Talking Baseball

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Posted by Dave on Sunday, April 11, 2004

Pinch Runners? What an offense!

I am tremendously lucky to have a laptop. I’m sitting here comfortably, writing for Talking Baseball as I watch one of the best pitching match-ups of this young season: Pedro Martinez vs. Roy Halladay. Early indications are that two pitchers’ early struggles were merely an aberration. Pedro looks sharp, though the velocity is still down – something that may plague him for the rest of his career. Halladay has a bright future – he has tremendous control and throws two pitches exceptionally well (fastball and curveball). In addition, he supposedly developed a devastasting change-up in the spring. I’ll give thoughts on the game as it progresses, but the main focus of this article is to discuss the benefit – or cost – of pinch-running.

On Friday, the Red Sox lost 3-2 to the Orioles in 13 innings. In the ninth inning, the game was tied at 2-2, the Red Sox got Manny Ramirez to third with one out. Terry Francona (the Sox manager) pinch-ran for Ramirez by sending in Gabe Kapler. Baseball convention dictates that this is a natural move, but is it really beneficial to the team? I’ve thought about this a lot since the move, and I’ve assembled a cost/benefit analysis for this kind of move, but first…

Middle of the 3rd - Pedro hasn’t broken 90 on the gun. I don’t care about velocity – his “change” is still a screwball, and his curveball is still sharp. I haven’t noticed the cutter yet. His fastball still has solid tailing action. Pedro’s naysayers should shut up – he's downright lethal tonight.

Back to Francona’s pinch-running decision, here are the costs and the benefits for taking out Ramirez and subbing in Kapler as a pinch-runner:

1. Increased probability of scoring on a flyout – if there was a fly-out, Kapler (as the faster baserunner) would, in theory, have a greater chance of scoring.
2. Decreased probability of a Ramirez injury – Ramirez broke his finger two years ago sliding head-first into home.
3. Improved outfield defense for the remainder of the game – it is generally believed that Kapler plays better defense than Ramirez.

1. Foregone at-bats for Ramirez - Ramirez is more productive in his ABs, so the ABs he loses in the future costs the Red Sox runs (and therefore wins).

Bottom of the 4th – Halladay just threw an absolutely unhittable curveball. It landed in Kevin Cash’s mitt just below the knees and painted the outside corner. Millar had no shot at doing anything remotely beneficial with it. Another observation about Halladay: He works extremely quickly. It seems like a lot of elite pitchers work quickly. It’s been theorized that this causes less stress on the arm, but I haven't seen any good evidence to display this. Anyone have any thoughts (I wish Mark Mulder read our blog…)?

The question, of course, is to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs of making the switch. Before I start discussing the tradeoff, I’ll admit to this analysis’ imperfection. I don’t have statistics on Kapler’s speed in comparison to Ramirez’s. What I can tell you is this: Kapler is generally believed to be moderately faster than Ramirez. How much does improved speed matter in the 90 feet between 3rd and home? A bit, but not a lot. It could change a small percentage of flyouts from an out at home to a sacrifice fly. Let’s look at the number of events that have to occur to make Kapler’s speed a benefit in this case: First, the hitter must hit a fly-ball to the outfield. Second, the fly-ball can’t be too deep – both runners would score in that case. The fly-ball also can’t be too shallow – both runners would not score in that case. The fly-ball must be just far enough to give Kapler a chance to score where Manny would not. The probability of hitting a fly-ball the correct distance to allow for there to be a benefit is extremely small. Therefore, Kapler’s speed is a benefit, but not a large one. Let’s look at the rest of the benefits.

Bottom of the 6th – Tom Caron (a field reporter for NESN) just interviewed a Dunkin’ Donuts representative. In a frequently-aired D’n’D commercial, Schilling practices saying various words in a Bostonian accents while he masticates a breakfast sandwich. “I have to buy a new cah.” “It's wicked hot at the pahk.” Etc. In reference to the commercial, Tom Caron asked if Schilling should learn any new words in preparation for pitching against the Yankees. The rep. replied: “Curt…Curt just needs to learn the letter 'K' and 'beating the Yankees.' Good work, Corporate America.

Cesar Crespo had the good fortune to get on with an infield hit – 2 batters later, Halladay hung a breaking-ball, and Ortiz bashed it into the seats in right-center (I own him in fantasy, making it doubly as sweet). Ramirez lined the very next offering from Halladay to right-center for a single. Roy then threw three straight balls to Kevin Millar. Ordinary pitchers would have packed it in, but Roy battled back to induce Millar to fly out. The flyout was a tribute to his composure, but the Sox now lead 2-0 in a game where two runs could certainly be the difference.

Ramirez injured himself two years ago sliding into home and his safety on the basepaths is questionable. Still, the probability of injury is negligibly low and should not factor into the analysis as a tangible benefit. An aside: Ramirez’s status as a frail or injury-prone player seems to no longer be warranted. He has played 142, 120, and 154 games the last three years. However, looking now at Ramirez's stats, aside from two years of only playing 120 games, he's been pretty consistent at 150 games/year. If that's what it takes to make a player fragile in Boston, one wonders why Nomar hasn't garnered that dubious distinction yet.

Bottom of the 7th – Let the record show, both of Cesar Crespo’s hits today were garbage infield hits. Bellhorn showcased the power in his infielder body earlier this inning with a bomb to right. The home run reacquired the insurance run that was lost on Orlando Hudson’s blast (on a fastball that caught way too much plate).

