Breaking It Down: Placido Polanco’s Bunt

Last night’s 5-2 loss to the New York Mets will be remembered for rookie Jordany Valdespin‘s three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning, the proverbial nail in the coffin. The 24-year-old had gone hitless in his first six plate appearances in the Majors, but got his first hit against one of the game’s most dominant relief pitchers in Papelbon.

However, while that play was quite memorable, the Phillies could have put themselves in a better position to win in the previous inning — and relied on the butterfly effect for Valdespin’s home run to have never happened — with some better judgment. In the bottom of the eighth, with the score tied at two apiece, the Phillies put their first two base runners on with singles by Ty Wigginton and Carlos Ruiz. Based on the 2011 season, 1.4 runs scored on average with runners on first and second with no outs. Charlie Manuel chose to have Placido Polanco bunt the runners over, which changes the run expectancy to 1.3 runs with runners on second and third with one out. That late in the game, with the score tied at home with your best reliever ostensibly fresh and not rusty after a week of riding the pine, such a play is defensible.

The problem was, though, that Freddy Galvis lurked on deck. Galvis, with a .105 ISO in his 91 PA to date, would need to power a ball to the outfield against Mets reliever Bobby Parnell, a hard-throwing right-hander with a great ability to miss bats and induce ground balls.

Here’s a look at where left-handed hitters have put the ball in play against Parnell so far this season, followed by a look at where Parnell tends to throw his pitches.

Only two lefties hit the ball well against Parnell: Chipper Jones in Atlanta and Adam LaRoche in New York (the location explains why they weren’t home runs). The only other fly ball was hit by Jimmy Rollins in the previous inning of last night’s game (it is the leftmost light-blue box in the outfield). Considering Parnell’s power and Galvis’ complete lack of it, a sacrifice fly would have been a miracle.

Here’s a look at where Galvis put the ball in play when he made contact with pitches on the outer-third of the strike zone against right-handed pitching.

The three deepest balls in left field were hit on fastballs. From left to right: against Jeff Karstens (90 MPH), against Ernesto Frieri (94 MPH), and against Anibal Sanchez (91 MPH, double). Mostly, Galvis hit ground balls between first and second base. Parnell hit 93-95 with his fastball leading up to his face-off with Galvis, then reached 97-98 against Galvis. Needless to say, the odds of Galvis catching up with a 97 MPH fastball and hitting it deep enough to the outfield to score a run were not in his favor.

The Phillies could have pinch-hit for Galvis for Laynce Nix, but they knew the Mets would have quickly replaced Parnell with lefty Tim Byrdak. In fact, that is exactly what happened after the at-bat involving Galvis. Right-handed options off the Phillies’ bench included Erik Kratz and… that’s it. So, here were the scenarios:

  • Hit with Polanco, keep 0.1 runs on average. Polanco had already doubled and had seven hits in his previous 21 PA entering the night. Even at his worst, he generally does a good job of putting the ball in play.
  • Bunt with Polanco, hit with Galvis. Lose 0.1 runs on average, and hope Galvis can hit a BABIP-inspired ground ball. Galvis entered the night with the eighth-lowest wOBA in the Majors.
  • Pinch-hit for Galvis with Nix, who then faces Byrdak (3.59 career xFIP vs. LHB). Nix carried a career .232 wOBA vs. LHP with a 32% fly ball rate.
  • Pinch-hit for Bastardo with Nix, then replace Nix with Kratz when the Mets call on Byrdak. The 32-year-old Kratz had a career .162 wOBA in 44 Major League plate appearances entering the night.

None of the post-bunt match-ups were any more favorable than Polanco vs. Parnell. Despite his woeful start to the season, Polanco has been able to muscle the ball to the outfield with regularity.

As it happened, Polanco successfully bunted the runners over to second and third. Galvis then followed it up with a ground ball that went all of 60 feet.

