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Moments with Maddon: A Recap

So I swear...I meant to get around to addressing last week's Moment with Maddon around Wednesday or Thursday.  Obviously it didn't happen and so I'm responding now, but that just means you've had more time to ponder over the situation I presented you with, right?  In case anyone has forgotten, in this series I'm going to present you with a variety of managerial decisions, some real and some hypothetical, and allow you to try decide which strategy would be best.  I'll then run through the situation and supply some insight from "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball", and hopefully come to a final conclusion about what move seemed to make the most sense statistically.

It's been a week at this point, so let's run through the situation one more time to refresh your memory:

Top of the eighth inning, scored tied 2-2, Carl Crawford on first, one out, Carlos Pena is at the plate.  We're facing Boston, so Victor Martinez is behind the plate and Hideki Okajima has just been brought in.  The Sox are using the shift, but keeping someone near second to watch for the stolen base.  As a manager, what do you do?

The plurality decision (47%) was to let Crawford steal, with the next most popular response (22%) was to have Pena drop a bunt down the third base line.  I have to admit, I spent the majority of the weekend going back and forth on this decision, so let's walk through some of the responses in the poll in order to see each of them would influence the Rays' odds of scoring:

Pinch-Hit for Pena

Pinch-hitting for Pena is a horrible idea and thankfully, only five people actually voted for this response.  In such a crucial situation, why would you want to take the bat out of the hand of one of the best hitters on your team?  Pena's career Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is .366, while his wOBA's the past three seasons have been (in chronological order) .430, .374, .374.  Who could you substitute for Pena that could reasonably be expected to perform better than him?  Gabe Kapler's career wOBA is .331, Willy Aybar's is .336, and the rest of the bench will consist of players like Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, Dan Johnson, etc.  No matter who you put up, it appears that you're downgrading by a ridiculous amount to pinch-hit for Pena.

Of course, you could make the argument that Pena is facing a lefty and therefore is at a disadvantage.  That's conventional wisdom and it sounds "right", but how much of a hit does Pena's production actually take when facing a lefty?  His career wOBA against left-handed pitchers is .333, which would seem to indicate that it wouldn't be a bad decision to consider pinch-hitting, but we have to regress that number.  For some background on the concept, check out this excellent article, but the general idea is that, "...there's an important distinction to be made between observed performance and true talent" and "...skill is closer to average than it appears."  After regressing Pena's career splits numbers to attempt to find his true-talent platoon abilities, we see a slightly different picture: a .345 expected wOBA against lefties and a .387 expected wOBA against righties.  Still not a .366 wOBA, but it's still .010 higher than the likes of Kapler and Aybar.  Also, according to "The Book" hitters typically take a hit of .034 wOBA when pinch-hitting.  So in reality, we wouldn't be replacing Pena with a true-talent .335 wOBA hitter, but more like a .300 wOBA batter.

Anyone out there think we should pinch-hit for Pena anymore?  I should certainly hope not.  As "The Book" points out, pinch-hitting really only makes sense when the pinch-hitter is a better hitter than the person you're replacing.  Is Aybar a better hitter than Pena?  No, didn't think so.

Bunt Down Third-Base Line

I don't have any secrets from "The Book" to share on this strategy, but I have to say, I hate taking the bat out of Pena's hand in this situation.  Of course, we've established that Pena is a .345 wOBA hitter in this situation and you could make the argument that the shift lowers this number even further.  We don't have enough data to be able to quantify how much of an effect the shift has on Pena's hitting ability.  Also, what are the exact odds that Pena would be able to drop down a successful bunt and reach for a hit?  Going into Pena's at-bat, the Rays' win expectancy stands at .483 (48.3%).  If Pena bunts and it ends up being a sacrifice, the Rays' win expectancy goes down to .44; if Pena doesn't get a good bunt down and we're left with a runner on first and two outs, the win expectancy goes down further to .412.  With so few outs left in the game, there's no way you want to do a direct sacrifice and you want to optimize the situations in which Pena will reach base without creating an out.  Personally, I don't think bunting is the way.  I don't have data to back this up, though, and any data we have on Pena's bunts will be a very small sample size, so this does become in part a preference move.  Even with the shift, I'd rather have Pena swinging.

Having Crawford Steal

The more I think about it, this is really a great move.  Crawford is a very efficient base stealer (career 81.9% success rate) and Victor Martinez's has around a career 25% caught stealing percentage, which is decent but nothing remarkable.  If Crawford reaches second base successfully, the Rays' win expectancy would jump from .483 to .523.  As kericr pointed out, a successful steal would also put pressure on the Red Sox to switch to a normal fielding alignment, which would benefit Carlos at the plate.  All in all, it seems like a great decision.

Of course, it's not quite that simple.  Okajima is a lefty and very few runners have attempted to steal against him in the past.  According to "The Book", lefties are 8% tougher to steal against than righties; that may not seem like a lot, but it's the difference between someone that's got an 80% chance of stealing a base and a 72% chance.  That doesn't sound nearly as good, does it?  However, is it still good enough that it'd be worth the risk?  In these late-and-close situations, the break-even point for stolen bases (meaning the point after which attempting a steal is not worth the risk and is harmful to the team) varies depending upon the inning.  In the 8th inning of a tied game, the break-even point is 61%, which I believe Crawford would be well above.

So it appears that stealing would make sense in this situation, but also we need to take into account that a player attempting a steal is disruptive to the batter at the plate.  On average, a stolen base attempt will lower the batter's wOBA by.022 points, changing Pena's talent level from a .345 wOBA into a .323 wOBA.  Is this decline worth the stolen base?  I would say so, but I would make sure that Crawford attempts his stolen base within the first few pitches of Pena's at-bat.  Have Pena take the first pitch and hopefully Crawford will be able to move over before Pena ends up behind in the count.


Geez, this isn't so easy, is it?  I didn't know what I was getting myself in for when I created that game situation, but I think it was a fun exercise to show the certain things you should keep in mind when contemplating pinch-hitting or stealing.  I would personally side with the option of having Crawford steal (good job, plurality!), but I don't have enough data to really be able to say if having Pena bunt would be a bad decision.  I don't think it's a bad call necessarily, but I think letting Crawford run is a higher percentage move.

A higher percentage move.  That's worth repeating because in the end, all a manager can do is put their team in the best possible situation to win.  Maddon can't make Pena hit a homerun here, so instead he has to hedge his bets and decide which strategy provides the highest likelihood of increasing the Rays' win expectancy.  He may make the right decision and have Crawford steal, but Crawford could still get thrown out and make him look like an idiot.  Since managers can't control the outcomes, it's important that we always analyze their moves from a "process" point of view and disregard the actual outcomes of events.  As Dayton Moore would say, it's all about The Process.