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November 3, 2014

Prospectus Feature

The Decision that Decided a World Series

by Dustin Palmateer

A single play in the 2014 postseason captivated the baseball world: Alex Gordon’s three-quarters trip around the bases as the Giants’ outfield botched Gordon's line-drive single in the last inning of the World Series. And how could it not? Game Seven, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, down by one, and Gordon—the Royals’ best hitter—facing the suddenly untouchable Madison Bumgarner with a ring on the line. Nate Silver, immediately after the play ended, tweeted the following:

Maybe there’s some recency bias present, but it’s hard to imagine that a play at the plate on an attempted inside-the-park single at that moment wouldn’t go down as one of the great moments in baseball history, right there with the likes of Willie Mays’ catch, Bill Buckner’s error, and Kirk Gibson’s home run. The added wrinkles of the Royals’ storybook run, Bumgarner’s historic playoff performance, and Buster Posey’s involvement in the creation of a new rule that could have been tested on a play with Posey right in the middle just help guarantee it would have been a moment for the ages.

Silver has since written about the play (along with plenty of others), attempting to answer the question of whether or not the Royals should have sent Gordon (yes, says Silver). Others, like Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, have focused on how likely Gordon was to score if he had tested Brandon Crawford’s arm (not likely, says Sullivan). There are a lot of opinions on the play, with people dissecting it from every angle and leaving, unfortunately for the deliberate among us, little meat on the bone.

The play seems to have received so much attention because it ultimately didn’t come to fruition, leaving our imaginations to run wild with what it would have looked like (and what it would have felt like) to have Gordon and the ball—an innocent bystander to the chaos—in a race toward home plate to settle a season. That wasn’t to be, of course, and no subsequent histrionics ensued—Gordon didn’t try to steal home, Terrance Gore didn’t pinch-run, and Salvador Perez didn’t channel his inner-Jake Taylor and try to bunt his way on, balky knee and all. The game ended in anti-climactic fashion, with Perez chasing high Bumgarner cheese until finally succumbing to an up-and-in 2-2 fastball that eventually landed in the glove of Pablo Sandoval, reminding us that baseball’s script doesn’t always follow our own, even when it comes desperately close.

Left with a fully satisfying season finale that narrowly missed all-time status, we were left to speculate: What if third-base coach Mike Jirschele sent Gordon? What if Gordon ran faster out of the box, didn’t briefly misstep around second base, and kept full momentum around third? Could he have scored? Would it have even been close? What if Gordon was wearing a pair of 20th-anniversary PF Flyers?

Could Gordon have scored on the play?
Before getting into any hypotheticals, it makes sense that we start with the simplest* question, and the one that everyone has tried to figure out. The short answer: Sure, he could have scored, but the consensus seems to be that it would have taken an errant throw or a dropped ball to give him a legitimate chance. Most back-of-the-envelope estimates have the throw beating Gordon by anywhere from 10-20 feet on the low side to 50 feet on the upper end, which would have given Posey enough time to consult the rule book before deciding how to tag Gordon.

*Yeah, right.

Let’s try to go through the math ourselves, employing video analysis and the power of Google Earth to attempt to find a reasonable answer.

First, let’s figure out how many seconds it would have taken Gordon to reach home if he had been sent by the third-base coach. We have the now-famous freeze frame (borrowed from Jeff Sullivan’s article) below, and we know that Gordon—with the slow start, the subtle stumble, and the deceleration after being held up—reached third base in about 12.3 seconds:

In fact, we can break it down further:

  • Home to first: 4.8 seconds
  • First to second: 3.6 seconds
  • Second to third: 3.9 seconds

Now we need to figure out how fast, approximately, Gordon would have moved from second to third if he hadn't planned on stopping. The simple answer might be 3.6 seconds—the time it took him to go from first to second—but I wanted to double-check by looking at past Gordon triples to see his splits between each set of bases. Unfortunately, the highlight videos from those triples don't provide the right camera angles for that kind of analysis. The good news is that it probably makes more sense to look at inside-the-park home runs, anyway, since that’s what this would have (essentially) been.

So I took a random sampling of inside-the-parkers on MLB.com and recorded each player’s total time, along with their time from base-to-base. Here are the results:

  • Home-to-first: 4.7
  • First-to-second: 3.8
  • Second-to-third: 3.3
  • Third-to-home: 3.4
  • Home-to-home average: 15.2

What’s interesting about inside-the-park home runs is that the baserunners’ speed actually picks up throughout their trip around the bases, with the final two legs ending up almost equal. The fact that it takes the longest to go from home to first isn’t a surprise—the batter has to finish his swing and then, like Gordon in Game Seven, they sometimes break into a singles or (outside-the-park) home run trot. What might be surprising is that they go from second to third and third to home much faster, on average, than they go from first to second. It’s tough to say with any certainly why this is true, but many inside-the-park plays develop after a misplay or a bad hop, so these runners might not fully gear up from a slow start until they're past first base.

