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.

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  1. KH

    November 04, 2011 11:34 AM

    Bill I know you love Utley but come on. I’m not going to quibble with your math but baseball is ultimately pass/fail and he was thrown out making it the wrong decision in my opinion and probably many many other people’s opinion. The fact that is was the percentage play doesn’t change that crucical fact.

  2. Bill Baer

    November 04, 2011 11:43 AM

    “Guest Post: Reviewing Chase Utley’s NLDS Base Running”

    emphasis on “guest post”

    Anyway, decisions aren’t right or wrong depending on results. If you bet your life savings on the roulette wheel and win, it doesn’t make it a justified decision.

  3. SABR

    November 04, 2011 12:58 PM

    KH – if you don’t want to think analytically about this, then why do you read a sabermetrically inclined blog?

    I think that the play, in general, was an aggressive base-running decision. I applaud the thinking behind the post, but I also would argue that you are assuming that 30% of the time your typical 1B won’t make that play – however Chase chose to do it against a guy who is known to be a very good, smart defender, and against a shortstop with a very strong arm. I agree that if Chase makes this decision 20 times during the season that the expectation is positive, however you do have to consider the caliber of the defense that you are actually competing against.

    Additionally, I think that context is important here. It was a 3-2 game in which the starting pitcher was in his sixth inning of work and beginning to labor – he had just walked Utley on 6 pitches and then ran a full count to Pence (which is why Utley was in motion). I think that in this instance, Utley mis-judged both who he was facing defensively and also the physical and mental status of the starting pitcher.

  4. Scott G

    November 04, 2011 01:14 PM

    Not to just blatantly defend Andy M., but I seriously question how many 1B would actually make a near perfect throw, which Pujols did. If that throw misses wide enough to even make the 3B shuffle his feet to the left or right, Utley is almost definitely safe. If it’s high, he could have been safe, if it’s low, the 3B needs to pick the ball out of the dirt.

    Yes, Utley was clearly out in the actual scenario, but had that throw been anywhere offline, I believe the outcome is likely different.

    Also, I second the opinion that judging a decision purely by the result is terrible.

  5. SABR

    November 04, 2011 01:16 PM

    Scott – I agree that if the throw is not a great throw that he is safe. But again, you “question how many 1B would actually make a near perfect throw, which Pujols did”. I feel like this is a line of thinking that is inherently flawed, because it doesnt matter. It only matters if Pujols can make that throw consistently, which appears to be yes given his defensive reputation and metrics.

  6. LTG

    November 04, 2011 01:17 PM

    “Anyway, decisions aren’t right or wrong depending on results. If you bet your life savings on the roulette wheel and win, it doesn’t make it a justified decision.”

    I see someone isn’t convinced by flat-footed consequentialism.

  7. Scott G

    November 04, 2011 02:06 PM

    SABR – Forgive me if I’m not aware of the metrics, but is there really significant defensive metrics to measure 1B throwing ability? I know Pujols also plays 3B, which isn’t helping my argument, but do first basemen really get enough of a sample to judge their arms? Greg Dobbs played third for the Phillies and he couldn’t even make a consistent throw anywhere around the diamond. I guess that’s where I’m coming up with expecting Pujols (or any first basemen) to not make that throw consistently.

  8. Andy Musser

    November 04, 2011 09:06 PM

    I didn’t want to comment on this thread, so I’ll try to make this my only one.

    I anticipated the “Pujols is not an average first-baseman, so the numbers used don’t fit”; this is something I probably should have included in the original post.

    I realize Pujols is a top 3-5 Firstbase Man in MLB, which is why I used 70% as the figure to estimate the chance that Utley is gunned down at third. If the first throw to Pujols was slightly off line, Pujols either a) would have stayed on the base, or b) would have had to adjust for the poor throw and either make a bad throw to third or take more time for a good throw, allowing Utley to reach base in time.

    I’m not convinced Pujols makes the decision to forgo Pence’s out in order to retire Utley every single time (Pujols gambled on this play, too), and I also believe that my 3% figure of Pujols making a poor throw/umpire making a bad call is low.

    Even if you increase my 70% figure to 80%, the break-even point still won’t come close to 50%.

    The benefit of having man on 3rd with 1 out is so much greater than a man on 2nd with 1 out, that the gamble is worth it, even if you’re going to be safe less than half the time.

  9. hk

    November 05, 2011 06:28 AM

    Further to Mr. Musser’s point, the link below is to an article that shows the break-even percentage for trying to steal 3rd base with one out at 66%. If Chase had stayed on 2nd, but been thrown out trying to steal 3rd, many would have said it was worth trying to steal 3rd with one out so he could score on an out. The play Chase actually tried was much better than trying to steal 3rd base because, at a minimum, his attempt led to Pence being safe with the upside being a chance at 1st and 3rd with no outs.

  10. Phillie697

    November 05, 2011 03:06 PM

    I can’t believe people would rather blame Chase than give credit to Pujols. Chase absolutely did what *I* would do, or want anyone to do, in that situation, but unfortunately, Mr. $30 million just did something even better. End of story. Even as a Phillies fan, stop looking at this as a failure of Utley, but as a brilliance of a future 1st-ballot HOFer.

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