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Over-managing playoff managers and bunts that “work”

Oct 8, 2013, 11:19 AM EDT

jimmy dugan

If I ever owned a baseball team, I’d want to hire Jimmy Dugan from “A League of their Own” as my manager. This isn’t only because he dislikes the bunt, though that helps — you probably remember the scene where he finally notices what’s happening on the field and calls off Geena Davis’ bunt sign (“We want a big inning here”). It’s also because, especially early in his career as manager of the Rockford Peaches, he had a tendency to fall asleep in the dugout.

Managers, it seems to me, could afford to do that a bit more often. If I was an owner, I’d put pillows in there.

I have long believed that managers hurt their teams as much or more than they help when they decide, as Bugs Bunny once did, that a moment calls for a little strategy. They will give away outs, they will intentionally put opponents on base, they will sit their best players for some short-term gain, they will call for that special lefty out of the pen for that special situation, they will try daring base-running exploits all in order to bewilder their opponents into blinding defeat. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it works when the other way would have worked too. Sometimes it fails and it wouldn’t have worked the other way. Sometimes it fails and it would have worked the other … you know what it’s like? It’s like switching lanes in heavy traffic. It might speed you up. It might slow you down. In the end, you’ll probable realize the futility of it all.

Monday night, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays played a game that lasted — spitballing here — approximately 59 hours. This is in part because Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz apparently gets paid by the hour, in part because the two managers used 11 stinking pitchers in a 5-4 game, and in part because the two teams hit a lot of foul balls. There were more than 300 pitches thrown in the game. OK, well, that’s baseball in 2013.

The game was 3-3 going into the eighth inning. And now we’ll climb into the mind of Boston manager John Farrell. I like Farrell. His Bostonians don’t sacrifice much, and they steal bases at a very high percentage, and they intentionally walk fewer hitters than any team in baseball. He tends to let the game go, tends to stay out of the way most of the time, tends to let players win and lose games. I wish there were more like him.

But, this was a playoff game, meaning it was important, and the more important the situation the more it this tests the will of people to stay the bleep out. We as human beings have an overwhelming aversion toward doing nothing. It goes against every impulse we have. Think how often in movies if the hero would just NOT do something, the movie would end happily an hour before it actually ends.

So, eighth inning, and David Ortiz leads off with a walk. It’s well known that David Ortiz is slow. It’s also well known that David Ortiz is the best hitter on the Boston Red Sox. What to do? Farrell decided — and I think most managers would decide this — to pinch-run Quintin Berry for Ortiz. The logic behind the move is pretty simple. It’s the eighth inning, so it’s possible — probable even — that Ortiz’s spot will not come up again. Quintin Berry, in his major league career, had stolen 24 bases without ever being caught; pinch-running was the WHOLE REASON he was on the roster. And, obviously, with the score tied this late in the game, one run could win the game. The pinch-run was the move.

Here’s what happened: Berry stole second base like planned. He was actually out, but the umpire missed the call. Then, a groundout, an intentional walk, a strikeout and foul-pop-up and the inning ended.

Now, what happens if Farrell goes Jimmy Dugan and falls asleep? Mike Napoli was the one who grounded out to short, so if that happened you would have had a double play. But we don’t know what would have happened. Obviously, there would not have been an intentional walk to Jonny Gomes. It would have been a different inning. But, remember, David Ortiz would have still been in the game.

The Rays scored a run in the bottom of the eighth in what was a Joe Maddon concerto. I like Maddon a lot too — everybody does — but, whew, he does love to get in the middle of things. In the eighth, there was a walk, a bunt that worked for a hit, another bunt that didn’t work at all, an infield single, and a run-scoring groundout, pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, pinch me I’m dreaming. So the Red Sox trailed by a run going into the ninth.

