Game Theory: Lee vs. Cain, a San Francisco Treat
Despite the absence of throwback uniforms or a clever in-stadium marketing campaign, when the Philadelphia Phillies faced the San Francisco Giants Wednesday night in the rubber game of the three-game series, Cliff Lee and Matt Cain turned it into Turn Back the Clock night. The Giants and the Phillies played 11 innings of taut, 1-0 baseball in just two hours and twenty-seven minutes.
Lee and Cain combined to throw 19 innings of scoreless baseball while allowing just one walk and nine hits. The two pitchers were so efficient, and the game so viewer-friendly that for the first time since I’ve been a father, one of my daughters woke up the nest morning and asked, “Daddy, who won the game last night?” My daughters, 5 and 7, go to bed at 8:00 here in San Francisco which is just 55 minutes after Giants home games begin. Why did this game resonate with my youngest daughter? Despite going to bed one hour after the game started, she got to watch four and one-half innings of baseball, or half the game. That’s the way you build baseball fans – at least it was in the 1970s when I got hooked on the game.
That’s not the only reason it qualified as a Turn Back the Clock night. Two pitchers throwing nine inning shutouts harken back to the days of Marichal, Koufax, and Drysdale, as Cliff Lee became just the fourth different starter since 2000 to pitch ten innings of baseball in a single game. Lee’s ten inning stint, to my mind, was even more remarkable than any other outing in nearly twenty years because he batted in the ninth inning. That was the first time a pitcher batted in the ninth inning of a game and pitched in the tenth since Greg Maddux did it in 1993. (Cain had a chance to do the same, but despite throwing only 91 pitches to that point, the Giants pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the ninth inning.)
Lee was scheduled to bat again in the 11th inning which brings us to the point of this edition of Game Theory(*). With Lee due to bat in the 11th inning of a scoreless game, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel made a tactical mistake that reduced the Phillies chances of winning the game by about as much as any strategic decision you’ll see a manager make. Here’s the set up:
Situation: Top of 11th inning, scoreless game, runner on 3rd base, one out.
Philadelphia’s Empirical Odds of Winning: 69.6%
(*) Full credit goes to Matt Swartz, a contributor to FanGraphs, who noted this situation on Twitter as it unfolded, which inspired me to dig into some data.
Carlos Ruiz had led off the top half of the 11th inning with a double and the Phillies promptly ordered Freddy Galvis to sacrifice Ruiz to third base with a bunt, which he did successfully. Normally, I’m not a big fan of playing for one run, but in the scoring environment of this game it made perfect sense. It’s important to underscore though, by sacrificing Ruiz to third, the Phillies have announced they are playing for one run. Remember one of the tenants of trading which is equally appropriate when discussing baseball strategy:
Plan Your Trade. Trade Your Plan.
Now that they’ve planned a one-run strategy, and started to execute it, the Phillies must pinch hit for Cliff Lee who is due up next. (I have no problem with this decision. They could have let Lee, having only thrown 102 pitches, in the game to pitch the bottom of the 11th, but in that case Galvis would have had to hit away.) Manuel had four pinch hitters to choose from, and I’ve included each player’s 2011 triple slash statistics:
John Mayberry, Jr. .273/.341/.513
Pete Orr .219/.279/.250
Placido Polanco .277/.335/.339
Brian Schneider .176/.246/.256
Jim Thome .256/.361/.477
Who should Charlie Manuel send to the plate? Well, let’s eliminate Brian Schneider and Pete Orr immediately as you’d almost be better off sending Cliff Lee up to the plate as he hit .200/.208/.307 in 2011. So it’s down to Mayberry, Jr., who made the leap last year, at age 27, from prospect to potential above-average, major-league outfielder, Polanco a career journeyman infielder whose glove has provided one-third of his Above Replacement value during a fourteen-year career and probable Hall of Famer, Jim Thome.
Before you choose, let me underscore how important this decision is. If the next hitter plates Ruiz from third base, while making an out in the process, the Phillies chances of winning the game will rise to 86.5%. The odds will rise to nearly 90% if he gets a hit while driving in Ruiz. However, if he makes an out and doesn’t drive in Ruiz, the odds of winning drop to exactly 50%. That swing in win probability of at least 36.5% as the result of one at bat makes this a situation with massive leverage in determining the winner of the game.
