Fairly early in life, I’d venture to guess that many of us learned to play basic card games, from poker to rummy to blackjack. These games were often learned at home from parents or other older relatives, in a family bonding type of setting. At an early stage in this process, someone likely sat us down and handed down some helpful hints as to how to play the game well – if the dealer is showing a face card in blackjack, for instance, it might make sense to take another card – a hit – if you are holding 16, otherwise a scenario in which you would almost never take another card. Playing the game thusly doesn’t mean you’re always going to win, of course – it simply tilts the odds ever so slightly in your direction.
Whether you’re playing bridge, Scrabble, Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, there are “little things” you can do within the rules that enhance your chances of winning. It’s called game theory, and understanding it is vital to success in any endeavor that includes an element of chance. Odds are that utilization of data has become more commonplace in your workplace, and is integral to the management of businesses of all types. For some reason, despite the proliferation of data and its increased usage in baseball today, basic tenets of game theory continue to go unheeded by managers/organizations, and unnoticed by announcers/traditional media/bloggers. Case in point – this past weekend’s Mariners-Marlins series.
The Seattle Mariners rolled into Miami last Friday in desperate need of a victory. A promising start seemed eons ago, has they had lost five of their last six games, including the final three in Texas. The most painful of those losses was a 9th-inning 3-2 loss in Texas that was a conversion of a routine grounder away from victory, wasting a masterful outing from Felix Hernandez. Their rotation was reeling from the recent losses of James Paxton and his injury replacement, Blake Beavan, to add to the previous losses of Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker. The Marlins hadn’t been faring any better, losing eight of their previous nine games. It shaped up as your classic movable object vs. resistible force matchup. It turned out be much more than that. Perhaps a metaphor, or a how-not-to treatise on baseball game theory.
Game 1 – Friday, 2nd inning. The Marlins had just taken a 3-2 lead on a sacrifice fly by Marcell Ozuna in this matchup between Chris Young and Nathan Eovaldi. With Christian Yelich on second base and two outs, Giancarlo Stanton was intentionally walked, bringing up lefthanded hitter Garrett Jones. This move actually increased the Marlins’ win probability by 1%. Jones – with the platoon advantage, unlike Stanton – followed with an infield single, but a heads-up play by shortstop Brad Miller caught Yelich rounding the third-base bag, and the final out was recorded. An intentional walk – in the 2nd inning. This, incidentally, was Stanton’s first IBB of the season. In a vacuum, it’s a negative percentage move, but in the 2nd inning, all it’s guaranteed to do is bring Stanton to the plate sooner, and perhaps give him an extra plate appearance late in the game. File that away for later.
Fast forward to the bottom of the 4th inning. It’s now 4-2 Marlins, and Young has been relieved by lefty Joe Beimel. Yelich is again on second base, with two outs. The Mariners again issue Stanton an intentional walk, which again increases the Marlins’ win probability by 1%. This one is marginally more sensible, as Beimel at least has the platoon advantage over Jones this time, and he strikes him out. Still, it is only the 4th inning, and it again brings Stanton up to the plate that much sooner, and further enhances his chances of garnering a fifth plate appearance in the endgame. Look at it this way – in either case, the 2nd or 4th inning situation, you could simply choose to pitch around Stanton, allowing him to potentially get himself out in the process. He can only hurt you with a hit, and he has a career .267 batting average. The chances of him hurting you are roughly the chances of an NBA player missing a free throw. Execute pitches – make the darned free throw.
You know where this is headed. The Mariners gamely scrapped back with single runs in the 5th and 7th, tying it 4-4. The game headed to the bottom of the 9th, and the Mariners let middle reliever Yoervis Medina, who had recorded the final two outs of the 8th, return to the mound. Medina is a fine, functional MLB reliever – every club has one or two of him. Command is his primary weakness, as evidenced by his total of 46 walks in 76 1/3 career innings. What he isn’t is the club’s best reliever. That would be closer Fernando Rodney.