And that meant facing Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney. He has a good fastball and a great change-up. Last year, Rodney gave up nine runs in 74 innings and did not blow a save all year. This year, Rodney walked five batters per nine innings gave up 27 runs in 66 innings. This is how it goes for relievers. When you look at Rodney, last year was really an outlier — he has, throughout his career, been a bit of a wildcard, a guy who is hard to hit, and a guy who walks a lot of guys and, largely because of that, gives up his share of runs.

And, as if to prove the point, he immediately walked Will Middlebrooks on five pitches. Pinch runner Xander Begaerts came in. Rodney then threw two straight balls to Jacoby Ellsbury and on the third Ellsbury hit a little pop-up that dropped in a triangle made up of the Rays’ third baseman, shortstop and left-fielder. Bogaerts apparently is faster than Middlbrooks but did not get a great read on the ball and so stopped at second base. First and second, nobody out, and here were the next three batters:

Shane Victorino

Dustin Pedroia

Quintin Berry

Ah yes, the third of those … it might have been David Ortiz. It might not, the whole situation might have been different if Ortiz had run for himself. But Ortiz’s spot was coming up, and Ortiz was not, and so goes the strategy. Runners on first and second, nobody out, the TBS announcers were now PLEADING for a sacrifice bunt. It was staggering how much John Smoltz and company lobbied throughout the game for managers to make moves, but in this situation they seemed utterly panic-stricken that the Red Sox might not bunt with Victorino.

The bunt here is not a bad strategic move. Let me say that first. By Fangraphs, a successful bunt would very slightly increase the Red Sox win probability — making it a better decision than most bunts. But it seems to me there are things to consider.

1. You have a pitcher on the mound who, like usual, is having trouble throwing strikes.

2. You have a hitter, Shane Victorino, who very rarely hits into double players. This year, he hit into five double plays in 101 opportunities, less than 5% of the time.

3. You have one of your best hitters in Victorino followed by another of your best hitters in Pedroia followed by Quintin Berry or a pinch hitter of some sort. So, you have two good hitters followed by a total wildcard — would you really want to give up an out AND take the bat out of one of those two good hitters?

4. While the bunt does slightly add to win probability, which is the more important metric, it does slightly decrease run expectation. Teams score more runs with runners on first and second with nobody out than with runners on second and third with one out. I think you could put it this way: Your chance of scoring one run goes up slightly. Your chance of scoring two runs or more goes down slightly. More on this in a second.

Farrell decided yes, he would sacrifice, and Victorino bunted much to joy of TBS and the part of the nation that loves small ball. It was a successful bunt, moving the runners to second and third. The rest was predictable enough. Pedroia grounded out, which scored the tying run. Pinch-hitter Mike Carp struck out looking. A one-run inning.

OK, well, the Red Sox tied the game. They lost it in the bottom of the ninth when Jose Lobaton hit a walk-off homer. But the point here is not win or lose. The point here is a question: Did the bunt work? I think most people would say: Yes, it did. The Red Sox scored the tying run. That was the most important thing, right? it worked, right?

I don’t think so. The run expectation with runners on first and second with nobody out is 1.4 runs. That means teams, when you average it all out, score MORE than one run in general when they have runners on first and second and nobody out. This obviously includes every strategy, every situation, every kind of pitcher, and I’m not trying to make too much out of it. I’m just saying that if teams score 0 or 1 run, they have scored BELOW the expectation. If they score two or more, they have scored MORE than the expectation.

So, to me, the bunt did not work. Put it another way: If someone is a 70 percent free throw shooter, and the team trails by one, and he gets two free throws, the is expected to make 1.4 free throws. If he makes one of two, I don’t think anyone would consider that a successful trip to the free throw line. Admittedly, it might be harder to score two runs against a closer like Rodney. Then again, you don’t often have two hitters as good as Victorino and Pedroia coming up (not to mention Ortiz, if he had been in the game).

A lot of smart people, much smarter than me, think the bunt was not only right call but the only call. I personally think the Red Sox would have had a better shot to win Monday’s game if Farrell had taken a little Jimmy Dugan nap.

