I think we all have at least one friend who delighted, nay thrived, in his discovery of bands no one else had ever heard of, CDs no one else owned, and performances no one else had seen. The Dave Mathews Band used to perform regularly in my brother’s fraternity house at the University of Virginia in the early ‘90s. I’d get calls from him saying, “Joey you have to see this band. It’s a rock band with a violinist! They’re fantastic.” Yet, when The Dave Mathews Band signed with a national label and started releasing albums a couple of years later, my brother never bought one. He muttered something to the effect of “they’ve changed,” and roll his eyes as I’d start singing Ants Marching off-key.
I thought of that this week because on Tuesday night, while most baseball fans were watching the main stage of a Lollapalooza-like festival of games, over on a side stage the most improbable event of the entire week occurred. It would be like wandering around the grounds at the Reading Festival in 1991 looking for a Porta-Potty, and stumbling upon Nirvana as a side stage act while everyone was watching Iggy Pop, James, Meatloaf and comedian Denis Leary headline the event. You got to witness something of significance while everyone else was looking the other way.
This happened on Tuesday night, and in a state of panic the Milwaukee Brewers overreacted and committed a blunder that could cost them dearly.
I know what you’re thinking: “Joe, you’ve got a typo there. Amazing and improbable things – certainly the most amazing of the week – happened on Wednesday night.” Nope, it was Tuesday. I’ll explain.
Shortly after 10:00 PST on Tuesday evening, after St. Louis had come back from a 5-0, first inning deficit to win, after Atlanta saw their season-long lead in the Wild Card chase finally evaporate, after the Rays turned a triple play to key their comeback, and the Red Sox held on for a 1-run victory – all of which set up Wednesday night’s fireworks, something else happened. The Arizona Diamondbacks needed to win their game against the Dodgers to stay alive in the race for the second seed in the National League. That’s of note because with the 2 seed comes home field advantage in the first round. However, with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 10th inning, they trailed the Dodgers 6-1. (There are no typos in that sentence, the Dodgers scored 5 in the top of the 10th.) Twenty minutes, and six batters later Ryan Roberts was doing a 1988 Kirk Gibson impression, pumping his fist in slow motion while he rounded the bases following a walk-off grand slam, as his manager – Kirk Gibson – celebrated in the dugout. I had never seen anything like it, and you know why? Because it had never happened before. The empirical odds of coming back from 5 down in extra innings with two outs and no one on base were zero. Hardballtimes.com’s model-based system says it’s about a 3 in 10,000 event.
Most people may have been asleep and missed it, but in Milwaukee they sure noticed. To secure home field advantage the following day, Milwaukee had to either win against Pittsburgh or hope for an Arizona loss vs. the Dodgers. Obviously, they still had a very good chance of securing the 2 seed. In a world of four evenly matched teams, they only had a 25% chance of losing the 2 seed (Brewer loss/Diamondback win) but in actuality it was less than that because they were a bigger favorite vs. Pittsburgh than Arizona was vs. Los Angeles. (Put another way, Milwaukee is better than Arizona and Los Angeles is better than Pittsburgh. I had the probability at slightly less than 20%.) Faced with a decision under stress, and rather than recognizing the probabilities were still heavily in their favor, Brewer manager Ron Roenicke panicked and sent Zach Greinke out to pitch Wednesday night. On three days rest, no less.
This was a horrible decision on a number of levels. 1) Not only is there an entire body of evidence to support that pitchers are less effective when starting on three days rest instead of four, there is also a multiplier effect. They are less effective in subsequent starts as well. 2) To beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and their very mediocre pitching staff, you simply need to outscore them; holding them to 1 or 2 runs is hardly imperative. Sending Greinke out to start is overkill akin to Richard Gere buying Julie Roberts champagne and strawberries on their first “date” in Pretty Woman. 3) Instead of having Greinke rested and ready to start Games 1 and 5 of the first round series, they have lost his second start, and perhaps, due to the short rest, reduced his effectiveness in the one game he does start.
All this for minimal gain. In essence Milwaukee increased its chances of securing home field by a small amount – it was already around 80% if they sent Marco Estrada, or even a collection of long relievers from the bullpen to the mound. The value of home field advantage in round 1 is that Game 5 is played at home, consistently over different eras an 8% difference between winning and losing. However, now they’ve squandered the biggest advantage they had over their first round opponent: A rested Zach Greinke starting 40% of the games in the series, if necessary.
When I preview the first round game Greinke does start, I’ll write more about why that is so important. With extreme conviction though, I’m certain having a rested Zach Greinke for two starts in a five game series is more important than home field advantage for a deciding game 5. A manager doesn’t swing the bat, run the bases, or strike out the opposition, that much is obvious. However his job is to put the players that do perform those feats in the optimal position to win games. Brewer manager Ron Roenicke, reacting to a 3,000-to-one shot, panicked, and in the process gave the Brewers a much harder path out of the first round than necessary.
ALDS – Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Without Zach Greinke starting two games, the Brewers drop to less than a 60% favorite to win the series. Despite the bungling the call here is still Milwaukee, albeit in 5 games. What should have been a clear-cut play on Milwaukee to win the series has switched however. At a price of +155 (implied odds of 39.2%) there is slight value in taking Arizona to win the series.