Based on this information, I don’t think it’s crazy to give Gordon an estimated 3.3-second second-to-third time had he been sent all along, which also comes close to Sullivan’s estimate. Now we just have the final leg left.

As mentioned above, it appears that players don’t generally tire as they near home. Of the six inside-the-park trots I looked at, only two players—Ken Griffey Jr. and Jordy Mercer—went noticeably slower from third-to-home when compared to second-to-third. The other four—Tony Campana, Jose Altuve, Drew Stubbs, and Craig Gentry (man, that guy’s fast)—ran their final two legs within a decimal point of each other. So extrapolating based on the earlier legs, we end up with something like this for Gordon:

  • Home to first: 4.8
  • First to second: 3.6
  • Second to third: 3.3
  • Third to home: 3.4

That puts Gordon from crack of the bat to home plate in 15.1 seconds, which seems reasonable and just so happens to be right on the average of the sample we looked at.

Now the question: How fast would the Giants, had they been forced to make that final relay, have gotten the ball to home plate?

We know that Brandon Crawford received the relay throw from Juan Perez at approximately 11.8 seconds, which would leave the Giants 3.3 ticks to nail Gordon.

The first issue here is to determine how far Brandon Crawford was from home when he received the throw for Perez. The changing mowing patterns of Kansas City’s grounds crew make it an exercise in guesstimation:


The estimate on the right, with help from Google Earth, puts him 200 feet away from home plate. Other estimates of Crawford’s proximity to home plate seem to underestimate that distance—remember, it’s right around 150 feet just to the edge of the outfield grass where Crawford left the infield, and he wandered quite a way out there. Since the ball rolled all the way to the wall and was eventually bobbled by Perez, it gave Crawford plenty of time to get as far out as he felt comfortable making a relay throw.

Okay—deep breath—now the final question: How long does it take Crawford to deliver a 200-foot relay throw to home plate. Again, like the estimable Mr. Sullivan, I chose to look at a couple of previous Crawford relays to get an idea:

Crawford Relays

Distance from home (ft.)

Time from glove-to-home (seconds)

Est. time from glove-to-home (200 feet)

Relay No. 1

185

2.7

2.9

Relay No. 2

170

2.1

2.5

Relay No. 3

185

2.6

2.8

Relay No. 4

175

2.5

2.9

It’s *really* hard to estimate Crawford’s distance from home on these, so obviously don’t take them as precise measurements. While I’m comfortable saying that Crawford was further out into the outfield in Game Seven than any of the above relay plays, I’m not 100 percent confident whether it was by 10 feet or 30 feet.

If we ignore relay no. 2, which was shorter than the rest and on a different angle, we can assume—while surely breaking a few laws of physics—that Crawford’s throw would have arrived in Posey’s glove in 2.9 seconds. Let’s call it 3.0 seconds because Crawford had to receive the throw on a short hop, where the others were closer to chest high. Admittedly, we’re spitballing a bit here.

So … Alex Gordon arrives at home plate in 15.1 seconds and the Giants’ relay gets there in 14.8 seconds. Assuming Gordon was traveling at 18 mph (Statcast had his peak speed at 18.7 mph), that would give Posey the ball with Gordon just about eight feet from home. While that’s plenty of time to make an easy tag on a strike throw, it also leaves relatively little room for error.

At shortstop, Crawford’s arm strength is more highly regarded than his accuracy. Looking at the Fans Scouting Report, Crawford’s throwing strength is rated behind only Andrelton Simmons and Troy Tulowitzki among shortstops in 2014, though his arm accuracy ranks him a more pedestrian ninth. His career throwing-errors-per-400-assists* of 7.0 rates slightly better than the league average rate (7.7) among shortstops. In other words, who knows how likely Crawford is to make an accurate relay throw from 200 feet with the World Series on the line. In the past, he’s shown that he’s a plus defender with above-average arm strength and closer to middle-of-the-pack throwing accuracy, but to actually pinpoint his probability of success under these conditions, well, we’d have to simulate the play 100 times or so—you know, for science.

*Yeah, I just made that up.

