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September 30, 2006

Prospectus Today

Why Didn't Steve Run?

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm thinking about Pat Burrell.

I'm wondering what it must have been like to be Burrell last night. You'd just spent three days in Washington, where fans had driven down from Philadelphia seemingly just to boo you. You'd endured a 14-inning game and two losses, one of which started at 11:30 Thursday night. You'd gotten into Miami at 8 a.m. Friday and had just enough time for some fitful sleep before heading to the park to play another in a month of high-pressure baseball games.

Late last night, though, things looked much better. You'd hit a big three-run homer to set your team on the road to a 14-2 win. By the time you finally cleared out the media, grabbed a plate from the spread and looked up at a TV, the Giants were up 1-0 on the Dodgers. If they could just win tonight, you'd almost have your fate back in your hands, one game back with two to play. As you powered down the last of your lasagna, the Giants went up 3-0, and you felt comfortable taking a long-overdue shower. The Giants' pen had been lights-out in the second half; this game could well be over.

Fifteen minutes later you were clean and dry, but not as happy. Somehow, while you were in the shower, the Dodgers had cut the lead to 3-2. Six outs to go, and you joined what seemed like most of the roster around the TV to watch the Giants hang on. Your teammates fill you in: J.D. Drew had hit a two-run bomb in the seventh. "Figures," you think, "the only guy they hate more in Philly than me."

The Giants get a runner on in the seventh and the eighth, but don't score, and Kevin Correia dispatches the Dodgers between the two. Three outs to go, and you can get another six hours of mediocre sleep before coming back for Saturday's 1:20 start. (Thanks, Fox.) The Giants go to Mike Stanton to start the ninth. You know that he's been closing for them for about six weeks, but he's not exactly Billy Wagner. You remember that the Dodgers have a very good bench, and it comes up here. Jeff Kent walks and Jason Repko runs for him. Drew whiffs looking. Russell Martin walks, sending Repko and his young legs to second. Olmedo Saenz comes up to pinch-hit, and you have to wonder a bit why your team doesn't have that deep a bench.

That frustration grows as Saenz lines a single into right field, scoring Repko. Tie game, and your mood blackens. You notice that Barry Bonds isn't in the game any longer, and wonder how the Giants will score again.

Julio Lugo--hey, what's it like to add players at the trade deadline?-hits a double-play grounder to third, but beats out the back end to put runners on the corners with two outs. Stanton just needs to retire Ramon Martinez to keep the game tied. You stand up, releasing the tension in your back a little, and start to wonder whether you should just stay here overnight. You haven't completed the thought when Stanton bounces a big breaking pitch; Martin scrambles home with no throw, the Dodgers lead 4-3, and you want to leave. Now.

You don't, though. You stay for the bottom of the ninth, because you have to see how it ends. Eliezer Alfonzo strikes out on four pitches against Takashi Saito, and you reach into your locker for your jacket. Steve Finley grounds a ball up the middle in the perfect place for a one-out single. Randy Winn takes a ball off of his shoetops and bloops it into center, sending Finley to third. Omar Vizquel is coming up, and you're trying to figure out how the Giants can't score here. They have a contact hitter, and a great bunter, at the plate. He and both baserunners have excellent speed, making a double play difficult. A tie seems inevitable.

The Giants don't squeeze-too obvious?-and Vizquel quickly falls behind 0-2. That's still not so bad, because Vizquel is very good at putting balls in play 0-2. Not like you, you think bemusedly. Vizquel fouls off an 0-2 pitch, then another, then another…it's getting very warm in the clubhouse, and very, very late.

On the fourth 0-2, Vizquel lifts a pop high and foul behind third base. At first it looks out of play, but Ramon Martinez keeps chasing and chasing. He gets to the stands, reaches in, and makes a terrific catch. Martinez has his back to the infield and his body over a railing, providing plenty of opportunity for a tying tag-up.

But Finley doesn't score. He doesn't move. You know that it's over, and four pitches to Mark Sweeney later, it officially is. Your teammates start to head out, some half-heartedly talking about tomorrow, most silently accepting the inevitable. You barely notice, because you're still trying to answer one question.

Why didn't Finley score?

I'm not Pat Burrell, but that question haunts me, too. I have no dog in the NL wild-card fight, just a desire to see as much good baseball as possible, to squeeze the last drops of the regular season. When Martinez caught the ball, I expected Finley to tag and probably to score. The infielder was half into the stands and well down the left-field line, and Finley still has good speed.

