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May 1, 2012

Western Front

As a Manager, He Makes a Good Right Fielder

by Geoff Young

After the Angels lost at Tampa Bay last Wednesday, right fielder Torii Hunter suggested that his manager, Mike Scioscia, had not done everything possible to put the team in a position to win. This is the sort of problem that arises when you enter a season with astronomical expectations and then stumble badly out of the gate.

After losing on a walk-off homer by Oakland castoff Brandon Allen the following afternoon and on a walk-off single by Asdrubal Cabrera in Cleveland the next night, the Angels found themselves nine games behind AL West-leading Texas, the largest deficit of any team in baseball. The off-season signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson were supposed to take last year's 86-win team to the proverbial next level. Instead, the Angels have skidded in the opposite direction, leading some folks to panic.

Yep, 20 games. 12 percent of the season. Freak out.

This isn't the first time the Angels have started a season 6-14. They did it in 2002 (falling 10 ½ games behind first place Seattle) and finished 99-63, winning their first and only world championship under Hunter's current manager, Scioscia.

Leaving aside the issue of whether it is appropriate or advisable for Hunter to publicly question his manager's tactical decisions (although one would think that someone being paid $18 million to hit more than he has thus far might have other things on his mind), was he even right?

One of Hunter's specific criticisms centered on the game's second inning. After Hunter and Vernon Wells led off with singles, Maicer Izturis flied out to left field. The Angels then loaded the bases with one out but did not score. In a game decided by one run, this proved to be huge. And yet after the game, Hunter focused not on the fact that Chris Iannetta and Bobby Abreu both made outs with the bases loaded, but on the fact that Scioscia didn't have Izturis lay down a sacrifice bunt to move himself and Wells into scoring position. Hunter's exact words were, “You mean if we bunted in the second? What can we do? All we do is play the game.”

In examining whether sacrificing in that situation made sense, there are a few questions to consider:

  • Is giving away an out so early in the game a good idea?
  • Can the man being asked to bunt execute?
  • Can the men behind him take advantage of his sacrifice?

James Click considered these issues and more in a series of three articles he wrote in 2004. The main thing I learned from reading Click's articles is that he is really smart. The other thing I learned, which is more relevant to the current discussion, is that Izturis shouldn't be bunting in that situation. From the second of Click's series:

While it's still true that sacrificing is an archaic, outdated strategy, there appear to be a few select game situations in which it remains a better option than swinging away. However, those situations are almost entirely limited to when there is a runner on second and no outs. Even in such a situation, it is only beneficial to sacrifice in certain parts of the lineup or when the quest of a single run is more important than maximizing run scoring.

In the third article, he examined the specific situation presented to Scioscia on Wednesday and found that when playing for multiple runs, e.g., early in the game, “Sacrificing with men on first and second is only a good idea when pitchers are due up.” Furthermore, Click noted that even late in a close game (which was not the case when Erick Aybar came to bat in the second):

When runners are on first and second, sacrificing is, again, not a good idea, a finding that is due almost entirely to the opposing manager's propensity to intentionally walk the next batter to keep the double play in order.

Click also found that “sacrifices are successful about 60 percent of the time,” which he used with a number of other variables to determine thresholds for maximizing run-scoring in various scenarios. With runners at first and second and no out, given the offensive environment of 2003, you didn't want a hitter better than .218/.253/.266 to drop down a sacrifice in a normal situation (i.e., not playing for one run late in the game). When playing for one run, the threshold became much higher, .268/.338/.430. These numbers aren't perfect (run expectancy values change, etc.), but they give us a rough idea.

Izturis is a career .275/.340/.389 hitter, which makes him a borderline case in a one-run scenario (Aybar, the man behind him, is slightly less accomplished at the plate, owning a .274/.317/.376 line in roughly the same number of plate appearances). But was this even a one-run scenario? Sure, the Rays had Jeremy Hellickson on the mound, and he is a very good pitcher, but the Angels countered with Wilson, who is no slouch himself. Unless Hunter had more confidence in the opposing pitcher than in his own, and therefore felt the need to scratch out one run so early in the game, this makes little sense. (Although you could spin it as a belief that Wilson only needed the one run.)

Hunter's criticism was aimed at Scioscia, but it also called out one, maybe two teammates—Izturis for being a lousy enough hitter to warrant bunting in a situation that didn't call for it, and possibly Wilson for not being as tough to score against as Hellickson.

(The Rays, incidentally, did lay down a sacrifice later in the game. With a runner on first and no out in the eighth, holding a 2-1 lead, Elliot Johnson—a career .190/.247/.318 hitter entering 2012 and off to a 1-for-11 start at the time—advanced Evan Longoria with a bunt so that the superior B.J. Upton could try to drive Longoria in from second. Although Upton struck out, Longoria later would score what turned out to be a crucial third run. Then again, with Jason Isringhausen walking the world, this would have happened regardless... unless, of course, Johnson had grounded into a double play.)

Back to the second inning, ignoring any potential butterfly effect (i.e., if Izturis bunts, everything afterward changes), how much difference would his ability to execute such a strategy have made? Instead of runners at first and second and one out, you've got them at second and third.

