Most baseballs analysts would tell you that baseball managers have an overrated impact on a team's record. They don't allow home runs or strike out with the bases loaded. However, the time managers' decisions are undeniably influential are in extra innings ball games.
The most interesting decision in MLB so far this season came in Friday's game between the Pirates and Rockies. As the last man available in the bullpen, Franklin Morales recorded two outs in the bottom of the 14th inning before walking Josh Rodriguez on four pitches.
Then came the decision. Jose Tabata came to the plate, tied with the most hits in MLB since the All-Star Break in 2010. The next batter was to be relief pitcher Garrett Olsen, as Pittsburgh had no more hitters remaining on the bench.
Jim Tracy had a choice: face Jose Tabata and hope he did not smack an extra base hit, or face a far inferior hitter in Olsen with the winning run in scoring position. Tracy chose the first choice, and he was burned when Tabata clubbed a 3-1 fastball off the right-field wall for a walk-off double.
A new wrinkle came to has come to light about that game though. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former Rockies skipper Clint Hurdle ordered Andrew McCutchen to go to the on-deck circle rather than Olsen, even though McCutchen was due to bat after Olsen. Theoretically, that might make current Rockies skipper afraid to walk Tabata.
The reaction has been cackles of laughter at Jim Tracy's expense and congratulations to Clint Hurdle. It is, after all, an irresistible story. "Former Rockies manager and current Pirates manager outmanages current Rockies manager and former Pirates manager in retribution for home opener loss." Powered by hindsight, it is comical that Tracy just might have passed up facing a pitcher and instead got duped into a choice that eventually led to a loss.
Let us assume for a moment that neither Jim Tracy or bench coach Tom Runnels (or anyone in the dugout) paid no attention to their scorecard or stadium scoreboard, instead basing their decision on the on-deck hitter. If that is the case (which sincerely doubt), did Hurdle's maneuver actually make Tracy choose the wrong path?
No. No it did not. Despite the easy presumption, it was not wrong for Jim Tracy to pitch to Jose Tabata.
While Fangraphs usually is a slave to WPA calculations, Eric Seidman's column (above) paid no mind whatsoever to the game probabilities. Tom Tango ran calculations and found the decision between facing and walking Tabata to be "pretty close to breakeven."
The calculations are extremely complicated based on seemingly countless variables. With all due respect to Tango, many of those variables push the probabilities away from break-even and towards the "pitch to Tabata choice." How can that be? If you need one out, you always choose to face a reliever instead of Jose Tabata, right? Not necessarily.
Jim Tracy's logic, which was correct, was that Jose Tabata needed an extra base hit to win the game for Pittsburgh by himself. The MLB rate for extra base hits is 7%, while Tabata has hit them at 7.4% in his MLB career (but just 2 in 31 PA in 2011 coming in). With the outfield playing extremely deep, some traditional doubles would be held to singles and/or prevent the runner from scoring from first. Tabata needed a perfectly placed extra base hit off the wall, down the lines or in the gaps. That lowers the effective extra base hit rate required around 6% (a conservative guess), with a 94% chance that the situation would play out no worse than if Tabata was walked in the first place. That's a pretty safe bet, even if it did not work out.
So let us assume Tabata was intentially walked instead. That brings up a pitcher with a career .167 batting average and a runner in scoring position. The pitcher/hitter would be ordered not to swing until there were two strikes, and the Morales would be forced to throw three strikes. We have seen how that worked out before.
I'll remind you again who was pitching: Franklin Morales, he who has walked more than 1/8th of the batters he has faced in his career. Then consider that batters have swung at 21% of his pitches outside the strike zone in his career, something Olsen would not have done (he isn't swinging, remember), and we could reasonably expect that walk rate to increase.
So check out Morales' strike/ball ratio: just 48.6% of his career pitches have come in the strike zone. If Olsen does not swing, a probability matrix of potential ball/strike combos yields a walk to Olsen about one third of the time. That means walking Tabata yields a bases-loaded situation for Andrew McCutchen one third of the time, which is a far worse situation than a runner on first with two outs.
That doesn't account for the wild pitches, balks or increased wildness Morales likely would have exhibited in a pressure situation (remember, Tabata's hit came on a 3-1 pitch). Then add to that the possibility of the pitcher getting a lucky hit with two strikes (it happens) and we are looking at the obvious choice: pitch to Jose Tabata, hope he doesn't surpass probability and hit the perfect extra base hit, and at the worst, face the pitcher in a similar situation you would have been after an intentional walk.
Did Clint Hurdle's antics cause Jim Tracy to pitch to Tabata? Maybe. We will never know - as our friends at TrueBlueLA would say, Jim Tracy doesn't have a track record of taking responsibility for mistakes. After the game, he just said he knew Tabata would need an extra base hit for the win and did not address McCutchen in the on-deck circle.
But if Tracy would have walked Tabata with the pitcher coming up, it would have been the wrong decision, even if the right decision turned out wrong for the Rockies in the end. Because see, no matter what the manager chooses to do, the game is still decided by the execution of the players on the field.