Guest Post: Reviewing Chase Utley’s NLDS Base Running

This is a guest post from Andy M. of the blog Charlie’s Manuel.

People have been criticizing Chase Utley for his baserunning on Hunter Pence’s groundball in Game 4. The main criticism is that he made the first out at third base. But he didn’t. Pence would have been out at first anyway if Utley simply stayed put. The out was made when Pence hit the weak grounder, not when Utley was thrown out. Had Albert Pujols stayed on first base to receive the throw and retire Pence, then threw Utley out, Utley may have gotten less criticism because it would have been the second out at third base. However, I don’t think Pujols would have been able to throw out Utley if he stayed on the base for Pence (both throws would have been longer, less momentum for Pujols to generate a good throw, and Pujols would have been less likely to attempt a throw had they already gotten an out on the play).

Using Tom Tango’s run frequency matrix, a player has a 40% chance of scoring if he is on second base with one out with no other baserunners. This would have been the situation if Utley stayed at second.

After Utley was retired, the base-out state was 1 out with a man on first. There is a 28% chance of the baserunner scoring in that scenario.

If Pujols stayed on first base to retire Pence and allowed Utley to advance to third (Utley probably assumed Pujols would stay on first to get the out), there would have been a 67% chance of Utley scoring from third with only one out.

How often Utley would have to be safe at third to make this a good base-running play? I assigned the Phillies 0.67 runs if Pujols stayed put on first base and Utley was on third with one out, .40 runs if Utley stayed on second base, and 0.28 runs if Utley is thrown out at third with Pence safe at first.

Let’s say 70% of the time*, the first baseman leaves the base and guns down Utley (.70*.28 = .196 runs). That means 30% of the time, the first baseman stays on the base, gets one out, and Utley is safe at third (.30*.67 = .201 runs). Add those two values together, and the decision to run to third base is worth about .397 runs, whereas staying on second base is worth 0.40 runs. So, it seems that a 30% success rate for Utley in that scenario is the break-even point.

*I also doubt that 70% of major league first-basemen would leave the bag, allow Pence to get to first, and then make a good throw on Utley. My guess would be about a third (at most) of all first baseman would leave the bag in that scenario.

Utley only needs to be safe at third base on that play 30% of the time in order to make it a good decision.

Furthermore, we haven’t even discussed the following possibility: If Pujols came off the base and made a poor throw to third, and both runners were safe, Utley would have had an 88% chance of scoring with 1st and 3rd and nobody out.

When you factor in that possibility (even if that possibility happens 3% of the time, the break-even point falls to 28%) along with the added run expectancy with Pence also on the basepaths, the break-even point is probably closer to 25% for Utley.

It was a gamble for Utley, and I am glad he took it. He only needs to be safe 1 out of 4 times to increase the Phillies’ chances of scoring, but unfortunately for us, we live in a universe parallel to the one where Pujols stayed on first base.

If you enjoyed this article, check out more great stuff at Charlie’s Manuel.