Every baseball fan in America wants to talk about this today so here’s your thread. Confession: I was so sure that Madison Bumgarner would shut down the Royals again, even on short rest and in relief, that I turned the game off in disgust as he was warming up in the fifth inning and never looked back. And I ended up being right — barely. Here’s the scene with two outs in the ninth, San Francisco one out away from a third championship in five years. Alex Gordon, an all-star this year (and last), is KC’s last chance. He lines the ball to left-center for what looks like a single — except Giants centerfielder Gregor Blanco inexplicably misses the ball on the hop. It rolls past him, guaranteeing that Gordon will be in scoring position when the play is over. But wait — Giants leftfielder Juan Perez, who’s backing Blanco up on the play, also screws up by kicking the ball at the fence while Gordon steams towards third. Question: Given that neither the Royals nor anyone else who’s faced Bumgarner this October has done jack against him at the plate, do you send Gordon home there and try for an inside-the-park home run or do you hold him up and hope that the man on deck, fellow all-star Salvador Perez, can drive him in?
The Royals held him, Perez ended up popping out to third, and the Giants won the World Series, depriving baseball fans of the right to call this the single most catastrophic defensive miscue in the history of the game. (Bill Buckner retains the title but that game was already tied by the time he missed Mookie Wilson’s grounder. And the Sox had nine more innings in Game Seven to make things right.) Which makes the question loom even larger: Should they have sent Gordon? The answer seems obvious when you see the screencap below but Nate Silver, weighing the probabilities, is going to singlehandedly end up making the “yes, he should have tried for it!” position respectable among sports nerds forever.
So, after Gordon holds at third, he has a 25 percent chance of scoring. Six percent of the time, Perez (or pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson?) also scores, and the Royals win outright. The other 19 percent of the time, Gordon is the only Royal to score in the ninth and the game goes to extra innings. If we assume the Royals are even money to prevail in an extra-inning game, their chances of winning at that point are:
6% + (19% * 50%)
That works out to 15.5 percent. Not coincidentally, this matches FanGraphs’ in-game win probability for the Royals (after Gordon held at third) almost exactly.
What if Gordon rounds third and tries to score? If he’s successful even 30 percent of the time, the Royals’ win probability is at least 15 percent — a 30 percent chance of Gordon scoring, multiplied by a 50 percent chance of the Royals winning in extra innings. But it’s slightly higher than that. The 30 percent of the time that Gordon scores, Perez still has his 6 percent chance of scoring the winning run in the ninth. That brings the Royals’ overall win probability up to about 16 percent.
We’re splitting hairs. The point is that if even Gordon had been a 2-to-1 underdog to score, he should have tried.
If Gordon had a 30 percent chance of scoring, it would have made sense probability-wise for the Royals to send him home on the botched play in the outfield. But did he have a 30 percent chance? Here’s a screencap from the video of the play below.
That’s Gordon, pulling up into third, and that’s Brandon Crawford, the Giants’ shortstop, on the far right in the short outfield. He was the relay man after Juan Perez finally retrieved the ball hit by Gordon and threw it back in. Crawford already has the ball in his hand here and is looking towards home and Gordon isn’t even around third yet. (Granted, Gordon was already slowing down because the third-base coach had given him the “stop” sign. If he’d been waved, he’d probably be a step past third.) Says sportswriter and diehard Royals fan Joe Posnanski:
To write, but one last thought: To all those people who thought Gordon should have been sent home — he's out by 40 feet.
— Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski) October 30, 2014
That’s how it looks to me. For Silver to be correct, you need to believe that if this precise scenario played out 10 times, Crawford would somehow fail to throw home accurately three of those times — and by “accurately,” given how far from the plate Gordon was, I mean “within six feet of home.” Giants catcher Buster Posey might well have had time to take a few steps to his side to catch an errant throw and get back to the plate before Gordon got there. Unless Crawford crapped his pants from the pressure and tossed the ball into the stands, Gordon’s a dead duck nine out of 10 times, I’d guess, if not more. Now, you can fiddle with Silver’s numbers to get to a different outcome if that’s what you want: Ross Douthat agrees that Gordon’s chances of scoring were way less than 30 percent but he also thinks Salvador Perez’s chances of getting a hit off Bumgarner were south of 10 percent. (Perez, although an all-star, hit just .260 this season. He’s known for his defense; offensively, he’s a free-swinger.) If you agree with that calculation, then yeah, arguably it makes sense to send Gordon — but not so much because you really believe he’ll score as because you really, really believe that Perez will blow his chance. Imagine defending that decision after the game if Gordon is sent home and ends up being out by 30 feet: “I knew it was a longshot but I thought maybe Posey might have a heart attack while Crawford’s throw was en route to the plate. Plus, we all knew Salvy would choke.” C’mon. Salvy’s the guy who won the Wild Card game in extra innings, remember? And Salvy’s the guy who, by the way, hit a home run off Bumgarner in Game One of this Series, the only run in a 7-1 KC loss. Besides, you didn’t need Perez to get a hit necessarily — a wild pitch from an overworked Bumgarner would have done it. If Gordon’s out by a mile, as was highly likely here, Royals fans would forever agonize over what might have happened had Perez been given a chance to bat. I can’t believe this outcome is more upsetting to them than that one would have been.
What’s really driving the “send Gordon home!” crowd, I think, is a combination of two things. One: Given how freakishly dominant Bumgarner has been all month, they believe the probability of getting two consecutive hits off him here was actually zero, not six percent or whatever figure Silver has. In that case, if there’s literally no chance to drive Gordon in, then of course you send him home. In fact, in that case, had Blanco played the ball correctly and Gordon ended up on first, you’d have to have him try to steal second, third, and home in sequence. When God grants you a freaky deaky Keystone Kops-ish chance to score on one play against the unhittable Madison, you’re duty-bound to accept that gift and try. Perez’s odds against Bumgarner weren’t zero, though, no matter how comforting that thought may be. Two: The insane drama of a play at the plate to end Game Seven of the World Series is irresistible, as Silver himself admits. Knowing now that Perez popped out and that sending Gordon therefore would have cost the Royals nothing, who wouldn’t have preferred to see the Giants forced to execute this play at home with everyone in the stadium, Crawford, Gordon, and Posey very much included, losing their farking minds with anxiety and excitement? It would have been magical, a baseball memory for all eternity. And in all likelihood, Gordon would have been out standing up.
Here’s the moral of this sad, sad story: Always run hard. Gordon seems to come out of the batter’s box here at “singles” speed, expecting Blanco to field the ball on a hop. Only after the ball shoots past him in center does Gordon turn on the jets. If he’s running full steam from the word go, maybe he’s, say, three steps past third by the time Crawford gets the ball back from the outfield. What are the odds of him scoring then? Always run hard. Exit question: Can you imagine if Gordon had come home, collided with Posey, and then the umpires had to sort out that mystifying new rule that prohibits catchers from blocking the plate? Greatest ump show evah.