Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Zumaya's Real Folly

I said no analysis, and I lied. Today's issue-du-jour is Joel Zumaya's decision to throw to third base on a grounder back to the mound with runners on first and second and nobody out.

Because the play resulted in a throwing error that scored two runs, everyone was all over him for throwing to third base instead of second base. Of course, had the Tigers turned a 1-5-3 double play followed by a sharp single or wild pitch that only advanced the runner to third, everyone would have discussed what a crucial play it was to get the lead runner.

Let's take a non-results-oriented viewpoint. The question is, if Zumaya can pause and consider, what is his best option?

We'll analyze this using run expectancy. I normally use win expectancy, but a team that is down 2 runs in the seventh will rarely win regardless of the outcome. Using data from 2004-06, the number of runs the Cardinals expect to score in the inning is:

.350 if the 1-5-3 double play is completed, leaving a man on second and two outs

.369 if he completes a 1-4-3 or 1-6-3 double play, leaving a man on third and two outs

.943 if he gets only the lead runner at third, leaving runners on first and second and one out

Remember, we're not even considering the possibility of an error here. All the talk that the error occurred because Inge was not ready to receive the throw is totally overblown; he is one of the best defensive third basemen in the majors and has great reflexes and agility.

It is still harder for him to turn the double play, however. And what do we find? Assuming the Tigers turn a double play, they gain .019 runs by nailing the lead runner. However, if they don't turn the double play, entirely likely when throwing to a third baseman who is not used to making this play, it costs them .574 runs, over 30 times as much.

In other words, assuming they would have turned the double play by throwing to second (and it should have been easy with the gimpy Pujols running), they need to turn this double play 97% of the time for throwing to third to be the better play. A player like Inge is going to turn this the majority of the time, but 97% is more than one can expect out of him.

Should Zumaya be able to do this math in his head in a split second? Of course not. But it costs a team virtually nothing to hire someone to do this calculation in the offseason and teach the players that the notion of getting the lead runner is totally overrated.

Baseball managers, like many of us, have a bias towards expecting the best possible outcome from a situation. With runners on second and third and none or one out, they will intentionally walk the batter, not because it is the best play or even close, but because they are obsessed with allowing no runs, and remember past instances of getting out of a big jam via a crucial double-play ball. Tony La Russa remembered Yadier Molina hitting a big home run and (apparently) believed he would do so again in Game 2. Joel Zumaya may have remembered turning a triple play on a slowfooted batter at some point in his life. Perhaps he just wanted to keep the lead runner off third. It wasn't worth it.

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