Game Theory: WWJD, or What Was Joe (Girardi) Doing?
During the playoffs managers face intense scrutiny from fans and the press for their in-game decisions, but during the regular season the sheer volume of games means the spotlight shines less bright on day-to-day decision making. Still, game 1 of the season has just as much effect on the final standings as game 162 – perhaps twice as much if the game in question is against the team that you may be battling for a post-season berth, so let’s take a look a situation that occurred during the Opening Day contest between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Ray. This will be the first installment in a series I’ve dubbed Game Theory in which I’ll periodically look at specific situations that develop during games and address the decisions managers made at the time.
Setting: Friday, April 6, NY Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays, Game 1 of 162
Situation: Bottom of the first inning, 0-0, 2 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd
CC Sabathia pitching to Sean Rodriguez, Carlos Pena on deck.
The first thing to clarify about the above situation is that there are no misprints. That’s right, I’m going to address decision making that occurred before many fans had gotten out of the beer line, because two-thirds of an inning into a 162 game season, with his ace on the mound, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi felt the need to start making decisions and effect the process, like a jumpy trader at 9:32 in the morning, incapable of letting his positions alone during the first few minutes of the trading day. Similar to the trader who decides he must get in there and do something, Girardi walked to the mound and ordered an intentional walk to the right-handed hitting Rodriguez. The season wasn’t even ten minutes old! Ladies, take note – Joe Girardi clearly doesn’t believe in foreplay.
As I wrote on Twitter, “Tony LaRussa just muttered to his TV, ‘Even I think that’s over-managing’.
Let’s look at the specifics of the situation. As Rodriguez came to the plate, the Rays had a 55.7% chance of winning the game. Intuitively this makes sense. New York had already been retired in its half of the inning, so the Rays were working with an extra at-bat. However there were already two outs, and despite the presence of two runners in scoring position, the Rays empirical odds of winning the game (55.7%) were barely higher than where they stood at the begging of the inning (54.4%.) In other words, almost nothing had changed in terms of the win expectancy for the Yankees since Sabathia threw the first pitch of the season nearly ten minutes earlier.
In walking the right-handed hitting Rodriguez to face the left-handed hitting Carlos Pena, Girardi attempted to swing the platoon advantage in favor of his left-handed ace CC Sabathia. On the surface, this is not unsound logic; recognizing a platoon advantage can yield significant benefits. Last year, during the NLDS, I wrote a piece on the importance of recognizing platoon advantages during a game’s high-leverage situations. That is, those situations where the win expectancy of the game will swing a great deal based on the result of a single at-bat. In it, I advanced the idea that there is no such thing as Ryan Howard, the Phillies clean-up hitter with a lifetime batting line of .275/.368/.560 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). That Ryan Howard never comes to the plate because he doesn’t exist. Instead his lifetime batting figures, compiled over 4,400 plate appearances, are simply the composite statistics of two different players – one an MVP-caliber slugger to be feared at all times and the other a middle infielder with above-average power but who strikes out far too often to be a consistent offensive threat. In short when Ryan Howard faces a right-handed pitcher he’s the 2011 version of Jose Bautista, one of the best players in the game, and when he faces a left-handed pitcher he’s 2011’s Dan Uggla. (You can read the full discussion here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2011/10/3/leverage.html) So the platoon advantage can be material, but in the situation the Yankees faced it did not exist because, unlike the duplicity of Ryan Howard, there aren’t two CC Sabathias.
Before addressing Sabathia, let’s turn back to the situation the Yankees faced. Here are the career statistics for the two batters Girardi chose from:
BA/ OBP /SLG ISO
Sean Rodriguez, vs. LHP: .263/.363/.424 .161
Carlos Pena, vs. LHP: .210/.310/.429 .209
Both players have exactly the same walk rate of 10% (on-base percentage minus batting average) and while Rodriguez has the higher batting average by 53 points, his slugging percentage is 5 points less. Pena, therefore, has considerably more power than Rodriguez. Isolated Slugging (extra base hits per at bat) measures this and it’s calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage. To put it in context, even against left-handed pitching, Pena’s ISO of .209 is materially above that of the average MLB first baseman that had an ISO of .182 in 2011, and first basemen are the best hitting players on the field. In reducing the chance of a two-run single off the bat of Rodriguez, Girardi greatly increased the chance of a four-run deficit via a grand slam.
That’s only half of the platoon consideration though and I’ll argue, Girardi didn’t even reduce the chance of the two-run single that much, certainly not enough to take on the risk of a four-run deficit. That’s due to the excellence of CC Sabathia.
Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and like all players who are elite, his platoon splits are far below that of the average major-leaguer. (This, by the way, is why Ryan Howard is not one of the best players in baseball. A-Rod, Albert Pujols, etc. have crushed left handed pitching and right handed pitching in their careers.) CC Sabathia is tough on every type of hitter; he’s not a situational specialist. Look at his career splits compared to the average major league pitcher
Sabathia BA/ OBP /SLG ISO
Vs. RHB .249/.311/.381 .132
Vs. LHB .234/.291/.348 .114
Difference +15/+20/+33 +18
Avg. LHP, 2011 BA/ OBP /SLG ISO
Vs. RHB .264/.334/.418 .154
Vs. LHB .237/.302/.354 .117
Difference +27/+32/+64 +37
Two things jump out: Sabathia’s splits are roughly half that of the average left-handed pitcher, and the thing that makes Sabathia so great, compared to the average left-handed pitcher, is his ability to get out right-handed hitters. In other words, Pena’s career work vs. left-handed pitchers is about what one should expect him to do against Sabathia. However, Rodriguez’s life-time figures vs. left-handed pitchers would be discounted vs. Sabathia because Sabathia is better against right-handed batters than the “average” left-handed pitcher Rodriguez has faced in his career. Just like that – “poof” – the platoon advantage essentially disappears. But the Yankees incurred a cost in attempting to gain this non-advantage.
Walking Rodriguez raised Tampa’s win expectancy to 57.2% from 55.8% and in the process it brought the disaster scenario into play, trading a slightly lower chance of trailing 2-0, for a higher chance of trailing 4-0. Traders know this as needlessly raising the variance of results – a very real cost which is often invisible. In golfer’s parlance, Girardi brought double-bogey into the equation. A two-run deficit after one inning is overcome 28.5% of the time but a four-run deficit only 13.7%, or less than half as often. If you watched this game you know what happened next – Pena promptly got ahead in the count 2-0 and then 3-1 before crushing a ball into the right field stands. The Yankees were down 4-0 in a game they would ultimately lose 7-6.
New York always has one of the highest scoring teams in baseball so two-run deficits after one-inning are in no way as daunting to the Yankees as they are for the San Francisco Giants or the current version of the Philadelphia Phillies, two other recent World Champions who, like the Yankees, have playoff aspirations in 2012. On top of that, CC Sabathia was on the mound and his greatness is defined by his ability to get out right-handed batters. The manager of a team has to understand where his edge lies and to let that edge play out. Girardi made a move on the fifth batter of the season that only makes sense in the eighth or ninth inning of a one-run game.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If I owned a major-league team I’d post a sign in the manager’s office in an attempt to impart to him an adage that the best portfolio managers and traders always follow when they are tempted to overtrade in the heat of battle: Don’t Just Do Something – Stand There!
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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