To approach the play from a stats perspective, the breakeven for Finley trying to score in that situation is roughly the expected batting average of the next hitter against Saito, and the OBP of the next two hitters times each other. I'm not going to run the detailed math, in part because it's boring, but mostly because doing so implies a specificity that doesn't actually exist. With first and third, two outs and Shea Hillenbrand coming up against Saito, the Giants could expect to score the tying run about 30% of the time. Make it Sweeney, who pinch-hit, and the figure rises to maybe 35%. So Finley needed about a one-in-three chance of being safe to make tagging the right play.

This isn't Strat-O-Matic, of course; you don't get to know whether you're a 1-9 or 1-15 to score on a play before making a decision. You also don't get to calculate the path not taken and compare the two. However, in the real world, Finley should have had a good idea of, if not the specific numbers, the general situation. With one out, a strong closer on the mound, and a decent hitter on deck, he should have been looking to make the Dodgers make a play. Once the ball curled foul, he needed to be tagging; once Martinez went into the stands, it should have been a trivial decision to go.

This isn't a math problem, it's a baseball one. I think Finley blew the play by not going home, because the chance of his scoring-with Martinez half in the photographer's well with his back to the play 150 feet away-was much better than what the Giants were going to get by sending up another hitter against Saito. He should have known that, not because he knows run-expectancy tables, but because he knows baseball.

Finley stayed, the Dodgers won, and Pat Burrell's heroics will now be forgotten.

--

  • The Dodger win not only pushed the Phillies to the brink, but it moved L.A. into a tie with the Padres atop the division. I'm not one to concern myself with the difference between the division title and the wild card, but this is a rare case where it might matter. The division winner gets the Cardinals, in all likelihood, while the team in second gets the Mets. That's a fairly big difference, even with the Mets being down one $13 million starting pitcher.

    Because the Padres have the tiebreaker in a situation where both teams advance, they're in better shape. It's a small point, but worth mentioning as these teams make decisions over the next two days. They could well have clinched playoff spots by late Saturday afternoon.

  • After all the drama, all the angst, and all the electrons wasted, the Cardinals just about put things to bed last night, beating the Brewers while the Braves were ending the Astros' winning streak. Just like that, their magic number is two, and this whole thing could be over tonight. As bad as they've looked, they'll most likely end up as the NL Central champs.

    That doesn't mean the decision-making is over. Let's assume that the Cardinals don't clinch tonight, but they do lower the magic number to 1. In that scenario, the only way they could miss the postseason would be to lose Sunday as the Astros won, lose the makeup game Monday, and lose a one-game playoff Tuesday. Now, Chris Carpenter is scheduled to pitch Sunday on full rest. However, any chance the Cardinals have to advance in the postseason is largely predicated on Carpenter pitching very well twice; we've all gotten a good look at their staff when he doesn't take the mound, and it isn't pretty.

    With Carpenter so critical to the Cards' chances of winning a championship, wouldn't it make sense to use him if and only if the Cardinals' Sunday game is an absolute must-win? Remember, they're still playing the Brewers at home, so they're going to be a decided favorite no matter who's on the mound. If the goal isn't just to reach the postseason, but to do well once there, it seems clear that the Cardinals have to hold Carpenter back in an effort to get to October with a chance.

  • The late runs of the Astros and Phillies look like they're going to fall short, while the Cardinals, and the Tigers in the AL, will reach the postseason despite not being much better than .500 teams for four months. I think it's an interesting counter to the idea that the games in August and September are more important than the ones in April and May.

    One of the stathead mantras is that all games are equal, and that you shouldn't evaluate teams or players on just a segment of the year. We've now seen consecutive AL Central champs run away and hide early in the season, play poorly down the stretch and win the division thanks to that early play. This year's Mets haven't done much since essentially clinching in June. The Cardinals are living off their work before Memorial Day. Meanwhile, there's last year's Indians and A's, this year's Phillies and Astros, to illustrate the point that a hot second half won't necessarily overcome a cold first.

    Quite frankly, if you were seeding the NL right now, at least two of the four teams might be left aside. The Astros are clearly a better team than the Cardinals at the moment, and I'm not convinced that the Braves aren't a top-four team, at least as long as Chipper Jones is in the lineup. That's not how we do it, though; you get graded on 162 games, and the narrative arc of a season doesn't mean nearly as much as the end result of it.

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

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