On the Penultimate Play of the 2014 World Series

(This post has nothing to do with The Knucklehead. Or parenting or ethics or anything else you’ve come to expect here. I just really felt the need to write about this. Indulge me.)

Much has been said/written about Kansas City’s Alex Gordon’s two-out single in the ninth inning of Game Seven of this year’s Word Series, a hit that allowed him to reach third base with his team down a run, owing to a mis-handling of the ball by the Giants’ outfield. If you haven’t already seen the play, you can check it out here. The question that will forever be asked is, “Should Alex Gordon have tried to tie the game on an inside-the-park home run?”

Baseball fans love this kind of discussion. This is the kind of thing that will tide us over until spring training. It’s a discussion that will be passed down the generations, father to daughter, mother to son. Even the heartbroken Royals fans will keep this play in their lore, and take a small but significant consolation here. “If. We were this close. We had it, except for this.”

Truth is, there were a dozen moments in the one-run game that may have changed the outcome. That’s baseball, that’s the harsh beauty of the game. But this is the play we all talk about, because it came at the end, when anyone still watching was glued to the TV.

So, it’s the play I’m going to talk about. You’re welcome.

I’m going to cut to the chase. Should the third-base coach have waved Alex Gordon home to tie the game?

Yes.

Would that have changed the outcome of the game?

No. But it’s still important to get these things right.

The question isn’t really whether or not Gordon would have scored. The real question is whether or not Gordon had a better chance of scoring then than he would had of being driven in by the next batter. This isn’t a choice between two scenarios, one of failure, one of victory. This is about playing the odds. Very, very crappy odds either way. But in baseball, as in life, you take what little advantages you can find, and hope to make the best of them.

By holding Gordon at third base, the Royals’ coach was effectively saying that he put more faith in the next batter’s ability to drive Gordon in, than in Gordon’s ability to outrun the throw. That next batter, Salvador Pérez, would have needed to reach base to do so. Remember, there were already two outs, so a sacrifice fly wouldn’t have scored the runner. For the sake of argument, that would have required Pérez to get a hit.* And so, people point to Pérez’s .260 batting average and say, “That’s the best chance of scoring the run.”

And I think that’s a mis-use of the batting average stat. Batting .260 over the course of a baseball season means that Pérez got 26 hits off major league pitchers for every 100 at-bats (not counting walks). That’s over the gamut of major league pitching. That’s from facing aces of his opponents’ pitching staff. That’s from facing the fifth man in the rotation. That’s from facing the kid from Poughkeepsie the front office wants to get a look at in a blow-out game. That’s from facing guys with dead arms at the end of a season. That’s from facing great pitchers who are having a bad day, and bad pitchers having a great day. It’s from Pérez hitting when he’s not seeing the ball well, or injured, and when he’s seeing the ball like it’s a melon. It’s a useful stat in comparing his chances of getting a hit at that at-bat against a teammate’s chances. Or of predicting whether Salvador Pérez has a better chance now than he did at this point last season.

What it does not tell you is that Salvador Pérez had a 26% chance of getting a hit off Madison Bumgarner at that point in the game. Pérez’s real chances, I would estimate were more like 15% at best. Because Madison Bumgarner, in that game, at that moment, was not the pitcher on whom Salvador Pérez had built a .260 season batting average. Bumgarner was a superior pitcher who was enjoying what we’ll likely look back on as the best run of his career. Bumgarner was focused and in command.  Gordon did well to get a hit off him in the first place. To expect a second from Pérez? I’d put those odds at much lower than his batting average would suggest.

How well was Madison Bumgarner pitching? Well enough that the Giants manager Bruce Bochy left him in to finish the game. Conventional wisdom insisted that there Giants bring in their closer in the ninth inning of a close game. Bochy (wisely, I think) ignored convention. Not because it’s wrong – it usually isn’t. That’s why it’s “convention.” But because he knew the lessons playing the odds had to teach us tend to be more helpful over a long season than in a single specific game. Or inning. Or play.

If you hit the link above, you’ll hear that Gordon had “no chance” of making it safely home. That’s not quite true. Stephen Hawking has “no chance” of making it safely home from third. Alex Gordon actually has “little chance,” which in baseball (and again, as in life) can sometimes be all the difference.

Gordon would have been running very nearly for his life. Propelled by the screams of his teammates and hometown crowds, it’s very likely he would have run faster and harder than he would have ever run in his professional career. That would have meant the relay throw would have had to have been nearly perfect. Adrenaline can do funny things to a thrown baseball, more worrisome things than it does to a runner’s legs. It would have had to be an accurate throw, fielded cleanly by Buster Posey, the Giants catcher, with an equally clean tag. That’s a lot of moving parts.

Gordon would have been thrown out. Probably. I think he had about a 20% chance of scoring. That’s not much, and that’s why I think The Royals and their fans shouldn’t lose too much sleep over the play. But compared to the odds of Pérez hitting an RBI single on the very next play? I put that at 15% at most. 20% vs. 15%? Keep him running.

To some, that may sound like a lot to think about in the split seconds a play is unfolding. But it’s not. That’s the beauty of baseball. In any given play, you’re thinking about the speed of the baserunners, the range and the arms of the fielders, the guy in the on-deck circle, and the guy batting after him, how many outs there are, the score, the lights, the field conditions. All that has to be processed instantly. The professionals do it all the time. We fans do it as well. My Bride can attest to that, as she was awakened by me screaming at the television, “Send him! SEND HIM! Go, go, GO!”

Alas, Alex Gordon remained at third, and ended up with the best view in the house of Pérez’s pop-up to Pablo Sandoval in foul territory. At that moment, he was probably thinking “I should have run through the stop sign. I would have tied up the game.”

No, Alex, you wouldn’t have. In all probability, you would have been thrown out.

But, yes. You should have run anyway.

_______________________

*There are other ways Pérez could have made it to first – walk, error, hit by pitch, dropped third strike – but any except the error wouldn’t have scored Gordon.

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