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July 12, 2012

In A Pickle

On the Humble Pickle

by Jason Wojciechowski

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This is week four of this column's tenure, after I wrote science fiction my first week and looked at what the contenders needed the two weeks after that (though not under the "In A Pickle" name). I think it's time to actually talk about pickles. I wasn't sure if I wanted to as recently as Tuesday night, but then Bryce Harper got into a pickle in the All-Star Game and "God Bless America" was performed by someone named Kellie Pickler. It's fate.

The first thing you have to know is that pickles are delicious. I've had a lot of good pickles at a variety of places, but the two easiest good pickles for me to acquire currently are at Canter's and Langer's in Los Angeles. Canter's cuts them larger—Langer's serves more traditional spears—but I love them both, even though neither is entirely imaginative. They're standard deli pickles.

For more imagination, maybe you want to visit A-Frame in Culver City, where Roy Choi will serve you a plate with much pickled produce: carrots, okra, radishes, Asian pear. Maybe some other stuff. And if you want these pickled items jarred, Gunnar and Jake's has you covered, though they don't, unfortunately, carry Asian pear.

Of course, the phrase that I rely on for my column title here has a non-food meaning as well. The Internet tells me that Shakespeare has the first written use of the phrase "in a pickle," in The Tempest. The usage is apparently explained by "pickle" having referred to a sauce of some sort, with the person in the pickle being as mixed up as the vegetables that were used in the making of the sauce. This sounds ok, right? The website I read this on is British, so I don't think it's in my purview to question it.

To the realm of sport: pickleball! How many of you played pickleball in gym class? I used to think my teacher made it up because it's a pretty low-rent game, an unholy union of tennis and ping-pong when neither sport needs any improving, but lo, there's a Wikipedia page that claims the game was incepted in the 1960's. My gym teacher was alive back then, but he wasn't a congressman with a vacation home on Bainbridge Island, so it probably wasn't him.

This is all well and good, except why is it "Pickleball"? Apparently because in crew (like, rowing, not just my posse), there's a thing called a "pickle boat" and this lady who was present at the invention of pickleball ... look, whatever, this is ridiculous. Rowing is the worst. The point is that pickles are so amazing that people will take every opportunity to name stuff after pickles. Pickle boats. Pickleball. Pickles the dog. (Read the Wikipedia, I'm telling you.)

And baseball pickles. Presumably, whoever first decided to call the rundown play a "pickle" had in mind the vinegary situation the baserunner found himself in upon entering the pickle. If he runs toward the man with the baseball, he will be tagged out. If he runs toward the man who does not have the baseball, the man with the baseball will throw said baseball to his teammate so that the runner can be tagged out. (I told you it was vinegary!)

But anyone who has played, coached, watched, or heard of Little League baseball knows that the real pickle at that level is for the defense. They've got a runner hung up between two bases. If they run at the runner with the ball, the runner will get to a base safely. If they throw to a teammate, the odds are exceedingly good, given the mechanics of throwing on the run as well as the general difficulty of catching at the age of 10, that the ball will end up in an entirely unintended and sometimes horrifying place. Indeed, some of your more unsavory and unscrupulous coaches have been known to encourage their players to engage the defense in pickles because the extra bases gained on errors are worth the trade-off of the outs created when a successful catch-and-throw is actually made.

These activities are mean-spirited and at least as deserving of banishment from youth leagues as intentional walks (our best hitter was intentionally walked once when I was in eighth grade—the handshake line was a little tense after we lost, I tell you what), but they do lead naturally (Ed.: cough) into a run-expectancy-based exploration of the pickle. Sadly, we do not have run-expectancy data for 10-year-olds (we actually like our interns), but we can look at the major leagues.

Working with last year's run-expectancy table, let's start off with the Bryce Harper All-Star Game situation: runner on second, one out, pitcher fields a grounder back to him. Before the play started, the table calls for 0.6492 runs. If Harper is not caught a few steps off the bag and the out is made at first, the expectancy drops to 0.3137. But because he is caught, there is just a runner at first with two outs, leaving the expectancy at 0.2174. What if the pickle comes out differently? The most likely outcomes without a catastrophic error by the defense are Harper scrambling back safely to second (0.8936) or Harper managing to stay in a rundown long enough to let the batter reach second (0.3137).

