Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Third Base Coaches and Fear of Failure

By Bill

This ends up looking a lot like an over-analysis of a single play from last night's Twins game. And it sort of is, so I'm putting the whole thing behind a jump. But it does have a much more generally applicable point about third base coaches and taking chances, so I hope you'll stay with me.

Third base coach Scott Ullger caused quite the collective conniption among Twins fans in the Twittersphere last night. With the bases loaded and two outs and the game tied 3-3, Delmon Young hit the same routine ground ball to the right side that he's been hitting just about every time up since August 1st (and for most of his career), but this one found a hole, scoring the go-ahead run. Rookie Tigers right fielder Casper Wells scooped it up in medium-shallow right field, and Ullger decided to send Jason Kubel home to put the Twins up 5-3 (I presume it was Ullger, though no replay actually showed him waving his arms). Wells made a good throw home, catcher Alex Avila handled it easily, and Kubel -- a very, very slow baserunner -- was out by probably twenty feet, maybe even thirty.

I was the only person I'm aware of who defended Ullger's call (against, among many others, this blog's other proprietor). I watched it back several times, and thought Ullger made the right call. I've thought about it and studied it more, and I'm no longer sure that I would've done it -- Wells reputedly has a strong arm, Kubel is excruciatingly slow, and it was pretty shallow -- but it's simply not the terrible, indefensible decision it was (and, this morning, probably still is) so widely made out to be.

There were two outs. The next hitter was Danny Valencia, who has been pretty brilliant in the majors and was 3-for-3 on the day, but came into yesterday hitting just .271/.296/.372 against right-handed pitching (about what his minor league numbers would've suggested he should be hitting overall). He would've been facing righty Ryan Perry, who has a weird reverse split this year, but has held righties to a .248 average (but a .339 OBP) in his career. Had Kubel held at third, it's hard to believe that he had better than a 1-in-3 chance of scoring in that inning. Of course, there was some significant chance that they'd score more than one run had the inning been allowed to continue, but (a) this late in the game, each successive insurance run after Kubel's becomes a little less important, and (b) if Kubel goes home and scores, there's an even better chance that they score more than one run in the inning. It seems to me that if there's a 1-in-3 chance or better that Kubel makes it home, you're probably OK sending him (yes, I know that's not mathematically correct).

And was there? Maybe not quite, because of Wells' arm and Kubel's speed. But I don't think it's as far off from that as most people seem to. I'm going to try my best to start taking note of throws made toward home plate from the outfield and where they end up (I already try to, but I'll be paying even more attention now). It's a hard play to make, even from such a relatively shallow starting point. The throw bounces and kicks off to the right or left, or was simply wide to begin with (and even a slow runner can cover a ton of ground in the time it takes for the catcher to move to the ball, grab it and get back in position to make the tag). Even where the throw is sound, the catcher has to do a ton of things at once, and will often take his eye off the ball a split second too early and have it glance off the tip of his glove. Simply put, a lot of things can and often do go wrong.

Writing at Baseball Prospectus in February, Russell E. Carleton not only confirmed that third base coaches don't take nearly enough chances (something we've known for a while), but concluded:
the ideal third-base coach is a sign on a stick featuring the words "If the gentleman currently holding the ball is an outfielder, please turn left and run an additional 90 feet." It's counter-intuitive, but the third-base coach doing the most for his team is not the one who has the highest safe-rate, but the one who has the highest go-now rate. 
Now, Carleton wasn't really dealing with this situation, and I'm sure he'd agree that there actually are exceptions to that (his point was that, on the whole, sending the runner every single time would lead to more runs being scored than the trying-not-to-lose game 3B coaches are currently playing). But the point is that third base coaches are way too conservative, and the coach that never gets a runner thrown out at home isn't doing his job well at all.

If the coach sends a runner from third while the ball is in the outfield, it's going to have to have been pretty egregious to convince me that it was an "indefensible" move. For the record, Ullger has had at least one of those this year--on April 11, when he got thrown off somehow by the White Sox' shift on Jim Thome and got Hardy thrown out to end the game by a distance of approximately 90 feet. But this one just wasn't one of those egregious mistakes.

I get why people hate these plays. It feels awful to fail on a play like this. Fans despise it. It feels like a run is so close (the guy was already on third! Standing safely, just 90 feet away!) and like the third base coach just pissed it away (what else does that guy do, anyway?). On certain plays, like the one last night, all the outfielder and catcher have to do is play a simple game of pitch-and-catch, and the guy is out by a mile. Which I suppose is also why third base coaches on the whole are too timid with it; if they make that simple throw and catch, you end up looking really bad.

But of course, as I said above, the throw and catch are not that simple. Not at all. And if you're interested in maximizing the runs your team scores and thus your team's chance to win (and if you're not, you're probably unqualified for the job), you've got to be willing to assume some risk of failure. Sometimes even embarrassing, out-by-a-mile failure.

So...was Ullger right to send Kubel? Probably not, but it's a much closer call than most people realized. And I'll take the overly aggressive third base coach over the conservative one every single time.


Anonymous said...

I get your point but discretion is required to be a good coach. I thought the Twins were way too conservative in years past at sending the runner but this year I've seen the opposite - half a dozen put outs at home that were just criminal. These are Major League players; when they see a lame duck barely rounding third as they pick up the ball the killer juices start to flow, they aim and they nail the guy. When they are forced to hurry that is when the things happen that you describe. The third base coach needs to be in position to size that up and too many times I've found Ullger missing that call.

Anonymous said...

I'd be willing to by this. It's much along the same lines of that football coaches should actually go for it on most reasonably lenghted fourth downs, even if backed up near your own endzone. A big deal would be made everytime this backfired, but as an overall approach it would pay off. (If you think about a team that has the ball 2 yards out of the opponent's endzone it's most obvious. Sure you're giving up a fairly certain 3 points but you're also 2 yards out from 7, and if you don't make it they're 2 yards out from coughing up a safety, and you'll almost certainly get the ball back before they score.)

That said I'm sure exceptions like "4th and 37" would apply, and one could argue that's what's happening here.

Aggressive running is one thing. If guys are getting tossed out by 30 feet, and Kubel in particular is getting thrown out at home on a weekly basis, it's probably time for some adjustments.