The Deciding Play of the World Series That Nobody Is Talking About

Much like ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, I am a baseball nerd.  I grew up clipping box scores out of The Sporting News and used them to compile season-long handwritten tables of statistical data (manually calculated) for my favorite team.  I collected baseball cards and put a few of them in the spokes of my bicycle.  I devoured the Bill James Baseball Abstracts.  I’ve had a lifelong love affair with the game of baseball and especially the statistics.  Whereas Mr. Kurkjian has a strange fascination with the sacrifice fly and even wrote a book about it, I am fascinated by baserunning and wrote a two-part blog series about it.

Part 1

Part 2

It is through this lens that I often view baseball games and especially baserunning decisions.  Our respective interests intersected in the incredible drama of World Series Game 5 between the Astros and Dodgers.  In the top of the eighth inning, LA trailed 11-9 with one out but with runners on second and third base.  According to FanGraphs’ play log, the win probability was 72.2% in favor of the Astros.  What happened next could very well have been the determining factor in the outcome of the entire World Series.  I couldn’t find a GIF of the play but it’s at the 3:17 mark of this re-broadcast if you want to view it online.

Justin Turner hit a line drive to right field, where Josh Reddick caught it cleanly for the second out of the inning.  With some forward momentum, he fired a throw to home plate in an attempt to gun down the speedy Chris Taylor tagging from third.  Taylor started sprinting down the line, then inexplicably stopped.  Reddick’s throw was well up the third-base line and revealed to the entire viewing world that Taylor probably would have been safe if he hadn’t stopped.  After a pitching change, the Fox broadcast showed a replay of third base coach Chris Woodward telling Taylor, “Gotta go!  Gotta go!  Gotta go!” followed by Taylor explaining to Woodward that he thought he was being given the stop sign.  The Astros’ win probability went up to 84.1% after that play, and up to 94.3% after Andre Ethier grounded out to end the inning.

Let’s examine that play a little closer.  The first question to ponder is whether or not it was the right decision to send the baserunner.  According to my prior analysis referenced above, the breakeven point for that situation is around 43%, meaning that if there’s a 43% chance or less of getting thrown out, the runner should attempt to score.  From the article:

“The break-even analysis indicates that coaches should send runners from 3rd almost every time on a fly ball with one out. Even if they’re thrown out a majority of the time, the net result will be positive.  Basically the risk of sending a dead duck to the plate is worth it compared to relying on the next batter to knock the run in.”

Chris Taylor is probably the fastest runner on the Dodgers.  But Josh Reddick is also known to have an exceptionally strong arm.  With Reddick coming forward and at medium depth, he probably wouldn’t need a perfect throw to gun down Taylor, but he would need a very good throw.  In real time, my thought was that Taylor should absolutely try to score based on my armchair opinion and knowledge of the odds of success.  If the play were repeated 100 times, would Reddick be able to throw out a running Taylor more than 43 times?  Given all the things that can go wrong, such as a throw off line (as this one was), the catcher not fielding it cleanly (which also happened in this case), or the catcher missing the tag, in my assessment Woodward made the right decision.  That opinion is certainly up for debate, but I think it was the appropriate choice given the circumstances.

Given that the decision was optimal, the second question is, what could Woodward have done differently to avoid miscommunication with the baserunner?  In a prior life, I used to coach intercollegiate volleyball.  Communication is a critical part of the game to both prevent collisions and to clearly identify who is responsible for playing the ball.  The natural tendency for a volleyball player is to say either “I got it” or “you got it” to call for the ball.  But I coached our players to call “mine” or “yours” instead.  The reason is because “I got it” and “you got it” are too similar and can become easily confused especially if someone only hears the “got it” part.  I often wonder if dropped pop-ups in baseball are the result of the “got it” phenomenon.  Regardless, the same concept applies to this baserunning situation.  “Go” and “no” are too similar, especially in the presence of 43,300 screaming fans during Game 5 of the World Series.  I would advise Woodward to restrict his lexicon to simple “stop” and “yes” commands or perhaps “run!” in the future to avoid any confusion.  It could make a world of difference.

By now, you know the rest of the story.  The Dodgers went on to lose that game 13-12 in 10 innings, but rebounded in Game 6 to tie the series, only to lose Game 7 and the World Series title.  But what if…?  What if Taylor didn’t abort his attempt and instead scored on a sacrifice fly?  And what if all the other events unfolded in an identical fashion?  The Dodgers would have only trailed 11-10 at that point and would have gone ahead 13-12 with their improbable three-run outburst in the top of the ninth inning.  They would have won Game 5 with Kenley Jansen closing it out in the bottom of the ninth, and they would have won the World Series in six games.  What if, indeed!  Certainly, nobody can say for sure how the subsequent events would have unfolded in this alternate reality, but the best guess we can make is to assume what happened after that play would have still happened, but with an extra run on the scoreboard for the Dodgers.  And if that were the case, the Dodgers would be World Series champions today instead of the Astros.  It’s incredible to imagine that the entire World Series may have been decided by a third-base coach who should have simply said “yes” instead of “go.”

 

Ross Roley is a baseball analysis hobbyist and former Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  He’s also partially responsible for instant replay in MLB having raised awareness of the issue in 2006.  http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2006/05/instant_replay_1.php



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Anon
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Anon

A few thoughts:
– I would suggest “go” and “stay”
– I would say breakeven is 57%, not 43%
– my actual thought: I’ve read similar articles before and thought about it a bunch and it seems to me that what the “odds” are saying is not that you should send guys until you achieve a 57% success rate, but instead that you should only send a runner if he has a 57% chance of making it. It’s never made sense to me to send a guy to the plate who is a “dead duck” simply because your success rate is still above 57%.

If you accept that (& that baserunning opportunities are evenly split over time), then your success rate should be halfway between 57% and 100%, or 78.5%. That is consistent with numbers I have seen in prior articles on sending runners from 3rd.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

don’t know that you can assume if he scores the Dodgers automatically win game 5. I mean, in a 11-10 game, Jansen guaranteed comes in at that point. Meaning, he’d need a 6 out save. And we saw what happened in the 2nd inning whenever Jansen pitched this series. Also, Houston quite possibly manages the 9th differently with a 1 run lead.