts and a popout to the catcher.

    This being such a detailed memory, you might expect that at least some part of it were true. But no....

    -- Charlie Manuel started 2 games in Detroit. He got a hit in each, and did not strike out at all.

    -- It didn't happen against Detroit in a home game, either. He got a hit in all 4 games that he ever started against Detroit, with no strikeouts.

    -- Manuel never struck out 3 times in a game, period.

    -- I checked his 8 games of 2 strikeouts. He never popped out to the catcher or anyone in foul territory.

    Memory is a very tricky thing.

    BTW, I did find a game in which Charlie struck out twice in the same inning:

  22. John Autin Says:

    @20 -- OK, Chuck, good points again; I'll take your word for it.

  23. Brian Gunn Says:

    It was a boom-or-bust play by Utley that I can't find too much fault with... EXCEPT he should have known his opponent better. I've watched Pujols closely for years, and he's always always always hyper-aggressive when it comes to making throws, whether it's across the diamond to nab someone taking an extra base, or charging a bunt to nail the lead runner. If Utley played Pujols more than a few times a year I'm convinced he would've seen exactly this kind of play from Pujols before, and he'd've been far less apt to try to take the extra base.

  24. The Original Jimbo Says:

    Great, great play by Pujols.

  25. Mike L Says:

    Think Damon's double steal influenced him, even subliminally?

  26. Bip Says:

    Just from watching the video, I think Utley did the right thing in that he would probably be safe at third most of the time, and Pujols also did the right thing, assuming he good reason to have confidence Freese could make the play. That's a play I probably wouldn't want to see bad fielders attempt, but Pujols and Freese probably are good enough that it's a smart play.

  27. Bip Says:


    So pros never make dumb plays? Or we're just not qualified to see it when they do? Because they do make dumb plays sometimes, it makes sense for us to ask whether plays they make are smart or not. And, if you notice, most of us are saying Albert made a smart play.

  28. The Original Jimbo Says:


    Utley can't deak Albert because he has no idea that Albert will even

    a) see him
    b) choose to make the odd play of coming off the bag early

  29. Michael Says:

    My first thought watching the play was "I gotta wonder if he could have gotten the out and then thrown." My second thought was, as was noted above "Furcal was the one that made that play happen." My final thought was "Wow...Utley should have totally stayed at second."

    Upon review of the video, I fully stand by the second thought. Had Furcal not thrown as he did, the only option is the out at first. I doubt anyone would disagree with that statement. It was quick and pinpoint accuracy--the Furcal we all sort of expect, and not the one that made about 73 errors in the last half dozen games of the regular season.

    To the first question--I honestly don't think there's any way that Pujols makes the play at third if he makes the out at first. Pujols is a great first baseman, and has an average to plus average arm, but he's not Furcal. The ONLY way he makes that play is with the forward momentum that he has, and the extra time he gets by closing the distance. Utley is out a mile, BECAUSE he did that. Run that same play with the out at first...Pujols either:

    a. Rushes the throw, and likely doesn't get the out or worse, misses Freese and gives up a run; or
    b. Holds the ball, realizing the possibilities of a.

    Could he have gotten the out? Sure. But the downside potential risk isn't worth it. Freese took the throw, and Utley gets a mitt to the face. Ouch.

    Moving to the third thought, I think Utley also did the right thing. Utley doesn't run and it's a routine out at first, it's going to look like crappy base running on his part. He can't count on Pujols deciding to do what he did, and even if he does, he has to figure it is going to be close. If he's on third, a SF gets him home. The only question mark, which has been already articulated (as have most of these points) is: how much more valuable is he at third over second? I know the numbers above--I'm simply speaking more practically from his perspective, knowing the hitters coming up.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I think the other unsung hero defensively for the Cardinals was Theriot. Infield Defense 101 though it may be, his looking Martinez back to second in the 8th inning. Given the remainder of the inning it likely didn't change much, but I loved the play.

  30. scott-53 Says:

    @19 Good answer.

  31. Miles Says:

    More questionable on the part of Utley, although I don't have a problem with either action.

    Less of an issue with Pujols since he was sure he could get the runner and he did by a good margin.

