Quibbling with the Quibblers
To bunt, or not to bunt: that is the question.
Some Post-World Series Post-Mortems
The World Series is a lightning
rod for what I?ve taken to calling the ?armchair army,? that vast subgroup of
baseball fans who cover the spectrum from the sabermetric know-it-all to the
?dese and doze? insider apologist.
Because this is the one time
during the year when all eyes are at least semi-focused on baseball, the level
of verbal warfare and ?high dudgeon? is at its peak, often exceeding the routine
excesses of the media.
In other words, we all become engrossed in the not-so-gentle art of verbal-tribal
warfare that accompanies the on-field action. With matters boiled down to a
simple choice of two teams, we can fix our attention on the discrete events
unfolding in an impossibly small number of games, and attach great? (read: overweening)
significance to each of these details.
The past has shown us that
this is the accepted approach, for history is most easily constructed by exaggerating
the meaning of one event and extending its effect over an entire era. Baseball
is by no means an exception to this precept.
The World Series that appears
to have the most similarity to this one?the 1960 epic between the Yankees and
Pirates, in which Pittsburgh survived three drubbings to win Game Seven in their
last at-bat?produced one of those so-called ?epochal moments,? when Casey Stengel
was fired after winning ten pennants in twelve years.
Those are the kind of signposts that media types dote upon?and
it?s not completely a sure thing that current Yankee manager Joe Torre, having
committed the unpardonable sin of losing a World Series, will escape the fate
that befell Stengel.
Back to the key point, however, real
which was second-guessing as the
?national pastime.? This is the
time of year when managerial performance is subjected to intense (read: nose
hair-level) scrutiny, and many find the essentially conservative nature of post-season
play to be at odds with the way the game is often played during the regular
Arizona manager Bob Brenly know
has been second-guessed more thoroughly and from all ideological vantage points
than any manager in recent memory. From the ?insider? world, he was criticized
for giving Curt Schilling three starts (by an ?unnamed fellow general manager,?
whose identity was protected by that paragon of journalistic discretion, Murray
Chass (rhymes with?well, you
what it rhymes with?) of the New
By forcing Schilling into
three games, so the theory went, Brenly was guaranteeing that he?d have to go
into his bullpen in those games, where dangerous frailty resided.
The fact that complete games
are exceptionally rare, even in the post-season, appears to be lost on this
Keep in mind that these statements
were quoted by Chass only after the Yankees had staged two consecutive two-out,
ninth-inning rallies, something that hadn?t occurred since 1929 and whose incidence
can still be counted on the fingers of one hand.
This probably counts as the
ultimate insider shaggy-dog second-guess, made by someone whose team wasn?t
even in the World Series. Perhaps Chass knew it was puerile, and protected his
source from public embarrassment by concealing his identity.
(On the other hand, Chass
is also the guy who thinks that the owner?s plan to eliminate two teams is ?intriguing.?)
Over here at the home of the ?disloyal opposition,? Brenly was hammered hard
in Alan Shank?s Tidbits blog for the opposite reason.? In general, sabermetricians
despise one-run strategies, and this tendency is quite pronounced in Al?s interpretation
of the events in Game Seven.
Al had a veritable laundry
list of things that Brenly did wrong, but the key ones appear to be: 1) he left
Schilling in too long and didn?t bat for him in the bottom of the seventh in
Game 7; 2) he initially played for a tie in the bottom of the ninth and didn?t
use his bench well.
I?m not here to apologize
for Brenly, but I think we might want to look at some other contexts here just
to see what shakes out of the tree.
First, let?s establish the ambient conditions of post-season
play and see how these compare to those of the regular season.
Post-season games have a
strong tendency to be tighter and significantly lower-scoring than games in
the regular season. From 1901-2001, the average number of runs scored in the
World Series is 7.4 (both teams); in the regular season, that average is 8.7.
