The $400,000 Mistake – Eric Wedge

Christopher Long had a nice tweet the other day on the relative worth of an MLB analyst in terms of in-game management gaffes:

Well, alright. I will do the very basic back-of-the-envelope math. But before I do that, I want you to read this first:

We’ll come back to this.

The Situation

In the bottom of the 9th inning, the score was tied 1-1 and the Seattle Mariners had runners on 1st and 2nd. Jason Bay was running at 2nd base for Kendrys Morales (not exactly the biggest speed upgrade, I might add) and Mike Morse was at 1st base after walking.

Phil Coke came in to pitch against Raul Ibanez. Here are two things you need to know about those players:

  • Coke is really good against lefties and laughably bad against righties.
  • Ibanez is good against righties and awful against lefties.

Coke is left-handed, if you didn’t know.

Earlier in the game, Wedge absolutely incinerated his bench, leaving only the right-handed hitting backup catcher Kelly Shoppach on the bench. Unwilling to bring him in to hit in this high-leverage situation (and have him possibly play outfield), he left Ibanez in to hit.

Wedge also allowed Ibanez to swing away against Coke.

Did I mention that Coke also utterly humilated Ibanez in the playoffs last year? Because he did. And that Ibanez is not exactly the fastest runner in the world? Because he’s not.

Anyway, Raul Ibanez grounds into a double play, Justin Smoak strikes out, and they leave the winning run at third base. They go on to lose in some ridiculous fashion that involves Smoak being thrown out at home, but I don’t care about that.

Just how bad was the decision to not have Ibanez bunt? Let’s make the following assumptions:

  • If Ibanez successfully gets the bunt fair, runners will advance to 2nd/3rd and he will be thrown out at 1st
  • The two scenarios are equally likely: Ibanez grounds into a double play if he swings away and Ibanez bunt fouls out or bunts and the runners do not advance but an out is recorded

Lets just ignore the second point as well as the fact that Ibanez hasn’t successfully sacrifice bunted since 2003 – he’s a professional hitter and one would hope he can lay down a bunt a reasonable amount of the time when the situation calls for it. Especially when the expected outcome of him swinging away against Coke is really bad.

Using the 1969-1992 run expectancy matrix, runners at 1B/2B with 0 outs with an average hitter/pitcher confrontation scores 1+ runs about 63.2% of the time. Assuming a successful sacrifice bunt, runners at 2B/3B with 1 out with an average hitter/pitcher confrontation scores 1+ runs about 67.8% of the time. So in an average situation, bunting there nets a +4.6% increase in run/win expectancy. (Run expectancy = Win expectancy here since it’s the bottom of the ninth in a tie game.)

But Raul Ibanez vs. Phil Coke is not an average matchup. It’s one where Coke is massively, massively favored. Maybe the chance that 1+ runs scores in this situation with a swing away approach is really something like 60% – and in reality, it’s probably way worse. But let’s be conservative and assume it’s 60%, giving up a few points because Ibanez hasn’t shown himself to be a very good bunter in the past. Justin Smoak would then come to the plate. Smoak is better against RHP, but the difference is not big. However, Coke is way worse against RHB than the average LHP, so Smoak probably becomes something like an average hitter in this situation. Let’s call it 68% chance of scoring the run in the 2B/3B with 1 out situation.

So, by not bunting Ibanez, Wedge was giving up 8% in win expectancy.


8% Win Expectancy Sacrificed

What’s that mean, financially? We’ll make another assumption about the value of wins – that they are worth $5MM on the open market. That’s probably a bit low, but it’s a fine guess.

Simply put, that means that Eric Wedge lit $400,000 on fire by not bunting Raul Ibanez.

Now that’s not exactly true, since the Mariners aren’t a playoff team and therefore the utility of wins isn’t exactly equal to their cost in such a situation (the Mariners adding a bunch of 1B/DH types who can’t put them to 88+ expected wins is a stupid move that’s worth a different blog post), but that is a good idea on just how brilliant that move was.

Dear all MLB teams: I’ll work for far less than $400,000 per game. And if I get your pitchers throwing harder, that’s worth a few million bucks. Just saying.

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