Shooting bullets

Here’s something that’s true about any baseball move a manager makes: It could work. It doesn’t matter how stupid the move looks to the masses or how mathematically illogical the move is or even how much the players involved disagree with it. You could put your .089-hitting pitcher in the leadoff spot of the lineup and he might get the game-winning hit. You could have your best hitter bunt with two outs and two strikes and a man in scoring position and the pitcher might throw the ball away. You could have your team’s worst pitcher try to close out a World Series game with a one-run lead and he might get the save.

In this way, baseball is not like other sports. In other sports, a bad move can have almost no chance at all. I remember an ACC basketball game from years and years ago where Maryland trailed North Carolina by one in the final seconds and, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear Maryland’s legendary ol’ coach Lefty Driesell had his son Chuck in the game. He was known as Chuckie Driesell then (not now, apparently -- he’s now coaching the Citadel) and he almost never played. His main role seemed to be to get good grades and raise Maryland’s team GPA. But he was in the game for that final play and not only that, but the final play seemed DESIGNED for him. It may have been that the actual play broke down leaving Chuckie as the only option. But t also may have been that Lefty was going for the element of surprise -- he might have figured that nobody would expect Chuckie Driesell to try the last shot.

In that he was right, Chuckie Driesell broke open and appeared to have something that looked like an uncontested layup. Of course it only looked like an uncontested layup -- it wasn’t one. Chuckie shot and Michael Jordan spiked the basketball about 843 rows into the stands and North Carolina won. But what I remember most is that if Jordan had not blocked the shot, Sam Perkins was standing right behind him and was ready to do block it 984 rows into the stands. And behind Sam Perkins was another player in position to block it into another state. Basically, it was like that scene in Airplane where people line up to slap the hysterical woman. And the point is that play -- if it really was a play -- had exactly 0.000000001% chance of working (the nanometer chance, by the way, is that Jordan would have blocked the ball into the basket).

Major League Baseball moves, even the obviously terrible ones, never have quite that low a chance. There are always variables that could make a baseball decision work. In other words, Don Mattingly’s bizarre choice to pinch-run Dee Gordon for Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning of a tie playoff game against St. Louis could have worked somehow. It’s like Henry Fonda says in “12 Angry Men” -- “I don’t know. It’s possible.”

‘But it’s not probable,” E.G. Marshall responds to Fonda, and, of course, that word “probable” is at the heart of what it is to be an in-game baseball manager. Your job is to try and put your players in the best position to win the game. You use a vast array of information -- some of it available to everyone. some of it available to only a few, some of it only you know. You have basic statistics, you have advanced statistics, you have a vast history of baseball to lean on, you have knowledge of the players health, you have a sense of how their personal lives are going, you have those small almost ineffable feelings that build up from different conversations and brief exchanges and small things that perhaps only you noticed. Throwing all of it together, you come up with a little probability chart in your own mind and decide accordingly.

Something banging around in Don Mattingly’s mind told him that in the eighth inning of a tie game he needed Dee Gordon out there on first base instead of Adrian Gonzalez. Something told him that the next series of events might only result in a run if the faster Gordon was out there over the slower Gonzalez. Something told him that the difference of Gordon being out there instead of Gonzalez was worth more than the value lost with Gonzalez being replaced by Michael Young in the eighth inning of a tie game.

Algebraically it might look like this.

(Speed of Gordon - Speed of Gonzalez) > (Gonzalez’s value - Michael Young’s value in eighth inning of a tie game)

The probability of the above being true, in my opinion, is very low. It is not quite Chuckie Driesell low, but it’s very low. But here’s where it gets weird. One of the very, very few ways the Gordon move might make sense is if he was to steal second base. This was a risky proposition with Yadier Molina behind the plate for St. Louis, but that seemed to be what Mattingly was thinking: Steal Gordon into scoring position. But, it turns out, that is not at all what Mattingly was thinking. The Dodgers did not try to steal Gordon. The next batter, Yasiel Puig, faced three pitches. The first was a swinging strike. The second was a ball. The third was a groundout. Gordon did not run on any of them. And based on what Don Mattingly told the media afterward, it is apparent the stolen base was not even part of the strategy.

Mattingly said: “If we don’t use him there and the next guy hits the ball in the gap, and he doesn’t score and we don’t score there, we’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t you use Dee?’”

You know what, maybe this WAS Chuckie Driesell bad. That was the reason he put Gordon in the game? On the off-chance that someone would hit a ball into the gap in such a way that Gordon would score from first base but Adrian Gonzalez would not? That was worth pulling Gonzalez out of the game? We have to rework the formula:

[{(Speed of Gordon - Speed of Gonzalez} * (percentage chance that someone would hit a ball into the gap)} * (percent chance that Dodgers would not score the run in the inning)] > (Gonzalez value - Michael Young’s value in eighth inning of a tie game).

Of course, Gordon was forced out on Puig’s groundout, so the Mattingly dream lasted all of three pitches. And then, you could hear the Baseball Gods laughing. I believe I was one of only 128 million or so people to tweet at that moment, “Surely Adrian Gonzalez’s spot in lineup won’t come up in a crucial moment.”

In the 10th inning, the Dodgers’ Mark Ellis tripled with one out. That brought up Hanley Ramirez who was, of course, intentionally walked because, yep, guess who was hitting behind him. It was Adrian Gonzalez’s spot in the lineup. Adrian Gonzalez led the National League in sacrifice flies this year. But Adrian Gonzalez was on the bench and Michael Young was in the game. Young’s shallow fly ball to right field did not seem to have the distance. And it did not have the distance. Superhero Carlos Beltran threw home, the ball beat poor Mark Ellis to the plate by about three steps, and he was called out. There was some debate about whether or not catcher Yadier Molina actually tagged Ellis, but even Ellis himself wasn’t singing that tune. “I was out,” he told reporters. When asked if he was sure, he said, “Yeah, it was pretty obvious.”

So that was one consequence of the Mattingly move. The second was, if possible, more painful. In the 12th inning, Carl Crawford led off with a single. This led to the following disastrous series of events:

Event 1: Mark Ellis sacrifice bunted Crawford to second thus reducing both the Dodgers’ run expectancy AND their win probability.

Event 2: The Cardinals intentionally walked Hanley Ramirez, perhaps while laughing.

Event 3: Michael Young, hitting still for Adrian Gonzalez, grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Eventually superhero Carlos Beltran ended things with a walk-off single -- “If you have around long enough, and you’re facing Carlos Beltran, sooner or later, he’s going to hurt you,” Vin Scully said -- and poor Donnie Baseball was left to mutter hunting cliches about how you’ve got to shoot your bullet when you have a chance. It’s a decent analogy. Mattingly put on a blindfold and shot a bullet. It could have hit the target. Hey, it’s possible.