  1. spacemaker101 - Oct 8, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    Shane’s a baller

  2. thebaseballidiot - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:11 PM

    And if anyone behind Berry gets a hit, or does something to score him (oh, those stupid RBI’s, they’re just meaningless), then it changes everything you just wrote about.

    All it took was one single or two ground outs.

    Farrell gave his players the opportunity to succeed. That’s what he’s supposed to do.

    Leaving a guy into hit in that situation who struck 139 times during the season is a worse move.

    Contact of any kind of could have very well scored the runner.

    But pulling Saltalamacchia would have gotten him crucified even more than anything else that was said.

    • paperlions - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:15 PM

      Most of the combinations of things that would result in Berry scoring would also result in Ortiz scoring and most of the combinations of things that would result in Berry not scoring would also result in Ortiz not scoring. The difference is outcomes of the possible scenarios is very small…and for that, they removed their best hitter from the lineup.

      • jakeshuman2 - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:52 PM

        The bottom line is the Red Sox couldn’t get Berry in from second nor could they Middlebrooks or Jacoby in from scoring position. That’s where the problem one: they sucked at situational hitting. Farrell made the right moves, the Red Sox just couldn’t capitalize on their chances.

      • paperlions - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:58 PM

        No, he didn’t make the right moves. He made moves that increased their chances of scoring exactly one run by a very small amount, and did so at the expense of removing his best hitter.

      • paperlions - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:59 PM

        If one run wins the game no matter what, fine….but for that to be true, they had to be tied and at home in the 9th inning or later. If you don’t know how many runs you need to win, it was the wrong move.

  3. wheels579 - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    If that’s what you believe, then apply for a job with the Oakland A’s. Bunting is considered a crime there and Billy Beane has the ring-less fingers to prove it.

  4. pauleee - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    Sox Sweep Rays, Take Game 3 5.4 – 5

  5. bravojawja - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    With runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out, I’m surprised they didn’t intentionally walk Pedroia (a very good hitter) to set up the double play for Berry/PH (a not nearly as good hitter as Pedroia). Not saying that would be right, just surprised it didn’t happen.

  6. wheels579 - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:33 PM

    I wondered same thing about walking Pedroia. Carp was 0-3 lifetime vs Rodney but Maddon said he was leery of Rodney pitching with bases loaded. Maddon said he was conceding the one run.

    • jakeshuman2 - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:54 PM

      Maddon must have a strong heart. With Rodney as a closer, he’d need one.

  7. skids003 - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Don’t you love writers? I wonder why they aren’t all managers, they seem to know so much and are so smart (at least the day after.)

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:05 PM

      Earl Weaver espoused similar strategies to what Joe wrote 30+ years ago. Is that a good enough resource?

    • moogro - Oct 8, 2013 at 6:17 PM

      What makes you assume he wasn’t thinking this at the time? A lot of us were.

  8. petey1999 - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    Yes, and Farrell clearly over-managed by leaving Uehara in to pitch to the dangerous Jose Lobaton. Wait…I guess that would be under-managing. Jeez.

  9. wheels579 - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    Earl won four pennants waiting for the three-run homer. Excellent manager. But he didn’t throw tantrums in print against those who didn’t employ that strategy. Posnanski’s ‘take a nap’ idea is insulting to the Joe Maddons who spent over 40 years in baseball. He should take a nap through his next deadline instead of writing more of this garbage.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:50 PM

      The appeal to authority doesn’t work when the decisions one makes have been shown to be counter productive. Rather than speaking in cliches, why not explain how Pos is wrong?

  10. yankeepunk3000 - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    you guys are too rough on Joe. He does make a good point and he believes that sacrificing an out with good hitters coming up is unnecessary. I tend to agree with him on a lot of things, this being one of them. Not entirely but atleast more then not. The funniest thing to me is the bunt is so very much old school because when I watch games with my father who has watched baseball and loved it since the late 40s, if two runners are one 1st and 2nd for a team he’s rooting for he always ALWAYS says “the guys gotta move em over, gotta move both players over son.” Even if its freaken Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols taking a hack. If they shoot a 3 run shot he would say they got lucky and if they would ground into a double play he would shake his head turn to me and say what I tell you. To him the bunt was beyond necessary and it was almost a sure chance to atleast get one. His idea was bunt them over and then a little grounder towards the opposite side for the run. Meaning he would give 2 outs for the 1 run and as he says its worked for 100 years why change now. Now excuse me, I think I’m going to get out of work early and go watch a game with that old timer today.

