Category Archives: strategy

[game 103] Hit and Run

There are two guaranteed arguments for baseball fans: the value of the designated hitter and the wisdom of the hit and run. Tonight we had a successful hit and run, so somebody somewhere has a point for his side, and somebody somewhere else has a rationalization.

Debates about the hit and run are essentially varying views on baseball risk management. Managers like Earl Weaver think it’s nuts to gamble a possible out for advancing a runner. Managers like Mike Scoscia, tonight, think the reward outweighs the risk, particularly if it takes the opponent by surprise.

It took the Twins by surprise, all right. After a four-pitch walk to Erick Aybar started the eleventh inning with the score tied 5-5, Scoscia called the play with Gary Matthews Jr at bat. The Twins had been expecting a bunt to nudge the runner over, and the fielders left a hole Matthews exploited for a single.

Now, there’s no question the hit and run worked in this instance. It was even something of the centerpiece of the Angels’ comeback. They would go on to hit six singles, collect one more walk, and score six runs to win 11-5. The Twins tried to staunch the bleeding with three different relievers, but once the Angels set to hitting, they really don’t stop.

The hit and run has a pretty problem—if it fails, it often leads to a double play, which is the very outcome it is designed to forestall. The play affects the actions of both baserunner and batter, but it is called before either can judge the pitch. It’s a blind commitment, and both players had better read the sign correctly or it unravels before it starts.

The idea is simple: the runner starts running before the ball is hit, giving him a splendid head start. If the batter fails to make contact, the runner is now trying to steal, but is more likely than usual to be thrown out, because his lead is not based on the normal read of the pitcher, or even trying to search for a slower pitch on which to run. In a hit and run, the runner just breaks away as the pitch is thrown, without the lead he might use on a true steal.

The batter has to put the ball in play, and if he’s a good contact hitter he even gets some help here. A runner on first breaking for second obligates either the second baseman or shortstop to cover the bag, leaving a little lane for the hitter to poke a ground ball through.

If the hitter misses, the runner is usually out; if he strikes out or pops up, they both are, unless the fielders muff their chance. Try it with a bunt and two runners on base and you have the ingredients of the fabulous unassisted triple play.

 

Yet the rationale of the hit and run is reducing the chance of a double play by giving the runner a massive head start. The other, quieter, reason for using it is to compensate for limited power hitting skills. A clean double may be hard to come by, but getting the bat solidly on the ball is all that’s needed for a hit and run to move a runner to third on a single, or score him on a double. At worst, a fielder’s choice that cuts down the batter at first instead of the lead runner sets up the next hitter without the possibility of the classic second-to-first double play looming over him.

The batter has some important tasks. He needs to foul off any pitch he can’t rap out into play, and he needs to hit behind the advancing runner. Obviously, the play is not smart at certain points in the count. Tonight, Mike Scoscia used it before the Twins could see it coming.

Bobby Keppel was in for the eleventh inning. Joe Nathan had already been used to preserve the tie, and both teams were juggling their bullpens. Keppel began by walking Aybar, and instantly the inning started to have that faint whiff of trouble about it. Matthews discharged his hit and run duties perfectly, and Aybar advanced to third.

There are two basic ways to break a tie: scratch out a run using every out available, or pound your way through. The Angels started this inning as if they’d need gamble their outs for a single run, but the Twins bullpen didn’t get around to charging them any tolls on the highway. Howie Kendrick hit a single to score Aybar, and there were still no outs.

Ron Gardenhire tried to stop the misery quickly, and switched pitchers, but Jessie Crain had no better luck against the swarming singles attack of the Angels. Put it this way: you can win a lot of games with .250 hitters if they have the uncanny knack of getting their single hit of the night all in the same inning.

Chone Figgins singles to load the bases, and Maicer Izturis follows with, what else, another simple single, this one of the RBI variety. Bobby Abreu breaks up the tedium by scoring two runs on his hit, and then Juan Rivera walks.

That’s a lot of Angels marching over the basepaths, so Gardy tries the bullpen again. RA Dickey falls under the Angels’ hypno-hitting spell and dispenses a single to Kendry Morales, than snaps himself out of it. He strikes out Mike Napoli, but allows a fielder’s choice from Aybar to score one more run. Dickey strikes out Matthews, but you almost get the feeling the Angels are ready to get back in the field and enjoy their 6-run lead.

The Twins don’t come close to answering back in the bottom of the inning. They are dispirited, even stunned. It had been a close game up to the eleventh, with good spurts of hitting by both teams.

Nick Blackburn and Ervin Santana were the starters, meeting up again, this time in the Metrodome, after last squaring off in a game the Angels took in crushing style. In that game, Blackburn had been perfect for three innings, only to unravel completely in the fourth as the Angels took a clobbering lead they would never surrender.