That?s a 15% reduction in
run scoring. The 2001 World Series, despite two lopsided wins by Arizona, was
no different: 51 runs were scored in seven games, or just under 7.3 runs per
From 1901-2001, there has evolved an almost perfect bell-curve structure in
?run scoring differential,? or the number of runs by which a game is decided.
49% of all games played since 1901 have been? ?close games? (decided by two
runs or less); 25.5% have been decided by 3-4 runs; and 25.5% have been ?blowouts?
(decided by five runs or more).
In the World Series, there have been more close games and fewer blowouts, as
the accompanying chart? (organized by decade) reveals. This goes hand-in-hand
with lower run scoring, resulting from the concentration of better pitching
on post-season teams (and the tendency to use the best pitchers on these teams
more frequently in a short series).
It is this set of ambient
conditions, which look more like deadball-era or 1960s-style baseball than what
we have been used to in the past nine years, that dominate how decisions get
(Oddly, you?ll note that
in the 60s there were a very high number of ?blowout? games in the World Series,
which is counterintuitive in terms of what we?d expect to see. This is a classical
example of ?small sample size aberration? at work.)
So, as a manager, you are
already working in an environment of reduced run scoring. And, in Brenly?s case,
you are in a Game 7 (do or die, in other words) in a 1-1 tie.
Al makes a couple of points about the Schilling decision, each of which tends
to cancel the other out. He notes that Schilling had given ground in the seventh,
and allowed the tying run to score. But he then notes that Soriano?s home run
in the top of the eighth was on a ?pitcher?s pitch.?? I take this to mean that
Schilling was still making good pitches; but, as Jim Bouton says, ?sometimes
hitters hit homers on good pitches.?
(It?s funny how people see after
the same pitch in such different ways, of course. Rob Neyer, in his own shellacking
of Brenly, suggests that Schilling threw a bad pitch to Soriano. The replays
show, however, that Soriano hit a pitch below his knees. Like many, Neyer has
his own elaborate network of second-guessing, all of which is flawed by the
fact that a theoretical argument is being floated
the actual game
context is known.)
So at best we have a mixed message here. I think it?s highly likely that if
Brenly had batted for Schilling in the seventh, and Arizona hadn?t scored, and
the new pitcher had allowed the go-ahead run(s) in the eighth, the ?insider?
contingent of second-guessers would have come out of the woodwork like lemmings
rushing headlong toward the seacoast.
So, essentially, however
you choose to sort out which move you?d make probably indicates more about your
own predispositions with respect to this matter than anything else. There is
no one ?correct? choice.
So then we get to the bottom
of the ninth, with the D-backs trailing 2-1, facing Rivera. (One thing I haven?t
seen commented on, by the way, is whether Rivera has any tendency to give up
runs after so many consecutive appearances where the outing is longer than an
inning. There?s game data available to us that might address that question,
and I leave it to some enterprising type out there to compile it.)
Al?s next issue with Brenly
is based on what to do after Mark Grace opens the inning by reaching base (with
a single). Do you go for the big inning against Rivera, knowing you have only
two outs to give, or do you spend an out in order to try for a tie? Al opts
for the Earl Weaver option, while 98% of all managers in such a situation take
the Gene Mauch option.
All I can say is that if
I?m facing Rivera in this situation, I?m going to play to at least get the tie.
A major side issue in Al?s discussion concerns the non-use
of Erubiel Durazo. Later on in his discussion, Al references the reason why
Durazo (the darling of sabermetric types in large part because he?s been blocked
from a starting job by an older and arguably inferior player) wasn?t used: he
represented a greater double play threat.
But he does so only after
beating up Brenly three or four times for not using him in situations where
the double play would be catastrophic to the Diamondbacks? fortunes.
In the context of playing for one run (man on first, no
one out), Erubiel Durazo is not the man you?re going to use to lay down a bunt.
However, if you bat Durazo
and he hits a grounder, you?ve just put yourself within one out of extinction.
