Series No. 5 Recap: A Thought Exercise in Decision-making

A playoff baseball team would look at a series in which it won one-of-three games and be unhappy. The Mariners are not a likely playoff team, and Seattle had to face one of the best teams in the American league, doing so against its three best starters. Many teams will play a three-game series with Detroit this season, and many teams will lose that series. In fact, even after scoring just eight runs in three games against the Mariners, the Tigers are still second in the AL in scoring at 5.1 runs per game.

What is probably most frustrating to Mariners fans is that a series win was so attainable. That second game could have been won multiple times.

In the second game—a game the Tigers eventually won 2-1 in the 14th—the Mariners had multiple opportunities that eventually flopped. For instance, in the bottom of the 9th Kendrys Morales singled to center, and then Mike Morse followed it up with a walk. The M’s had two runners on with no outs, and their win expectancy stood at 81%. In other words, of all the other teams that have found themselves in the Mariners’ position, four-of-every five won the game. A double-play and a Justin Smoak strikeout quickly ended that opportunity.

Then, the M’s came right back in the bottom of the 10th with a leadoff walk from Jesus Montero, followed by a Dustin Ackley sac bunt and a Robert Andino walk. The sac bunt is a discussion coming, but regardless, with two on and one out the M’s had an expected 70% chance of winning. Two strikeouts, and that opportunity, too, disintegrated.

An then, down 2-1 in the bottom of the 14th, Jeff Datz sent Smoak home on a Dustin Ackley double where he was gunned down to end the game.

The game could have just been over if any number of guys had gotten a hit at the right time, but clutch hitting is not really something I on which I enjoy focusing. Decision-making, however, is. There were two key decisions in that sequence that merit some extra attention: the sac bunt call in the 10th and the wave home in the 14th.

After Ackley’s “successful” sac bunt, the Mariners’ win expectancy actually dropped from 70% to 69%. Again, that just means that of all the teams that have ever found themselves in those two situations, the percent of teams that went on to win the game actually dropped in the second  situation—after the sac bunt left a runner on second with one out. Seems funny to make a decision for which the ceiling is actually less advantageous, but of course, every team and every situation is unique.

However, I think that uniqueness was probably working against the M’s in the form of a lumbering catcher. All those other teams that gave us the win expectancy in the first place, most didn’t have a bulky Jesus Montero on second. Montero is probably a worse runner than the average major leaguer, and thus, if anything, the Mariners probably reduced their chances of winning by even more than a percent.

It was a pretty close call, and maybe not worth quibbling, but I’m almost always a proponent of swinging away. Facing right-hander, Brayan Villarreal, Ackley had a slight matchup advantage*, and just maybe he could have hit his 14th-inning double then.

Moving on to the wave home: I don’t like this call either. If Smoak stops at third, then the M’s probability of winning is still not all that great, but sending him lowered that probability in my semi-objective opinion. Even if he scores, the M’s don’t automatically win the game. They just win a chance to win the game. So if Smoak is sent home, as he was, not only does he need to actually score, but the M’s still need to come up with another hit, or win the game in some later inning.

If Smoak holds at third, then the M’s have the winning run on second. Ackley runs well, and has scored on singles from second 63% of the time. Smoak, on the other hand, has only scored 17% of the time from first when a double is hit. Many of those times, he holds up at third and doesn’t even try for home, which is probably what he should have done Wednesday night. My back-of-the-envelope calculations would give the M’s a 20% chance of winning sending Smoak, and closer to 30 or 35% by holding him at third.

Looking back, hindsight tells us that sending Smoak was a bad idea. But numbers that were available to the players and coaches should have made that point a little clearer as well, in my semi-objective opinion. Both decisions were debatable, and even if I’m right (no jokes, please), the edge would be minimal. Still, I think it’s always worth thinking through the scenarios and assigning, at the very least, ballpark estimations for probabilities. Maybe it’s because that’s my life!

 

The M’s look forward to the Rangers in a new series beginning in Arlington tonight

Game 1: Friday, April 19, 5:05 PM PST; TV: ROOT, Radio: 710 ESPN Seattle

Joe Saunders vs. Yu Darvish

Game 2: Saturday, April 20, 5:05 PM PST; TV: ROOT, Radio: 710 ESPN Seattle

Brandon Maurer vs. Nick Tepesch

Game 3: Sunday, April 21, 12:05 PM PST; TV: ROOT, Radio: 710 ESPN Seattle

Aaron Harang vs. Justin Grimm

Radio affiliates in your area can be found here, and sometimes on 910 AM in the Portland area (in addition to the listed 1080 AM).

 

*Ackley’s wRC+ increases just three points from 84 to 87 when he faces righties, but that is based on only 761 plate appearances. It would be wise to project his splits to become, at least, a little wider like the typical lefty.