Tonight Blackburn gets it over with quickly by giving up a hit to Figgins to start the game. The Angels end up scoring two in the inning.

Joe Mauer sends the Twins ahead in the third with a three-run homer. He was driving in Alexi Casilla and Denard Span, and once again the Twins are working from the template of place-setting hitters getting themselves on base.

This afternoon, the Twins completed a trade for Orlando Cabrera, a traveling shortstop who moves from team to team with the sterling credential of having participated in the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory. The .280 hitter is going to displace one of our infield lightweights, and that puts Nick Punto in the crosshairs. Tonight could be his last game for a while, maybe forever.

He doesn’t have much of a line score until the fourth inning, in which he smacks a hearty triple to score Carlos Gomez. Watching him motor hard to third is cheering. Gardenhire has an obvious soft spot for Punto, and this RBI moment may be enough to turn attention to Brian Buscher or Alexi Casilla as the player who’s forced down.

The fourth inning includes an RBI from Span, scoring Punto and placing the Twins ahead 5-2. Blackburn pitched on into the seventh, but the Angels caught up to him. There were baserunners in every inning, against both pitchers, but now the Angels cash in on two of theirs, with an RBI from Izturis and a homer from Abreu.

A one-run lead is such a rickety thing. You can keep propping it up, but the smallest puff of wind is enough to collapse it. Matt Guerrier starts off the eighth inning by giving up a solo homer to catcher Mike Napoli. Guerrier proceeds to corral three straight outs, but the tie is in place. Both teams are quiet for the ninth and tenth, and then the hit and run triggers a scoring cascade in the eleventh.

A close game disintegrated into a rout, and the Twins don’t manage that miraculous four-game win streak they need. The team has clung close to .500 all season long, and tonight’s a little example of how one startling play can set off big inning against a Twins team that can’t quite take that next step up. There’s always tomorrow, but not an infinity of tomorrows.

[game 82] Day Game after Long Night

After last night’s marathon, a day game against your prime divisional foe probably requires a lot of Red Bull. The Twins and the Tigers seem to have maintained the determination they showed last night, but my window into the game is the radio broadcast. I get a fair flavor of things from John Gordon and Danny Gladden, but I don’t feel like an eyewitness.

It’s Francisco Liriano versus Edwin Jackson. Liriano has lately been fulfilling the promise of three seasons ago, and today he’s good for seven innings and eight strikeouts. He was sailing along with a scoreless game until the seventh, when he doled out two singles and then met up with Magglio Ordonez.

Ordonez, a hitter of some magnificence for the White Sox and lately the Tigers, has had a sharp drop in production this season. Heads have been scratched, and even with the microscopic reach of this blog I pause before I raise the obvious question: could there, perhaps, be a drug he’s no longer taking? I merely ask; I know nothing about it. I only know I’m a fan who has seen everything associated with power hitting tainted by steroid stories.

In any case, last night Ordonez was seen saying “What?” when the bunt sign was put on for him. A hitter of his prowess may not know the bunt sign, but last night it appeared to be under consideration. Today, I was prepared for Ordonez to pose no threat to Liriano’s sharp game plan.

Wrong assumption: Ordonez hits a three-run homer to put the Tigers ahead 3-2. A lead built on solo homers from Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau is now lost, and the Twins run the risk of repeating last night’s epic loss.

Jackson is pitching a solid game for the Tigers, but the seventh is his downfall as well. The Twins tie the game on an RBI single from Morneau.

The actual game-winning RBI is from little Nicky Punto, the scrappiest player on a scrappy team. Punto had a little bench time after some sore ribs and other aches got to him, and he’s come back from it hitting pretty neatly in the last week. His single in the eighth sends Matt Tolbert across the plate, and the 4-3 lead stands up as Joe Nathan sets the Tigers down 1,2,3 in the ninth.

Let me also note that Tolbert was running for Brian Buscher, who led off with a single. The game-winning combination, then, came from the generally quiet bats of Buscher and Punto. Buscher gets only occasional playing time, and Punto is buried at the bottom of the lineup. Today, they’re the heroes.

[game 63] The Sacrifice

The Twins won today, playing a day game at Chicago to start their weekend series against the Cubs. I salute day baseball, but I also can’t usually watch it. The box score tells me Kevin Slowey has gotten himself to 9-2, Joe Nathan has gotten a save, and Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel both homered. Yay, Twins.

But I’ve decided I’ve got to mix up this blog a bit. My initial thesis was that something specific and unique occurs in every game; that it’s possible to write an insightful little essay that helps polish the definition of baseball with the raw material of each game. It’s proving harder than I thought.