While the one-run strategy and
appears to be excessively conservative to sabermetric types, it?s the play to
use, because if the defense screws things up, you?re in a much better position
to get the tying
winning runs into scoring position with less than
That?s exactly what happened,
when Rivera threw wildly to second. Al referred to run expectancy tables that
show only a modest increase in run scoring likelihood as a result of a successful
sacrifice, but he doesn?t discuss the scenario where both men are safe.
The chances of scoring the
tying run are nearly tripled when such occurs.
With this situation (down one run, ninth inning, none out,
runners on first and second), Al apparently agrees that the one-run strategy
becomes more viable. If we assume a successful sacrifice at this point, we can
anticipate that Torre will walk Tony Womack to load the bases, bringing Craig
Counsell to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.
Then, of course, Brenly got unlucky when his most accomplished
bunter, Jay Bell, bunted into a force play.
It?s at this point?one out,
runners on first and second?where Al calls for Durazo to pinch-hit for Tony
Womack. But again, the spectre of the double play is a valid reason for not
making such a move.
A ground ball by Durazo in this situation, in all likelihood,
means the end of the game.
Womack is not nearly as good what type of an out he might make
a hitter, as Al rightly points out. But part of what must be assessed in this
(since the chance of either
doing so is higher than 50%), and
whether he has a greater or lesser risk
of making two outs
Womack is far less likely
to make two outs in this situation than Durazo.
(Interestingly, the stats tell us that Durazo doesn?t hit into many double
plays, in part because he hits fewer ground balls than the average major league
hitter.? But the stats can?t tell us what will happen in this particular at-bat,
so risk aversion is a legitimate perspective in this instance. There?s also
this fact: when Rivera is not striking out batters, he?s allowing more than
twice as many ground balls than fly balls.)
Weighing all of this, I?d have to conclude that Brenly made the right choice.?
He then got lucky when Womack pulled a pitch down the right field line for a
double, tying the game and putting the winning run on third with less than two
Al then wants Durazo to bat
for Craig Counsell. I can see that, but I can also see Joe Torre simply walking
him, since his run means nothing. If the opposition manager can bypass your
best pinch-hitter, why wouldn?t he? So why should a manager risk allowing his
best pinch-hitter to be bypassed in such a manner?
In addition, Brenly needs to keep tabs on his personnel?specifically his supply
of middle infielders.? Bell, used as a pinch-bunter, would still be available
to play second if you batted for Counsell, but you?re not in a spot where you
can bat for Womack and Counsell.
In short, most of this criticism
is nothing more than a somewhat more mathematically enlightened version of armchair
quibbling. I?m not convinced that the alternatives presented are definitively
superior to what Brenly actually did, and the subtext (that Brenly is an idiot)
is more of that relentless ?insider bashing? so popular in the little world
of the sabermetrically aligned.
Sabermetrics has much to
offer baseball analysis, but most of its insights occur at a ?macro? level?general
principles applying to a part or all of a season. The field has made very little
real inroads into the ?micro? level?the world of the individual game, or the
sub-world of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series.
Run expectancy tables do
some of that for us, and they are a valuable addition to our knowledge base.
Al applies them well?albeit somewhat selectively. But they do not constitute
an inviolate, cut-and-dried ?decision table,? either.
The drift of sabermetric
discourse from asking questions about important and little-documented aspects
of the game toward a ?we?re smarter than they are? mentality has its roots in
that portion of Bill James? work that can now clearly be seen as his least valuable.
Unfortunately, it?s that portion of James? work that has been most imitated
by those who have followed him.
Bob Brenly did something
semi-radical in this World Series. He went back to a type of starting pitcher
usage that had been abandoned as a result of a kind of blind ?conventional wisdom?
that had grown over the game like a persistent weed over the past twenty years.
He ought to get some credit for taking such a step, as part of any assessment
of his performance as manager?whether it is tilted from an ?insider? or a ?sabermetric?
Quibbling, however, remains a more self-satisfying practice?for all elements
of the ?armchair army.? As a result, a truly balanced assessment of Brenly?s
performance continues to elude us.
Posted: November 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM | 12 comment(s)
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