Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Stop Pinch Running for Adrian Gonzalez in Close Games

Instead of writing about the newly tied American League wild card race, I am posting a write-up that I actually started during the second game of Sunday’s Red Sox vs. Yankees doubleheader. I started this when watching Lars Anderson, rather than Adrian Gonzalez, come up in a couple of key situations. Anderson was in the game because he pinch ran for Gonzalez. In this must-win game, Terry Francona had removed his best hitter for a pinch runner. It wasn’t the first time he’s done so, so I decided to go back through the season and check on what happened in other games where Gonzalez was pinch run for when the Red Sox were in close games :

May 4 vs. Los Angeles of Anaheim – Adrian Gonzalez, on sort of a crazy play, “singles” between the pitcher and catcher to score Jason Varitek with two outs in the 8th inning, cutting the Angels lead to 2-1, and advances to second on a throwing error by Fernando Rodney. Marco Scutaro goes in to pinch run for Gonzalez. The next batter, Kevin Youkilis, lines a hard single to left – Scutaro advances only to 3B. David Ortiz flies to center, stranding him there.

The Angels get that run back in the top of the 9th, but the Red Sox tie the game with two in the bottom of the 9th. We go to extra innings.

  In the bottom 10th, Marco Scutaro led off the inning with a short fly out down the left field line. This proves to be somewhat significant, as David Ortiz walks and Jed Lowrie singles. The Red Sox leave runners on first and third.

In the bottom of the 12th, Scutaro hits a one out single. The next batter, Kevin Youkilis, doubles, and Marco Scutaro is thrown out at the plate. The guy who was pinch running for the Red Sox best hitter, the guy who is in the game because he supposedly is a baserunning advantage over Gonzalez, makes the out on the bases. This proves significant again, as Darnell McDonald, the next batter, singles, and Youkilis is only able to advance to third.

The Angels won the game on Bobby Abreu two-run single in the top of the 13th.

June 4 vs. Oakland – Adrian Gonzalez singles to lead off the bottom of 10th inning, tied 7-7. Drew Sutton pinch runs. Advances to second on a one-out groundout. Was stranded there.

In the 11th, Jacoby Ellsbury hit a two-out double to score Jarrod Saltalamacchia, tying the game 8-8. With the winning run on second base, and knowing that Sutton, rather than Adrian Gonzalez, was “in the hole,” Bob Geren had Andrew Bailey intentionally walk Dustin Pedroia. Bailey then struck out Sutton. Pinch running for Gonzalez effectively took the bat out of the hands of BOTH Pedroia and Gonzalez.

In the 13th inning, we had a remarkably similar situation. With the score still tied 8-8, Ellsbury hit a leadoff single. With Pedroia at the plate, Ellsbury (showing low awareness of the situation) stole second base. Geren had Michael Wuertz intentionally walk Pedroia once again. Wuertz then induced a soft lineout from Sutton to end the inning. That is now twice that both Pedroia and Gonzalez were unable to hit with the game on the line.

The Red Sox did end up winning this game in the 14th on an RBI single by JD Drew, but the fact remains that Francona’s management strategy cost the Red Sox four at bats by two all-star hitters.

August 8 @ Minnesota –Gonzalez singles with two outs in the top of the 9th with the game tied 1-1. After advancing to second on a Dustin Pedroia single, Darnell McDonald is brought in to pinch run. McDonald scores from second on a single by David Ortiz, a ball Gonzalez may not have scored on. So this time, the pinch running worked, right? Not so fast. The next batter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, doubled, scoring Pedroia, making the game 3-1.

The only way this pinch running made a difference is Gonzalez had been sent by the third base coach AND been thrown out on the play. There is something between a 5 and 20 percent chance of this.

September 5  @ Toronto –Gonzalez walks with two outs in top of the 10th inning. Mike Aviles pinch runs. David Ortiz grounds out, Aviles is stranded.

Gonzalez’s spot in the batting order never comes up again. Dan Wheeler gives up a game winning home run to Brett Lawrie as the Red Sox season begins crumbling beneath them.

September 25 @ New York – (In the second game of a doubleheader, the slumping Red Sox are down to a half game ahead of the Rays.) Gonzalez leads off the top of the 9th with a single off of Mariano Rivera. Lars Anderson pinch runs. After advancing to second on a Mike Aviles sacrifice bunt, and advancing to third on a JD Drew groundout to first base, Anderson is stranded there when Mariano Rivera strikes out Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

This chain of events seemed especially foolish to me. First off, with expanded rosters, LARS ANDERSON was the best pinch runner Francona could come up with???? Anderson is almost as slow as Gonzalez. He STILL needed to waste an out getting him to second. This is NOT Dave Roberts pinch running for Kevin Millar, for three important reasons: 1 . The Red Sox were losing that game. They absolutely needed to score one run then, or their season was over; 2. Dave Roberts was appreciably faster than Kevin Millar. Fast enough that he could take second base without wasting an out, and was able to score from second on a single, on a ball that Millar likely would not have been able to. Anderson couldn’t steal second, and isn’t any more likely than Gonzalez to score from second on a single. 3. Adrian Gonzalez is the Red Sox best hitter. Kevin Millar was not. Adrian Gonzalez should only be removed when his replacement has a significantly higher chance of scoring that inning. The chance of scoring off of Mariano Rivera are always slim, and Lars Anderson’s aren’t any better than Adrian Gonzalez.

In the 11th inning Lars Anderson leads off with a weak pop foul to first base.

In the 13th inning with Dustin Pedroia on first base, and with two outs, Lars Anderson is struck out by Aaron Laffey.

The Red Sox went on to win this game on a 14th inning Jacoby Ellsbury home run, but again, Francona put his best bat on the bench in a game the team pretty much needed to win.

Conclusion – Francona pinch ran for Gonzalez in four tie games and one close game in which they were losing. Those five pinch runners scored a total of one time, and it was a sequence of events in which Gonzalez would have had between an 80%-95% chance of scoring himself.

When Gonzalez’s spot in the order came up later in these games, his replacements went a combined  1 for 6. The one guy who did get a hit, Marco Scutaro, ended up getting thrown out on the bases, which I’m sure Adrian Gonzalez is perfectly capable of doing on his own.

It could be stated, of course, that the Red Sox WON three of the four tie games that they pinch ran for Gonzalez in (and also lost the game they were already losing). While true, these managerial decisions made these victories less likely. It wasn’t Francona’s managerial expertise that led to Jacoby Ellsbury hitting a three run homer against Scott Proctor, a guy with an ERA of close to 7 since 2008. Gonzalez staying in the game might not have helped them win earlier. The decision to remove Gonzalez had ZERO positive impact on the fact they won in the end.

I say this not to dump on Francona at a time where it seems convenient to do so. Francona is more willing than any manager in the league to use Jonathan Papelbon in tie games on the road, a decision that has a much higher positive potential impact than removing Adrian Gonzalez for a pinch runner has negative. He deserves credit for that. However, it needs to be pointed out - the Red Sox played 5 games this year that went 13 innings or more. Adrian Gonzalez – again, their BEST hitter – was not in there for the end of three of them. This isn’t just frustrating – it’s a sub-optimal way to manage a team.  The fact that these sub-optimal decisions didn’t always lead to losses show that managerial decisions are often unrelated to the final outcome. The best managers are the ones who do the most to optimize his team’s chances of winning. In these cases, Terry Francona didn’t do that.

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