Posted May 03, 2013

What Would You Do?: Breaking down the Astros’ costly 14th-inning strategy

Bad Baseball Decisions, Houston Astros, strategy, What Would You Do?
Austin Jackson, Tigers

Austin Jackson scored what proved to be the winning run after Houston’s decision to walk the bases loaded backfired. (AP)

Welcome to the first of what is sure to be many posts like it at The Strike Zone this season, in which we will take a look at a difficult or controversial decision and ask you how you would have handled it had you been in the manager’s shoes.

It is the top of the 14th inning of a 3-3 game. You are the manager of the home team Houston Astros facing the visiting Detroit Tigers. Austin Jackson leads off the inning with a ground-rule double and is moved to third by a Torii Hunter groundout. So now the go-ahead run is on third base with one out and the next two batters are Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, who bat right-handed and left-handed, respectively. The hitter in the hole is lefty Don Kelly. The man behind him in the order is righty Matt Tuiasosopo.

Your pitcher is lefty Dallas Keuchel, who was called up from the minors that same day, is on the mound and in his fifth inning of work. He is the seventh pitcher you have used in this game. The only man left in your bullpen, other than your starting pitchers, is righthanded rookie Jose Cisnero.

Now that you’ve answered, consider the expected runs from the following base/out situations based on what we’ve seen thus far this season throughout the major leagues.

Man on 3rd, 1 out: 0.9236 runs

1st and 3rd, 1 out: 1.1679 runs

bases loaded, 1 out: 1.5663 runs

bases loaded, 2 outs: 0.716 runs

Now look at this:

Miguel Cabrera vs. LHP this year: .360/.484/.480

Prince Fielder vs. LHP this year: .364/.500/.636

Don Kelly vs. LHP career: .203/.241/.243

I don’t know how many of the above numbers Astros manager Bo Porter had at his disposal when he chose option d) Thursday night, but I’m guessing he at the very least had the batter’s platoon splits and, giving the Astros’ stat-friendly approach, a general knowledge of the run expectancy matrix.

Porter had Keuchel walk both Cabrera and Fielder and pitch to Kelly. Clearly his thinking was that if he could just get the weak-hitting Kelly out lefty-to-lefty without Jackson scoring, he’d improve his chances of getting out of the inning without falling behind. Loading the bases also set up a force at every base and multiple double-play opportunities. Of course, it also set up a scenario in which Jackson would be forced home by a walk or a hit-by-pitch.

Keuchel’s tendencies supported this decision. Though he’d walked more than his share of batters in his brief major league opportunities, and had already walked two men in his first four innings in this game, Keuchel had walked just 1.9 men per nine innings in his minor league career, proving that he could throw strikes when he needed to. What’s more, in the last two seasons combined, in both the majors and minors, he had hit just two batters. Keuchel is also a groundball pitcher, increasing the chances of a double-play.

Kelly’s tendencies also supported the decision. In addition to struggling against lefties in general, he’s an impatient hitter disinclined to draw walks and hasn’t been hit by an excess of pitches in his career. The one catch is that Kelly tends to hit fly balls and both grounds into double plays and strikes out less often than the average major league hitter.

With all of that extra information, do you want to change your answer from above? Here’s your chance:

Much as I hate the way the intentional walk robs us of getting to see the game’s best hitters hit in these sorts of clutch situations, I think Porter made the right decision. However, making the right decision doesn’t guarantee a favorable outcome.

Keuchel got Kelly to pull a ground ball to the right side, but it was a slow hopper that bled through for an RBI single. Porter then called on the righty Cisnero to pitch to the righty Tuiasosopo, a failed Mariners prospect who last appeared in the major leagues in 2010, and the 27-year-old doubled home both Cabrera and Fielder, pushing Kelly to third. Cisnero then gave up a sacrifice fly to Jhonny Peralta that made the score 7-3 Tigers before finally recording the third out. That would be the final score after the Astros failed to score in the bottom of the inning.

There’s a rather obvious second guess to make here. Porter’s all-or-nothing strategy would have made more sense in a walk-off scenario, but with his team having last licks, one could argue he should have managed not to avoid Jackson scoring, but to avoid the big inning. That’s valid if that was your reasoning for choosing a) or b) above, but if you chose c) or d) you clearly agreed with Porter and myself that, given the poor performance of the Astros offense this season, one run can seem as insurmountable as four when you only have three outs in which to score it.

Indeed, here is the impact of the Cabrera through Peralta at-bats on Detroit’s win probability in this game:

Cabrera IBB: +1%

Fielder IBB: +3%

Kelly 1B, 1 R: +19%

Tuiasosopo 2B, 2 R: +8%

Peralta SacF, 1 R: + 1%

Kelly’s single was the nail in the Astros coffin, inflating Detroit’s win expectancy to 91 percent. The rest was just ceremony.

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