Now it must be noted that the Mariner bullpen was very overtaxed at this moment in time. They had gotten just two innings from Thursday starter Erasmo Ramirez and just three from Young on this night. The only member of the pen who had not been fully taxed at this point, however, was Rodney, who had pitched all of just 2/3 of an inning in the previous week. It wasn’t a save situation, however, so old-school baseball wisdom states that you can’t use your closer in a tie game on the road. Whatever. File this one away for later as well.
Pinch-hitter Reed Johnson leads off the home 9th with a single. The Mariners have already used both of their bullpen lefties, so they are stuck with a poor matchup of righty Medina vs. red-hot lefty Yelich. This is where the Strategy Carnival really begins on both sides. The Marlins punted their matchup advantage by bunting Yelich – who laid it down perfectly, beating the bunt out when Justin Smoak slightly bobbled it.
This brought up another red-hot hitter, Marcell Ozuna, a righty. A bunt again seemed to be an unattractive option for the Marlins – a successful bunt would almost certainly take the bat out of the hands of their best hitter, Stanton. They bunted again, and this time there was perfect execution on both sides, a great bunt by Ozuna and an even better fielding play by Medina, who barehanded it and in one motion threw it to third for the force – only for the replay gods to snatch the out away thanks to the newly minted “transfer rule”.
So here we are – bases loaded, no outs, tie ballgame, and up walks – Giancarlo Stanton. He was intentionally walked twice earlier, and as a direct result it was he specifically, and the top of the order in general that came to bat in the 9th. Even Stanton played it wrong strategically in this at-bat – all he had to do was get the ball in the air for the win. Instead, he first swung through a 1-1 hanging breaking ball in the middle of the plate, trying to hit it to Jupiter. Medina then threw the same pitch again, and Stanton didn’t miss it. At no point was Fernando Rodney warming up during the inning.
All the highlights, post-game shows and articles afterward mentioned two things – the Stanton grand slam and the immediately-preceding replay reversal. Never mind the fact that Stanton batted in the 9th solely because of suboptimal strategy by the Mariners, and notched his game-winner despite suboptimal strategy by the Marlins. If there is some justice here, the team that best executed its suboptimal strategy prevailed.
Next, on to Saturday night, and the least eventful contest of the three-game set, a 7-0 Marlin victory, a two-hit shutout by Henderson Alvarez. It was notable from a suboptimal strategy standpoint for two reasons, however. First, there’s the handling of Mariner starter Roenis Elias. The young Cuban lefty had never pitched above AA entering this season, but the lefty earned a spot in the Mariner rotation thanks to a strong spring performance coupled with the attrition surrounding him. He pitched competently in his first three outings, but was fighting for each out on this night, as he battled into the 6th inning down only 2-0.
As noted previously, the Mariner bullpen was in tatters at this point, so they tried to squeeze one more inning out of him. As his pitch count climbed toward a career high 111, he faced a runner on 2nd, two out situation, with only opposing hurler Alvarez standing between him and the end of a respectable outing. Alvarez touched him for a single to make it 3-0. That had to be it for Elias, right? Nope. He then faced lefty Yelich – and walked him. Pull him now, right? Nope. He was allowed to face righty Ozuna, who drilled a three-run homer. Now, Danny Farquhar comes in. Oh, and in the 8th, guess who came in to get an inning of work? None other than closer Fernando Rodney. A world in which he can’t come into a 4-4 game one night but must come into a game with a 6-0 deficit the next night is a nonsensical world, indeed.
This article would not have been written without what happened in Game 3, however. The recent injury to injury replacement Blake Beavan forced the Mariners to call up righty Brandon Maurer from AAA to start, and he was brilliant for 4 1/3 innings, facing the minimum 12 batters through four, and leaving with a 2-1 lead. He faced the mighty Stanton twice, inducing a double-play grounder and striking him out. Rookie reliever Dominic Leone followed suit in the 6th, striking him out. Make quality pitches, hit the free throw, get the out.