Knowing this, who should Charlie Manuel send to the plate in an effort to maximize the Phillies’ chance of winning the game? From the above data, it seems clear that the worst thing a hitter could do in this situation is strike out, as a strike out results in an out and no run scored. In this case, an exception to the estimation of player value in nearly every other situation, there is really nothing a hitter can bring to the plate in terms of power that could compensate for an increased likelihood of a strikeout. Here are the career strikeout rates for the three pinch-hitting candidates:
Mayberry: 25.5% (vs. RHP)
Thome: 29.1% (vs. LHP)
Polanco: 6.8% (against left or right handed pitching)
This piece of data makes the answer obvious. By far, the best choice to hit for Lee is Placido Polanco. In fact, Placido Polanco might be the most qualified person to hit in this situation of any player who has played in the majors since 2000. Polanco has the 6th lowest strikeout rate of any player since 2000 with 1,000 plate appearances, and Polanco, with a batting average of .303 in that time has, by far, the highest batting average of any of the top ten batters who make consistent contact. Looking further down the list, you can make a case that only Dustin Pedroia, out of every player currently in the majors would be a better choice to hit in this situation than Placido Polanco.
Charlie Manuel, however, sent Jim Thome to the plate. Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy went to the bullpen for a left-handed reliever and Thome promptly struck out. (Incidentally, Polanco, a multiple Gold Glove winner, would have been in the field at third base in the bottom of the inning had he pinch-hit as part of a double switch. The Phillies lost the game when third baseman Ty Wigginton botched a double play ground ball, one batter before Melky Cabrera won the game with a single.) Instead of a 3-in-50 chance of a strikeout with Polanco, Manuel chose a 3-in-10 situation with Thome.
So why wouldn’t Manuel choose Polanco? Why, I suspect, would almost no baseball fan realize Polanco is a perfect choice for the task in this situation? Matt Swartz, who started this discussion with a tweet, suggested the RBI statistic is to blame. Unlike the save statistic which does drive suboptimal decision making by managers, I don’t think that’s the case here. I submit that for some reason managers, like most baseball observers can’t distinguish a player with an optimal skill from a vastly superior player. Basketball fans, on the other hand have no problem making this distinction. No one would ever suggest Dwight Howard isn’t the most valuable player on the Orlando Magic but if the team had to choose someone to shoot one free throw in a tie game with seconds remaining as a result of a technical foul, every single fan of the Magic would know JJ Reddick, for that task, is more valuable than Dwight Howard.
In case you couldn’t bring yourself to choose Polanco over Thome, because you believe the man with 605 home runs (8th all-time) and 1,674 RBI (26th all-time) has a unique ability to drive home a run in the clutch, I can prove to you Polanco is the right choice. Thanks to the incredible data base at baseball-reference.com, it’s possible to compare the lifetime performances of the probable Hall-of-Famer with the journeyman infielder. There are 24 different game situations a batter can face (bases empty no outs, or man on first, 2 outs, or bases loaded, 1 out, etc.) Of those 24 situations that both Thome and Polanco have faced in their careers, in 14 of them, Thome has created an RBI in a higher percentage of those situations than Polanco has.
However, every single situation in which Polanco has a better percentage of RBI success came with a man on third base. With zero or one out and a runner on third base, Polanco creates an RBI 12% more often than Thome does. I’m sure Manuel was thinking that Thome can drive the ball and create a sacrifice fly but in sacrifice fly situations, Polanco has a far higher career success rate than Thome. It’s very hard to wrap your mind around the idea that Placido Polanco, (or low-strikeout artists like Juan Pierre, Paul LoDuca, and Yadier Molina) would be a better choice to come to the plate with a runner on third and less than two outs than Jim Thome – even during his peak years when he was a feared slugger and regularly garnered MVP votes at season’s end – but that’s the case
I’m certain Manuel wasn’t armed with this information because the Phillies front office seems to revel in thumbing its nose at “newfangled statistics”. However, counterintuitive examples like this are what makes baseball analysis so compelling, and it’s why baseball teams need offensive coordinators, armed with this type of data, sitting in a press box to make strategic in-game decisions just like football teams do.
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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