  11. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    Meaning he would give 2 outs for the 1 run and as he says its worked for 100 years why change now. Now excuse me, I think I’m going to get out of work early and go watch a game with that old timer today.

    Because it doesn’t. Nothing against your father, but the numbers Joe cites aren’t hypothetical, they are based on actual events throughout baseball history. Here’s the run expectancy matrix, and it’s broken down by segments of years to delineate scoring differences:

    http://www.tangotiger.net/re24.html

    • mikhelb - Oct 10, 2013 at 8:13 PM

      By advancing the runners to 2nd and 3rd with a bunt, a team loses 0.109 expected runs (a decrease of 7.2% in the expectation of average runs to be scored), but their chance of scoring increases by 5.5%, and as you know, losing 7.2% an gaining 5.5% are both statistically significative, and as far as YankeePunk3000s father goes, he is right, by bunting he is increasing his chances of scoring A run.

      If you are vs a great pitcher you settle for 1 run because the odds of scoring various runs off great pitchers are low (unless he’s pitching a crappy game that day).

      If you’re facing a mediocre pitcher, sometimes it is better to play for the rally (unless that day he is throwing a gem).

  12. jakeshuman2 - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    Is this another one of the writers who think Bud Selig was good for baseball?

  13. wheels579 - Oct 8, 2013 at 4:24 PM

    The appeal to authority works when the authority has had success. Posnanski can sit back and denigrate the use of the bunt without any consequence so long as people read his columns. He hasn’t included any quotes from people like Maddon on why they use the bunt. Maddon is the one who gets fired if he can’t find a way to score enough runs with an anemic offense. Maddon also uses more accepted strategies such as shifts and matchups. So why would Maddon employ the bunt if it were so “counterproductive?” Doesn’t mean it works every time or should be used all the time. People like Weaver can choose not to based on philosophy or what players they have and that is fine. At least Weaver had to answer for it. Posnanski simply caters to trolls with crap like saying he would hire Jimmy Dugan to take a nap, which serves to undermine anything he adds thereafter.

  14. peterjohnjoseph - Oct 8, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    Its amazing to me just how close the line between stupid and genius can be. All metics aside, we all know how hard it is to tie a game in the 9th, against any closer worth appearing in the postseason. Farrell did just that with the idea in mind that if he were to tie it, he was at least giving his team a chance; especially with Uehara, who has been lights out, given up a single run since June, coming up. Overthinking? Probably. Did he tie the game in the 9th? Yes. Did they get a chance to continue and get our best pitcher on the mound to at least extend the game? Yes. ANYTHING could happen after that. Hell, Jose Lobaton could hit a walk off home run.. oh wait. The point is, you can compile all the statistics you want to set the odds in your favor, and no matter what the probability, as long as odds contain the number 1:whatever, that 1 might just be coming up. It came up. We lost, and a manager got called out for overplaying their hand. Had we gone into the 10th and won, I doubt anyone would of taken the time to compile this to say Farrell overmanaged himself into winning an inning or two later than he could of had he done it any differently. That is just how close the line between stupid and genius resides. Last night that line bordered somewhere between the 9th and a possible 10th inning.

  15. peterjohnjoseph - Oct 8, 2013 at 7:22 PM

    Leyland just pinch run for Peralta in the 7th.. Is this going to be scrutinized as well if they lose, or will they be genius if they win?

  16. chip56 - Oct 8, 2013 at 11:14 PM

    Hard to understand why people in baseball roll their eyes at stat nerd columnists.

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