The game remained 2-1 Mariners into the home 8th, when the final act unfolded. The ever-present Yelich – told you he was a good fantasy draft, Jessica – led off with a double off of lefty Charlie Furbush, who was then replaced by righty Tom Wilhelmsen, who promptly got Ozuna to fly out. Up walks Stanton, this time representing the winning run. The same Stanton who had been utterly neutralized by less experienced and pedigreed hurlers the previous three times up. The Mariners walked him intentionally, this time increasing the Marlins’ win probability by 5%. They didn’t try to make the free throw. They took a hit on 16.
Of course, the next batter, Casey McGehee, was unintentionally walked to load the bases. Such a result has a higher chance of happening than the DP grounder the Mariners were chasing. The rest was a mere formality. Yelich was safe at the plate on a fielder’s choice grounder – but only after a replay reversal – to tie it, and Adeiny Hechavarria followed with a sacrifice fly to win it. All that remained was for Marlins’ closer Steven Cishek – who did pitch in the tie game on Friday – to shakily fight through a man on third, one-out jam in the 9th for the save.
This article is not meant to pick on Lloyd McClendon or the Mariners in general. It could have been any number of managers or clubs – it just happened to be this one that did all of these things repeatedly in a single weekend, and lost more than one game as a direct result. Managers have the hardest job in baseball, in my opinion, and game strategy comprises a very small percentage of it. Managers are hired to be leaders of men, who are in this case often millionaires many times over, and are expected to hold their attention and respect for a long, 162-game marathon. I would argue that it is the responsibility of the organization to educate their field personnel about game theory, about the math behind the usage or non-usage of various strategies.
This is obviously taking place throughout the game with regard to infield overshifting, and field staff are obviously responding to the data being shown to them by implementing such strategies. This isn’t a one-way street – field staff obviously must have some degree of autonomy, and need to have a voice in development of on-field plans, but a front office that doesn’t share and effectively communicate data that can give their club a competitive advantage – or at least avoids placing them at a competitive disadvantage – does so at its own peril.
A healthy interaction between front office and field staff regarding implementation of data helps to forge a bond between them that is becoming increasingly vital. If it is the field staff’s responsibility to be open to all kinds of new information, it is the front office’s responsibility to have the field staff’s back on the inevitable occasions when that openness to good process leads to bad results. In the big picture, each front office has a responsibility, not only to its field staff, but also to its players and all of its core constituencies, including its fanbase, to maximize its organizational IQ.
When you think about it, these lingering suboptimal strategies are seemingly limited to baseball these days. In no other sport will you see a lesser player purposely entrusted with a central role in a game situation at the expense of an admittedly better player. In no other sport is a game strategy repeatedly undertaken that has a measurably negative effect on that team’s chances of winning. In no other sport will a team consciously forego attempting a task that has virtually the same probability of success as a free throw attempt. These things continue to happen every day in our sport.
There is a time and place for an intentional walk – it’s usually in front of an opposing pitcher, or a very weak hitter who isn’t likely to be replaced by a pinch-hitter. There is a time and place to walk Giancarlo Stanton – and that exact spot might have presented itself in the 9th inning on Friday night if a base was open. There’s a time and place for a sacrifice bunt – usually with a pitcher or weak hitter, or in an extreme low-run environment, late in a close game. You do have to pick your spots on when to use your best reliever – he only has so many bullets. If he’s barely pitched in a week, and the game is tied in the 9th, you just might want to get him in there.
There is hope, and progress, as AL sacrifice bunts are down 25% per plate appearance since just last year, and are over 40% down since 2010. NL intentional walks are down over 20% per plate appearance since just last year, and are over 40% down since 2006. For the math behind the relative efficacy of these situations and more, “The Book” by Tom Tango is a must read. He has every loose end tied up tight.
Similarly, there’s a time and place to hit on 16, but if you’re doing it regularly and without regard for context, you’re going to get burned. You’re going to become “that guy” in the card game, the guy no one wants to sit beside. At this stage of the game, with the preponderance of data at everyone’s disposal, we should be beyond this. No single team’s fanbase should have to wake up on Monday morning and stare at the ashes of a three-game sweep that shouldn’t have happened, that was largely attributable to bad process, to suboptimal decision-making that could have easily been avoided.
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