At last, something that can be quantified: By making the switch, the Red Sox take advantage of Kapler’s “improved defense.” I put that in quotes because I’m not so sure that Gabe defends better than Manny. Looking at defensive win shares last year, Kapler actually defended worse than Manny:
                 WS/1000 Innings:

Ramirez: 2.16
Kapler: 1.68
What does that mean? Well, win shares thinks Manny is the better OF. So, it seems it's really a cost to the Sox if they replace Manny in the field.

But that’s just last year, and Kapler didn’t play much. Since I don’t have defensive win shares prior to this year, what about other measures? Looking at range factor (admittedly, an imperfect measure, but defined as: the number of successful chances (putuouts + assists) times 9 divided by the number of defensive innings played), historically:

Ramirez: 2002- 1.80
2003- 1.83
Kapler: 2002- 2.56
2003- 1.85
Even with range factor, you don't see a dramatically better player in Kapler. I know Red Sox fans are quick to malign Ramirez's lack of hustle or seemingly lackadaisical attitude toward baseball, but he still plays reasonably good defense. Kapler may be fleet-a-foot, but it would appear that he doesn't play great dee. The anomolously high RF in 2002 was probably because he was playing for a fly-ball staff in Texas. So, it seems that Kapler isn't much of a defensive improvement - if he is an improvement at all.

Bottom of the 8th – Ramirez absolutely crushed Aquilino Lopez’s first offering. With the swing, it was almost as if he said: “You are not good enough to challenge me. Now, I will deposit the trash you call a ‘pitch’ 420 feet away.” It serves Lopez right. No one should have the first name Aquilino.

What about the foregone at-bats? Clearly Ramirez is a better offensive player, but how much better? Let’s look at Kapler and Ramirez’s RC last year. This stat tells us how many runs would be scored if there were nine Manny Ramirezes or nine Gabe Kaplers hitting in the lineup. Dividing by the number of outs will allow us to understand the number of runs Ramirez and Kapler create per plate appearance (I actually had to get Kapler's RC out of BP 2004 courtesy of Jon - it wasn't anywhere to be found online, e-mail/comment if you have a site):
                      RC         RC/PA

Ramirez: 133.8 .197
Kapler: 23 .093
So, Kapler creates a tenth of a run less than Manny does per plate appearance (no surprise, Manny's a damn good offensive player). I did a little more research, and found that 4.2 RC is the equivalent of one hitting win share. So, if Ramirez goes to bat once more, the Sox forego (.197-.093)/(4.2)*(1/3) wins. That's .000825 wins, an appreciable amount. But how often does Ramirez get another at-bat after the completion of that 2-2 game in the ninth, with one out, with a man on third? Not often, would be my guess.

Top of the 9th – Game’s over. Nothing remarkable happened in Foulke’s 1.1 innings pitched. In the ninth, however, he did induce two batters (Carlos Delgado and Orlando Hudson) to throw their bats in disgust after creating outs. This is relatively unsurprising considering that Foulke does not have the overpowering stuff to make anyone feel good about creating outs. After a series of high 80s fastballs and low 70s palmballs, I’d probably huck my bat if I hit a lazy flyball like Delgado did. A well-pitched game by both sides – a few hangers by Halladay allowed two HRs and three runs. Later in the year, the Sox won’t see those hangers – and I’ll be worried when we face the towering hulk, Roy Halladay, again.

Before the conclusion to this study, let's keep its insignificance in perspective. Removing Ramirez for a pinch-runner could be questioned, but you couldn't hang a man for it. That's something you do to Jimy Williams for sitting Morgan Ensberg, a clearly superior player, in favor of Mike Lamb. So, Francona, right or not, should not be scrutinized for these sorts of moves - ever. They're so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that I would chance that correct decision-making with respect to this situation might create one win over ten years. With that said, let's return to our benefit/costs for removing Ramirez:

1. Increased probability of scoring on a flyout – If there was a fly-out, Kapler (as the faster baserunner) would, in theory, have a greater chance of scoring.
A negligibly small probability, seeing as how the batter has to hit it in the correct band of the OF for this to matter. Still, the benefits are immediate so they needn't be discounted due to their occurrence in the future (as with foregone at-bats).
2. Decreased probability of a Ramirez injury – Ramirez broke his finger two years ago sliding head-first into home.
Negligibly close to zero - though it carries huge risks. It should be considered a benefit, but very small relative to benefit #1.
3. Improved outfield defense for the remainder of the game – It is generally believed that Kapler plays better defense than Ramirez.
Ramirez seems to play better, or at least equivalent, defense to Kapler, so this is not a benefit and may even be a cost.

1. Foregone at-bats for Ramirez
The Red Sox are giving up .000825 wins every time Kapler has a plate appearance instead of Manny. So, on Thursday, when Kapler had the one AB, the Red Sox lost .000825 wins and lessened their chances of winning. But the .000825 wins is discounted due to the low probability that Ramirez will get another AB. Perhaps Ramirez gets another AB 20% of the time (conservatively high, I'd say). That means that the switch costs .000165 wins.

Do you think Kapler's speed is worth more than .000165 wins? I'm sure it does. I'm sure at least .05% (ridiculously small) of fly-outs Kapler would score on, while Ramirez wouldn't. That would mean that the switch would be worth it because the scored run would almost ensure a win (not quite true, but let's simplify, please). This is because .05% = .0005 > .000165 wins. Whew. So, next time Ramirez gets subbed in a game, don't question it for two reasons:

1. The switch probably won't matter (there won't be a sac-fly or the game won't stretch on to extra innings), so it's not worth worrying about.
2. The switch was the right thing to do.

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