October 20, 2011
Punting on Punto
Surely someone on the Rangers coaching staff has seen a National League baseball game before the start of this year’s World Series. That person should talk to Ron Washington, who apparently hasn’t. Perhaps third base coach Dave Anderson, who played for years under Tommy Lasorda, might be able to provide a few tips on the basics.
We are speaking, of course, of the intentional walk to Nick Punto in the fourth inning. To start with, wow: there was an intentional walk issued to Nick Punto in the fourth inning. This is a player who has 2,984 career plate appearances and nine career free passes. Rarely has it come to pass that anyone thought it was a good idea to walk Nick Punto of their own accord. This makes sense: usually a manager is glad to see a career .249/.325/.327 hitter come to the plate. They accept them gratefully.
But what does the historical record tell us? Let’s take a look at play-by-play records from 1993 through 2011. Let’s restrict ourselves to games without a DH, where a position player batting eighth has come to bat with two outs and a runner on second.
In cases where the batter is walked intentionally, the result is a scoreless inning 88% of the time. In cases where a batter is not walked intentionally, a scoreless inning occurs 81% of the time. That’s a seven-percent swing, so it looks at first blush like Washington made the right call to issue the free pass. The trouble is that we’re looking at different pools of players in each pool; the players intentionally walked have a True Average of .243 that season, while players who aren’t have a True Average of .238. So intentional walks more often occur to better hitters in the spot.
Punto is not anywhere near as good as either of those pools of hitters, despite a shiny .290 True Average in 2011. His tentative PECOTA projection for next season is just .227, so a much less dangerous hitter than even your typical eighth hitter. But even this oversells Punto’s prowess at the plate, because a good deal of Punto’s offensive value comes from his ability to draw a walk. Punto has just 14 career home runs, and he’s not much of a doubles threat either. Looking at positive events (runs that increase the likelihood of scoring runs, in other words), Punto gets 78% of his positive offensive value from non-walk events over the past five seasons, compared to 85% for the average hitter. And the difference between a walk and a single is less in this spot than it would be otherwise, with Lance Berkman being the runner at second; he can make it from first to third on a single only 22% of the time, compared to 27% for the average batter. So rather than being an exceptionally good spot for an intentional walk, this is an exceptionally poor spot for an IBB, which should narrow the gap between the two options.
But no harm done, right? Unless you look at what it does to the next inning. The average team scores .60 runs in an inning where their leadoff hitter leads off the inning; when the pitcher leads off the inning that drops to .49 runs. Or to put it another way, you go from a 75% chance of a scoreless inning when the pitcher leads off to a 68% chance of a scoreless inning when the leadoff hitter bats to start the inning. While you may slightly increase the odds of getting out of that inning unscathed, you increase the odds that the opposing team scores runs in the next inning by at least the same amount.
Washington made a similar error in the sixth. With two outs and the go-ahead run on third base, he again passed Punto with what seemed to be a semi-intentional walk. This set off a series of moves in which both starting pitchers were removed from the game, with the result that Washington had traded from Punto vs. C.J. Wilson to Allen Craig vs. Alexi Ogando. As BP’s Daniel Rathman wrote this morning, “Washington may be the only person on the planet who truly understands what he was trying to accomplish by ordering C.J. Wilson to walk Punto. If he thought that Ogando-versus-Craig favored the Rangers more than either Wilson or Ogando against Punto, then he may have taken too many bathroom breaks during middle school math.”
The lucky thing for the Rangers is that talent on the field is far more important in deciding the outcomes of baseball games than the moves of the managers. Because if this series turns out to be decided by the machinations of Washington and LaRussa (who, it should be noted, seems to have taken my advice on pinch-hitting to heart), things would definitely seem to be in the Cardinals’ favor right now.