Here are the relevant run expectancy values from 2011:

Bunt

Scenario

RE

Before

1st and 2nd, 0 out

1.432

Successful

2nd and 3rd, 1 out

1.290

Failed

1st and 2nd, 1 out

0.894

So, the total number of runs expected to score after a successful attempt decreases, which may be acceptable when playing for one run (even then, gains are modest; using values from 1993 to 2010, the chance of scoring one run increases from 0.643 to 0.698 after a successful sacrifice with runners at first and second and no out, versus decreasing to 0.429 on making an out). In other situations, we get something like this:

0.60 x (1.432 – 1.290) + 0.40 x (1.432 – 0.894) = -0.408

This multiplies the rate of success (0.60) by the difference in run expectancy caused by a successful sacrifice bunt (1.432 – 1.290), then multiplies the rate of failure (0.40) by the difference in run expectancy caused by a failed sacrifice bunt (1.432 – 0.894), and adds the two results together. Again, these numbers aren't perfect (and they ignore run expectancy changes for various non-sacrifice outcomes), but they are close enough to make the point that attempting to sacrifice in this situation is a good way to cost yourself runs.

Meanwhile, assuming Izturis is successful in bunting the runners over, Aybar then reaches on catcher's interference, resulting in the same base/out state that occurred in reality, i.e., bases loaded and one out. Then Iannetta strikes out and Abreu grounds out to end the inning with zero runs. So if Izturis sacrifices and everything else unfolds as it did, then what? Does Hunter call out Scioscia for not letting Izturis swing away in that situation? The outcome is driving the narrative. The team didn't execute, and now Hunter is inventing reasons for it.

But I digress.

Returning to our second question, do you know how many times Izturis laid down a sacrifice bunt in 2011? Bear in mind that he had a career-high 494 plate appearances, giving him ample opportunities to do so (Kansas City's Chris Getz, for example, had 14 sacrifices last year in 429 plate appearances). Don't know? Here's another hint: It's the same number of sacrifices that Hunter laid down last year: zero.

That's right; Izturis never laid down a sacrifice bunt in 2011. And so now, in the second inning of a game in the following season's third week, would be a good time for him to do so. According to a guy who has never managed a game in his life.

That's why Hunter gets paid the big bucks. Actually, it's to play baseball, but never mind that.

There were other decisions to second-guess in this one as well. Leaving Isringhausen in long enough to walk in a run in the eighth. Using Alberto Callaspo as a pinch-hitter for Iannetta in the eighth rather than Mark Trumbo. But again, if the players execute, the decisions look golden.

They didn't, and they didn't.

* * *

Thursday's loss may have been even more painful, seeing as how the Angels held the lead into the final frame. If Hunter had wanted to call out his manager or even his general manager in this one, he surely could have. He also could have called out Pujols, who beat the shift in the sixth and grounded a single to center on a Matt Moore 0-2 pitch but was thrown out trying for second. The Angels then knocked three consecutive hits, resulting in two runs, but Pujols potentially ran them out of a bigger inning.

On the bright side, that hit ended an 0-for-21 stretch for Pujols, who is already shouldering too much of the blame. His slow start has caused people to forget basic stuff, like this (through Sunday, April 29):

Year(s)

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

2001-2011

7,433

.328

.420

.617

2012

94

.216

.266

.295

Yes, it's a brutal line by anyone's standards, let alone those of Pujols, but the most important column here is the second from the left. We're talking about 1 percent of the man's career plate appearances.

Pujols is still hitting the ball hard. On Tuesday, he drilled a David Price offering in the fourth but hit it right at the shortstop, smoked a couple of hard foul balls in the seventh before flying out to medium center field, and just got under a pitch in the ninth. This is anecdotal evidence, and just a few examples, but the point is that even if he's more aggressive than he used to be, it's still Pujols out there. He may be missing now, but it isn't by much and it won't last forever.

Anyway, the only thing less interesting than Pujols' slow start is someone pointing out how uninteresting it is. This is a non-story, and already I've said too much.

Besides, it's not like his teammates did much on Tuesday. A better approach might help. Price, who had averaged 62 pitches over the first three innings of his starts coming into that game, needed 29 against the Angels. Price is a great pitcher when he's on, but he is not the most efficient guy in the world.

Back to throwing people under the bus, here's where Hunter could have called out Scioscia or GM Jerry Dipoto. In the sixth inning of Thursday's contest, Tampa Bay's Matt Joyce hit a drive to right-center field. Trumbo, a first baseman by trade, was playing right field and made a diving effort but couldn't come up with the ball. It was a great effort, and he missed it by maybe a foot or two, but you know who would have made that catch? Mike Trout, who was hitting .403/.467/.623 at Triple-A but who is blocked (well, he was when I started this article) by old and expensive outfielders (Hunter, Wells, and the since-released Abreu).

You can't fault Trumbo. He homered and doubled off Moore, providing the bulk of his team's offense. But had he been doing it from the DH spot, with Trout in right field, maybe the Rays don't score in the sixth and Allen's blast (again, assuming no butterfly effect) in the ninth merely ties the game.

Guess who was the DH on Thursday? Hunter. Who, actually, might have caught Joyce's drive. So does Hunter call out Dipoto for not cutting Wells or Abreu to make room for Trout? Or does he call out Scioscia for mixing up his DH and right fielder? Or, heck, why not Jerome Williams for walking Luke Scott with two out to let Joyce bat?

For the record, Hunter did none of the above. In his defense, with so much blame to go around, it's hard to know which guy to pinpoint.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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