  32. Shping Says:

    Great post/analysis and great play by all the principal players. It's truly amazing to see the split-second decisions -- in this case, bold but smart decisions -- that players can make in the supposedly "slow" game of baseball.

    And #16, apparently you, sir, are the moron:

    a) for being unnecesarily rude
    b) for possibly practicing blind hero worship
    c) for not realizing that one of the great things about baseball is exactly the fact that we can rehash plays over and over again in great detail; and when it involves these kind of amazing split-second decisions that have a huge impact, it's even more fun!

    Thank you Abner Doubleday (ha ha) for inventing such a great game!

  33. Phil Says:

    It was inexcusable for Utley to make the first out at third.

  34. John Autin Says:

    @33, Phil -- Well, but ... Utley had no idea that he was risking the first out; he's assuming that they get the out at 1st base, so he's trying to reach 3rd with 1 out.

    I still don't think it was the best move, but I realize that the game happens a lot faster than I can think. Utley had the base stolen clean and thought he had a chance to make a super hustle play.

    It didn't work, but to me, as a mild Utley fan (not a Phillies fan), it's nice to see him moving well of late, given his injuries and subpar hitting this year.

  35. JohnBoy Says:

    Utley was overly aggressive and Pujols was thinking on his feet. Great play to watch with excellent execution by Pujols.

  36. Boxified: What happens when Utley runs on Pujols – Squaretender Says:

    [...] Baseball-Reference questions whether it was as smart play or not, and ESPN’s SweetSpot blog post by David Schoenfield called it “remarkable in its instinct and awareness.” [...]

  37. Doug Says:


    "Ryan Howard cou;dn't have made the same play because he's left-handed."

    Would like someone to explain that. On a throw from 1st to 3rd, I can't see why a left-hander couldn't do that just as easily as a right-hander. In fact, seems like it would be a bit easier for a left-hander.

    The left-hander, after taking a throw from short, doesn't have to throw across his body, so he can catch and throw to third almost in one motion. The right-hander has to take a shuffle step (as John mentioned @14) to square himself to the target and avoid throwing across his body.

  38. Doug Says:

    Good play by Pujols. He knew he had Utley if he comes off the bag early, so why not take the lead runner if he makes himself easy pickings.

    Which, of course, means it was a bad play by Utley. But, mostly because there were no outs. If there was one out, then it's a more defensible play, particularly since it would probably be a successful play most of the time. As several others have said, I also believe most first basemen would take the routine out and then throw late to third or (more likely) not throw to third at all.

  39. deal Says:

    In my opinion everybody involved made the right play. I think it was worth the risk to force a tag play at 3b. I think most 1b would take the sure out rather than going to 3rd.

    I think the Play Utley made on Aki Iwamura in GM 5 of the 08 WS is more similar to this play then Damon stealing 3rd on the Phils in he 09 WS.

    I think all 3 runners (Damon Iwamura and Utley) knew the were taking the extra base on all 3 plays prior to the play ever starting Utley didn't calculate odds on the fly - he knew he was stealing and he knew on a ball hit to short or third he would try and get to 3rd.

  40. Rocky Calhoun Says:

    The old saying goes you never make the first or third out at third.

    Albert made a nice play, but I do not consider it worthy of all this ink. Utley was running the bases like Pujols, maybe that is why Albert recognized Utley making the move to third.

    Good thing for Albert it was at night or he could have lost the play in the afternoon "shadows" at Busch Stadium and missed out on all of these adulation's.

  41. Brian Gunn Says:

    You mean just like Pujols went 4-5 with three doubles while most of the game was in the shadows? Didn't seem to affect him much. (And that's shadows without the snarky parentheses, by the way. Pujols shouldn't have bitched about them, but no one on either team -- nor any of the broadcasters or people watching at home -- would deny that they weren't real and hazardous.)

  42. jimmy vc Says:

    Utley is a great baserunner and ysually that play is sucessful 90 per cent of the tim.. very few first basemen have good arms and would risk the throw.
    Guys like Mattingly, Grace, and Mex made that play often... lefthanded has nothing to do with it..
    #16, you are qualified if you played the game and know how to play it correctly...lose the attitude...