Afterwards, Nix pinch-hit for Antonio Bastardo. The Mets brought in Byrdak, so Manuel replaced Nix with Kratz, who struck out swinging. The Phillies scored zero runs in a situation that called for at least one, even after willingly giving up one of six remaining regulation outs.

There is no guarantee that Polanco succeeds against Parnell. In fact, the nature of baseball itself would make Polanco between two and three times as likely to fail as succeed. However, as we have been focusing a lot on optimal strategy thus far in the 2012 season, it seems as if letting Polanco swing away would have been the right call than letting the weak-hitting Galvis take his hacks.

Sub-optimal strategy was rarely a problem for the Phillies in previous years because they had enough talent to make up for it. For instance, Manuel’s unwillingness to remove an ineffective Brad Lidge from the closer’s role in 2009 certainly cost the Phillies a handful of games, but they won 93 games and took the NL East by a six-game margin. 2012 is a different story. Accounting for the first month of the season, Dan Szymborski’s updated ZiPS projections has the Phillies at 84-78, seven games behind in third place in the NL East. The Phillies simply don’t have the margin to cope with bad in-game decision-making. By bullpen mismanagement alone, Manuel has cost the Phillies up to five games and his repeated reliance on the sacrifice bunt even more. With moderately better strategy, the Phillies could reasonably have four more wins and four fewer losses, putting them at 18-12 instead of 14-16. Playing catch-up in a new-and-improved NL East would be monumentally easier, but that simply won’t be the case going forward if the Phillies don’t play smarter.

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27 comments

  1. buddy groom

    May 08, 2012 07:16 AM

    “…and relied on the butterfly effect for Valdespin’s home run to have never happened”

    * NOT USING PAPELBON IN NON-SAVE SITUATIONS IS TOTALLY COSTING US GAMES!!!
    * Phils use Papelbon in non-save situation, lose
    * Oh crud find something else to blame Charlie for since what we were blaming him for just got, well…

  2. Richard

    May 08, 2012 07:26 AM

    There seems to have been an inordinately high number of plays where literally everybody watching knows that the thing Charlie actually did is the wrong call. He’s getting all the little things wrong, and this team needs those little things to be right. (Another example on the same play: why wasn’t Pete Orr pinch-running for Wigginton? Orr gives even the ill-advised Polanco/Galvis sequence a much greater chance of succeeding. Wigginton is slow and his slide into home was terrible [the tag was avoidable].)

  3. Phylan

    May 08, 2012 07:27 AM

    I see that you’ve thought this through as rationally as possible buddy groom

  4. HBP

    May 08, 2012 07:32 AM

    I was at the game and everyone around me was asking why Polanco is bunting with Galvis on deck. Polanco looked great in his previous at bats that night. Stupid and obviouslly a bad managerial decision…again.

  5. buddy groom

    May 08, 2012 07:36 AM

    Well in fact my middle name is Rational. Buddy Rational Groom.

  6. Bill Baer

    May 08, 2012 07:47 AM

    It’s not like we’re JUST NOW deciding to criticize Charlie randomly out of boredom; we’ve been doing this for years. It’s just that it’s now more evident because his strategy isn’t obscured by Utley/Howard/Werth/Hamels/Madson anymore.

  7. Jeff T

    May 08, 2012 08:03 AM

    There were two 7 year olds in the row in front of me at the game last night. THEY couldn’t understand the bunting either.

  8. Richard

    May 08, 2012 08:05 AM

    well, and more close games means more opportunities for questionable in-game tactics

  9. SABR

    May 08, 2012 08:23 AM

    I really don’t understand the outrage here. I question a TON of his decisions, but this one seemed marginal, possibly even correct to me. While giving up 0.1 in expectancy is generally a poor decision, at the end of the game it makes sense to take the modal outcome over a higher expectancy, and runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out score more FREQUENTLY than 1st and 2nd with no one out. Less runs are scored on average, but the chance of 1 run is much greater (which is all that matters at that point in the game).