Lacking much in the way of reader interaction, I began to swing the blog toward something it appeared my husband enjoyed: chronicles of game outcomes, written with as much pep and wit as I could muster. I stopped ruminating on managerial strategy or pitching statistics, not least because the entries I produced on those subjects needed more research and polish than I could given them in a single night. But in abandoning the theoretical investigation of how baseball is played in favor of a fan’s delight in the specific exploits of Mauer and Morneau, I didn’t have much new to say each night.

I’ve been brooding on this, and looking for solutions. What I’m going to try for the next week is writing about different teams. I will, of all things, cut the Twins loose for a while, though I’ll monitor their box scores closely.

Tonight I watched the Tigers visit the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The game had instant appeal—the Twins are about to face the Pirates next week, and the Tigers constitute our primary foe in the division. And, fun sports parallel fact: the Pittsburgh Penguins simultaneously played the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals in Detroit. Major upset there—the Penguins won, and I would like to call into question the planetary alignments that have visited so many woes upon Detroit while allowing so little respite via their sports teams. You will recall that Michigan State couldn’t overcome North Carolina in March Madness; now the Red Wings. Dang!

But only baseball really concerns us here. I just can’t root against the Tigers, despite the fact that somehow that Twins would need to climb over them to win the division.

Rick Porcello, the rookie righthander for the Tigers, is having a solid season. He cruised to a 9-0 victory against the Twins in early May, and I essentially discounted his skills in favor of seeing that game as very hot Tigers versus stone cold Twins. But I see tonight he has promising pitching skills. Porcello has had some tribulations, but since two especially bad outings in April, he’s been working his ERA back down. It’s currently 3.71, and he’s 7-4.

Tonight Porcello had something of a dream experience with interleague play. He won a close game 3-1, pitched 7 innings (after generally not lasting past 6), and had two RBI singles to do as much as he could to win the game by himself. A sweet night for the 20-year-old.

But my main point of focus was on two instances in which runs weren’t scored. In the third, with the Tigers up 1-0, the Pirates led off with two consecutive singles. Pitcher Ian Snell then sacrificed to advance the runners. It’s the typical choice for any pitcher in the NL playbook, and it got the Pirates to the top of the order with one out and men on second and third.

It didn’t work, though. Andrew McCutchen grounded into the worst kind of fielder’s choice in which a runner is out at home. The next batter grounded out to end the inning.

There’s a reason there are four bases and three outs. You can’t keep trading outs for advancing runners.

In the top of the seventh, it’s the Tigers’ turn to try a sacrifice. In this case, Placido Polanco led off the inning with a single. Batting second, Don Kelly was asked to sacrifice Polanco to second. Now, I happen to know nothing about Don Kelly. Perhaps he’s an especially weak hitter and should be used as an NL pitcher is at the plate—asked to sacrifice in order to avoid grounding into the double play. But he hits second in the batting order and I think a bit more should be expected.

The game at this point is 2-1 Tigers, and I know intellectually and emotionally that the sacrifice is the wrong play. Pete Palmer and other baseball mavens have been slicing and dicing this one up for the last 20 years, and the central truth that emerges statistically is that trading outs for bases does not increase a teams chance of scoring. Generally, it isn’t even neutral—it makes it less likely a run will score.

As this inning plays out, we tally up another failure of the sacrifice strategy: mighty Miguel Cabrera, for whom Kelly might have been making way, grounds out and Polanco hikes over to third. I won’t credit Cabrera with a sacrifice because the hit was toward the shortstop and could have cost them Polanco. With the man on third and two outs, Magglio Ordonez must hit successfully or the Tigers lose the opportunity. Yep, it’s a routine grounder.

The moral of the story is that outs are more valuable than bases. Giving one or two hitters a chance to bomb sac flies or place well-engineered bunts is only deferring the moment when a player has to get a true, honest hit. Yes, I’ve seen runners add in a steal or a wild pitch to make that four-base journey without using up all the outs as sacrifices, but as the Win Expectancy calculations from Baseball Prospectus show, rare are the times when playing for one run via a sacrifice succeeds.

The tabulations have all been done, but managers still signal the sacrifice. There are some nuances that the statisticians haven’t accommodated, chief among them the fact that certain hitters are more likely to be successful at accomplishing the sac play than any other. The National League gives us an example with every pitcher, but the Twins have a ready-made sacrifice machine in Carlos Gomez.

So sometimes the play is not a technique for advancing the runner so much as it is a way to avoid letting a hitter bollix up an inning that has a scoring opportunity. It’s also worth noting that anything which moves a runner from first to second greatly diminishes the likelihood of a double play, giving the next hitter a bit better opportunity as well.

There’s justification for the sacrifice, but every time I see one tried, I ask if losing the out is truly the better situational decision. The best justification I can give is that scoring in baseball is so difficult that anything must be tried, but tonight no runs were attributable to sacrifices, and several men were left on base when the sac was tried.

So, the perfect design for frustration: four bases, three outs.