World Series, Free Bases, Errors, and Saying No

Was Craig Breslow’s decision to throw to third in the seventh inning of last night’s World Series game correct?

He says yes. His manager is not so sure.

Breslow, as quoted by Evan Drellich at MassLive.com, “I looked up and I saw that I definitely had a play there. I didn’t make a good throw. That’s not a throw I make too much, but it’s one I need to make there.”

Manager John Farrell: “I’m sure Craig would like to have that ball back and hold it with a chance to shut down the inning right there…”

I think they are both right.

 

Lets set the scene. In the seventh inning of game two, Craig Breslow relieved John Lackey. His first, and more important mistake was walking the first batter he faced – Daniel Descalso – by wOBA, the weakest hitter in the Cardinals lineup. The next batter, Matt Carpenter lifted a fly ball to shallow left field that tied the game. Jonny Gomes’ throw home was late and off line. Breslow picked the ball up and threw to third, thinking he could nab John Jay there. He airmailed the throw. That was mistake number two.

This is the diamond the moment before Breslow released the baseball.

Screen shot 2013-10-25 at 11.25.51 AM

 

I estimate that the speedy Jay, who is already sprinting full bore, is about 30 feet from third base in that frame. In just over a second, Jay will be sliding into third base. IF Breslow were to release the ball at that instant, he has about a second to get the ball to third base. Remember  he needs to give Bogaerts time to apply the tag. I estimate that Breslow is 100 feet from third base. If he had a full second to get the ball there, he merely has to throw the ball at 68 miles an hour. He can do that. But he doesn’t have a full second. Because Bogaerts needs time to catch and apply a tage. If he has three quarters of a second, he would have to throw the ball at 91 miles an hour to nail Jay. His four-seam fastball  averages 91 miles an hour. He can do that. That’s off a mound, with a windup. If Breslow was doing the math, which he wasn’t, if he had anything less than three quarters of a second from the instant of release to Bogaerts’ glove, he should not have thrown the ball.

And yet, it makes perfect sense for Breslow to think he had a play on Jay at third base.

Here is the diamond as Breslow was scooping up the ball after it left catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s glove.

Screen shot 2013-10-25 at 11.34.14 AM

Jay is barely 20 feet from second. This picture perfectly captures the reason Breslow thought he could throw Jay out at third. Go back to his quote, “I looked up and saw I definitely had a play there.. ” This is the part of the play he got right. However, the issue for Breslow is what happened in the intervening frames. He’s no infielder. He was too slow in getting from picking the ball to his release. While he was grabbing the ball off the grass, gathering himself to throw, and hopping, Jay was still running. Take a look for example, at how far Breslow hopped. He fielded the ball outside the dirt circle around home plate. He threw from comfortably inside it. That’s maybe a six-foot hop. While Breslow was airborn, Jay was running. While Breslow was winding up to throw, Jay was running. Perhaps Dustin Pedroia, Stephen Drew, Bogaerts or a well-practiced infielder could and would have thrown Jay out at third.

What happened? This.

Screen shot 2013-10-25 at 11.27.27 AM

Lets subtract eight feet of height from Breslow’s throw. What if it was shin-high and Bogaerts just had to catch the ball and slap a tag on the sliding runner? It looks from that shot as though it would have been late.

By the time Breslow released the ball, it was too late. This is the part Farrell got right.

Baseball players do not reach the big leagues by thinking in general that they will not make a play. Rather the reverse is the case. Guys reach the big leagues, by thinking that they can make the play. They work and practice to execute, and they are right – they do make the play – more often than anyone else on the planet, that’s what makes them big leaguers. But in this case, Breslow was doing something unfamiliar, throwing to third at maximum velocity under time pressure, that he rarely ever does.

So, in a sense, one of the hardest things for professional athletes to do, and the thing they do not train to do, is, in the most pressure-packed moment that their sport offers, think “no, I cannot make that play.” Coaches preach endlessly in the minors, “make the right play.”

In fact, I would argue, the key moment, and even better example of this, came earlier in the sequence.

Imagine what would have happened, if instead of throwing home, Jonny Gomes had thrown to the cutoff man. Sure, the tying run would have scored from second. But Jay would never have started towards third. And the Cards and Sox would have had a tie game with runners at first and second. Maybe in this alternate universe, Carlos Beltran still would have singled off of Breslow to drive home a run as he did in real life. In this case, that would have put the Cardinals ahead 3-2 instead of 4-2. Or Jay didn’t score on the single. Or perhaps, Breslow retired Beltran to keep the game tied.

Gomes has thrown out two runners at home plate in 2013, a career-high. He’s nailed seven runners at home in eight big league seasons, under one per year. Just once in his career, in 2009 with Cincinnati, has he thrown out a runner at home plate on a sacrifice fly.  For his career, Gomes is one  run above average with his arm.

And So
Sometimes the best decision is not to make the throw and cede the lead. Neither Gomes nor Breslow was thinking about the probability that he would succeed on his individual throw (and necessary catch, and tag). Neither was evaluating the reward of a successful throw versus the cost of an unsuccessful event. Neither was thinking about the much greater possibility of something going wrong. But maybe they should have.

Sometimes, the road to immortality (in a baseball sense) is for a player to best recognize his own limitations and learn to say no. Or just be Carlos Beltran and hit .339/.448/.714 (!) over 10 series in a post-season career.