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On 3rd Base Coaching Decisions

Attached Image: Vavra_Joe_ShakingHands_US_600.jpg Let’s start with this: I don’t care if Aaron Hicks slid or not – Joe Vavra blew the call to send him last night in the fourth inning. This is not debatable. I doubt Vavra would debate it. And even had Hicks slipped into some shiny leather and slid like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, he was still going to be out. It was not close. It was Vavra's mistake that the announcers should have been talking about.

Here was the situation. The Twins lead 2-1 in the top of the fourth inning. Hicks was on second base, which he had easily stolen. Leadoff hitter Brian Dozier was up to bat with one out. He hit a line drive to left field. It appears Hicks got a slow start but was waved home the whole way by third base coach Vavra. It was not close, the throw reached the catcher on a bounce and Hicks was out by several feet. He tried to dipsy-doo around the catcher, looked silly, and was criticized by announcer Roy Smalley for not sliding. And he deserved that. But the the more significant message was delivered by play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer who announced that Hicks was being sent home with (what I would call) surprise in his voice. Because Hicks never had much chance.

Making outs is a cardinal sin for a third base coach. (Technically, I forget whether it’s a subset of “gluttony” or “greed”.) But in this case, the story is not to beat up Vavra about a bad call. It’s just to explain the philosophy a third base coach must have, and the math behind why he must have it. And maybe learn why Vavra could risk a little more on this play.

The basic rule for a third base coach is if you think there’s a decent chance your runner can get thrown out, stop him. This can be shown mathematically, which I’ll demonstrate below, but it also just makes sense: the value of the extra base, even though it’s tied to a run, is nowhere near the cost of adding an out AND losing a baserunner at 3rd base.

Sabrmetrics has provided a lot more precision, and it lends a little extra insight in this case. In this game, because the hitter can advance into scoring position on a throw to the plate, that rule is not quite as stringent.

Sabrmetrics, for problems like this, uses something called Palmer and Thorn’s Run Expectancy Matrix. Pete Palmer and Roger Thorn studied 75 years worth of baseball games and found out the average number of runs that scored in basic situations. (By the way, they did this back in 1975.) You can find it here, but these are the relevant numbers:

  • The average team with runners on 1st and 3rd and one out will score 1.088 runs in that inning. That’s what happens if Vavra holds up the “stop” sign.
  • The average team with a runner on 2nd and two outs will score .348 runs in that inning. That’s what happens if Vavra waves Hicks home and he’s thrown out.
  • The average team, with a runner on 2nd and one out will score .699 runs in that inning, PLUS they would have already scored a run, so that’s 1.699 runs. That’s what happens if Vavra waves Hicks home and he’s safe.

So if Hicks is sent home and safe, the Twins gain about .6 runs. If he’s out, they lose .75 runs. It doesn’t take a math major (just a good algebra background) to see that Hicks needs to be safe about 55% of the time to break even. If Vavra felt it was a “coin flip” situation, sending Hicks is defendable. (It didn’t look like it was, but given Hicks speed, maybe he had additional confidence.)

Now that’s just the base rule. It assumes that there are average hitters and average pitchers and average fielders, etc. In this case there were some extenuating circumstances.

For starters, the next hitter was not average. In face, Doug Bernier didn’t have a major league hit and he's 32 years old. He might be more likely to strike out or to hit into a double play than an average hitter, so maybe sending the runner makes more sense. Of course, Joe Blanton is on the mound, and he hasn't been an average pitcher. He might be more likely to give up a couple more hits, so maybe it's a better idea not to send the runner. Finally, batting behind Bernier is Joe Mauer, who is a pretty good guy to have up in a clutch situation, which is probably the best reason to keep everyone from risking that extra out. So in this game, it’s hard to find extra incentive to risk that out.

But the decision by Vavra to send Hicks by might not have been as egregiously wrong as it initially looked. (And certainly not as bad as it looked after Bernier’s double.) Third base coaches need to be pretty conservative in general, but as far as picking a moment to be aggressive, this was a pretty good choice.

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