Take a look at this screen grab from a Craig Gentry inside-the-parker in 2011, which puts Gentry in the proximity of where Gordon might have been when the shortstop received the ball:

The above image shows when the cut-off man got the ball. Here’s how that play turned out:

Gentry is a good couple notches faster than Gordon, while Kyle Seager, the Mariners’ shortstop that day, doesn’t have the noted arm strength of Crawford. But it does help to provide some perspective and illustrate one of the possibilities had the play unfolded last week in Kansas City.

Considering that Silver came up with a 30 percent breakeven point for sending Gordon, going for it might’ve made sense. Had Crawford delivered a perfect throw home, Gordon likely would have been out. But if his throw was even a few feet offline, took an in-between hop on Posey, or was simply airmailed or misdirected—or if Crawford hadn't fielded the short-hopped throw from Perez cleanly, which happened after Jirschele threw the stop sign up—the chances of Gordon scoring would have been excellent. Processing all of that information in a few seconds, as both Gordon and Jirschele had to do, while making the correct split-second decision is always a tough task, especially when it’s a borderline call either way.

A few quick hypotheticals:

Would Gordon have scored if he was running hard out of the box?
Ben Lindbergh at Grantland:

“Instead, Gordon coasted to first as one would on the usual presumptive single—understandable, in that a batted ball of that sort almost never leads to a scoring opportunity, but still frustrating, in that one would have hoped the stakes in that moment would have overridden Gordon’s muscle memory.”

Gordon cavalierly made his way to first base after contact, which, as Ben notes, is somewhat defensible given the nature of his hit (and he wasn’t that slow). At the same time, there was a decent chance that Gregor Blanco could’ve muffed that ball, opening up a potential two-base hit for Gordon and putting him in scoring position with two outs. Further, there was a non-zero chance that Blanco lets the ball roll by him to the wall—like what ultimately did happen—opening up triple and inside-the-park aspirations. He probably should have been busting it 100 percent out of the box, even if it’s difficult to be too hard on him for it.

If he had run hard all the way, does he score? It’s tough to get a sense for Gordon’s home-to-first speed because very few highlight videos isolate the runner, but if I had to guess:

  • Home-to-first: 4.5
  • First-to-second: 3.5
  • Second-to-third: 3.3
  • Third-to-home: 3.4

That puts Gordon at home plate in 14.7 seconds, similar both in final time and base-to-base distribution to an inside-the-parker Jordy Mercer hit in 2013. We shaved 4/10ths of a second off Gordon’s actual (estimated) trot time, which seems entirely reasonable. That would put Gordon at home plate right around the time the ball arrived, giving him an excellent chance of scoring.

Would a faster player have scored on the same play?
After the game, Gordon commented on the decision to hold up at third:

“When it got by him, I got a smile on my face running the bases, hopefully thinking to score,” Gordon said. “But they got to it quickly enough, and I don’t have (Jarrod) Dyson’s speed, so I couldn’t make it all the way to home.”

Would a speedier player have scored? Almost certainly. Tater Tracker lists the 12 fastest inside-the-park home run times since 2010 and all of them, from Billy Hamilton’s blazing 13.8 second minor-league tour de force to Curtis Granderson’s 14.66 mark in 2011, would have scored quite easily.

***

There’s a certain element of charm in not knowing what would’ve happened had Gordon scampered home. While we’ve attempted to estimate the results of a would-be all-time great moment, the fact of the matter is that any rehashing of the play on the internet only serves to placate our desire to have seen it unfold in real life.

Game Seven of the World Series, which pitted two endearing, overachieving rosters head-to-head, came down not to physical dominance or mastery of baseball skill (save for Gordon somehow managing solid contact against Bumgarner), but rather a decision. As Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez, a normally reliable outfield tandem, turned a routine single into an exhilarating race around the bases, Mike Jirschele made the conscious decision to avoid becoming a World Series goat—even if it might have slightly decreased his team’s odds of winning. For a 35-year minor-league veteran in his first tour of the big leagues, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from, especially given the fact that Gordon’s less-than-optimal path around the bases didn’t help matters.

Eventually the familiar free agent chatter of the offseason will drown our memories of Game Seven, leaving us knee-deep in Rule-5-draft scouting reports. But it’ll be hard to forget that fleeting moment of baseball euphoria as Perez booted the ball and Gordon churned for third base, even if it didn’t have a thrilling finish. Sometimes baseball—from the grand stage of the World Series to an independent league doubleheader—works just fine as a manipulator of our emotions.

When does next season start?

Dustin Palmateer once played division III junior college baseball, finishing with a career batting average below the Mendoza Line. He now writes about the game at PadresPublic.com. You can reach him via email.

Dustin Palmateer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Dustin's other articles. You can contact Dustin by clicking here

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