- Was it a smart play by Pujols?
- 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?
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