In a sense, then, the batter (it was David Wright, for what that's worth) cost the team 0.3355 runs by making an out at first with a runner on second. Harper then costs an additional 0.0963 by erasing himself and leaving Wright at first instead. If we start the math over at this point and consider "Harper in a pickle with Wright on his way to first" to be equivalent to "runner on first, two outs," then Harper has the possibility of adding zero runs (being tagged out), 0.6762 runs (reaching second safely), or 0.0963 runs (staying in the rundown long enough to let Wright get to second) to the ledger. Harper making his way back to second, then, would have been worth more than almost any "take the extra base" situation:

Situation/outs 0 1 2
first to third 0.2487 0.2498 0.0408
second to home 0.1689 0.3592 0.7422
stretch single to double 0.2131 0.1466 0.0963
stretch double to triple 0.2487 0.2498 0.0408

The one value in that table higher than the value of Harper finagling his way back to second base is scoring from second on a single with two outs, and that's not even a fair comparison because pickles don't happen with the same level of intrigue with two outs. Sure, guys get in inning-ending rundowns all the time, but not when there's a force-out available, obviously. The baserunner implications are less interesting because the only real question is whether the man in the pickle escapes. Staying in the pickle long enough for a teammate to advance isn't in the picture. (Note, by the way, that the "let the teammate advance" play is functionally equivalent to stretching a single to a double or a double to a triple.)

This is Baseball Prospectus, so I have some more tables of numbers for you. Here are some pickle run-expectancies, following the same scheme as above. The first row in each section sets the baseline: what is the run expectancy for the situation that should exist after this pickle ends, where the defense properly pickles the runner and prevents the trailing runners from advancing. The rows below that starting place show the gain the offensive team gets from defying that fate, either by unpickling the lead runner, advancing trailing runners, or both.

Pre-pickle runners Pickle outcome RE, zero out RE, one out
020 Starting place: runner out, batter safe at first 0.5026 0.2174
  Runner out, batter advances to second 0.1466 0.0963
  Runner safely back to second, batter at first 0.9298 0.6762
003 Starting place: runner out, batter safe at first 0.5026 0.2174
  Runner out, batter advances to second 0.1466 0.0963
  Runner out, batter somehow to third 0.3964 0.1371
  Runner safe at third, batter safe at first 0.6408 0.2578
  Runner safe at third, batter gets to second 0.7874 0.3541
023 Starting place: lead runner out, batter to first, trailing runner at second 0.8936 0.4344
  lead runner out, trailing runner to third, batter safe at first 0.2498 0.0408
  lead runner out, trailing runner to third, batter advances to second 0.3964 0.1371
  everybody is safe, breathes easy 0.6408 0.2578

Cal Ripken Jr., by the way, has some advice on how to help your trailing runners advance:

We should also consider the runners-on-the-corners play that I call "The Little League," though big-league teams have been known to try it as well: get the runner on first into a pickle that allows the runner on third to score. Here's a version of the play, though it appears to be unintentional:

For this table, there's no batter involved, so we have to consider the two-out possibilities as well (as in the above video). Also, the baseline for this situation is a little different because we're looking at the outcomes of taking the bat out of the batter's hands and instead creating the rundown situation: the comparison this time is to the basic run expectancy of runners on the corners.

Outcome RE gain, zero out RE gain, one out RE gain, two out
Baseline 1.6811 1.1434 0.4752
Run scores, trail runner safe at first 0.1689 0.3592 0.7422
Run scores, trail runner safe at second 0.382 0.5058 0.8385
Run scores, trail runner out -0.4229 -0.0467 0.5248
Lead runner out, trail runner at second -1.0319 -0.8297 -0.4752
Lead runner out, trail runner at first -1.1785 -0.926 -0.4752
Trail runner out, lead runner at third -0.7821 -0.7889 -0.4752

You can probably figure out a break-even point from all of that if you want, but I think we can eyeball the percentage at "don't ever do this unless you actually have a Little Leaguer batting."

***

But I didn't get into this because of the numbers. (I swear I didn't.) I got into it because pickles are hilarious. Pickles make baseball players do running back-style spin-moves to avoid tags. Pickles involve rotund first basemen pursuing speedy center fielders while waving a ball threateningly. ("I swear I will hit you with this ball, come here!") Pickles result in scorebook entries longer than your average email password. Pickles make players fall down. Sometimes multiple players. "Yakety Sax" could play under a good two-thirds of the pickles in the major leagues. Pickles, more than any other play in baseball, can make a real major-league team, even a good major-league team, look like the Bad News Bears.

Like this, where Carlos Gomez unpickles himself with the worst successful slide you'll ever see from a fast guy:

Sometimes, falling down gets you in the pickle in the first place:

And then occasionally you see a combination of bad defense and awesome baserunning:

Pickles: delicious, important, hilarious. In conclusion:

Questions?

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

7 comments have been left for this article.

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