    As for Polanco, his GIDP% the last 4 years is 11%, 13%, 12% and 16% (his career avg is 14%). His ISO the last 2 years is 0.088 and 0.062 (and 0.050 this season but SSS). Putting him up there with runners on 1st and 2nd and no outs is not the holy grail. Charlie has made a lot of bad decisions, but to fry him for this seems wrong.

    At some point the blame for this team lies with the management. RAJ’s tenure has not developed a SINGLE EVERYDAY PLAYER since he took over. The last in-house position player to play for us is Chooch, and he came up in 2007 (Galvis as an injury replacement is not exactly an everyday player – nor would he start on the 29 other teams). He has signed free agent after free agent, paying market value (or more) for aging players in their decline years, and it has caught up to this team. Perhaps an article should be written about that.

  10. Tom

    May 08, 2012 08:38 AM

    What about Charlie’s decision earlier in the game to have Mayberry swing away with Jimmy and Pierre on? There were no outs, and Victorino and Pence were following Mayberry. Mayberry proceeds to fly out and the runners couldn’t advance. Victorino then singles and Pence hits into a DP. I think if Charlie is going to bunt players over, he needs to do it all the time, even if it’s a player like Mayberry batting.

  11. buddy groom

    May 08, 2012 08:41 AM

    GOOD POST, SABR!

  12. Mike

    May 08, 2012 08:41 AM

    Geneerally I agree with the idea of bunting in that spot. However if his plan all along was to keep Galvis in the game than there is no way in hell I’m bunting there.

    Also, why not pinch run with Orr if you are going to leave Galvis in to hit there? Speed at third base would have helped greatly in that spot…

    I do agree with your assessment on RAJ though…

  13. SABR

    May 08, 2012 08:54 AM

    “I think if Charlie is going to bunt players over, he needs to do it all the time, even if it’s a player like Mayberry batting.”

    >>>NO.

  14. Richard

    May 08, 2012 08:57 AM

    “RAJ’s tenure has not developed a SINGLE EVERYDAY PLAYER since he took over.”

    What a weird remark.

  15. SABR

    May 08, 2012 09:09 AM

    Richard – How so?

  16. Tom

    May 08, 2012 11:00 AM

    Bunting is for losers.

  17. ColonelTom

    May 08, 2012 11:04 AM

    “While giving up 0.1 in expectancy is generally a poor decision”

    That 0.1 on the run-expectancy chart doesn’t factor in that Charlie was bunting with a much better hitter than the guy following him. Furthermore, Polanco’s damn near the ideal hitter to have swinging with 1st and 2nd, nobody out. His career stats in that situation are:

    .408/.431/.510 in 49 AB, 5 double plays, and 1 (count ‘em) strikeout

    Galvis strikes out a fair amount and hits a lot of weak grounders, neither of which will likely score a guy from third. He’s pretty much exactly the wrong guy to have batting in that situation.

  18. Phatti

    May 08, 2012 11:45 AM

    Bill,

    I love the blog and this post is another good one.  But you’re wildly overstating the negative impact of Charlie’s moves in your last few sentences.  You say he’s cost the team five games with poor bullpen management.  I’m sure some of the games you’re pointing to are the games when the Phillies had a tie on the road in the 9th or later but Papelbon didn’t pitch.  I agree that Papelbon should have pitched in some of those games and that Charlie pursued a non-optimal strategy.  But to say that the Phillies would have definitely won those games had only Papelbon pitched is not accurate. As yesterday reminded us, Papelbon could have given up runs in his appearances.  Even if he had not, the Phillies would still need to score a run, and then someone else would have needed to close the door.

    For example, look at Friday’s game.  Let’s say Papelbon pitches the ninth and doesn’t allow the Nats to score.  The only assumption we can then make is that the Phillies do not score in the tenth or eleventh, because that’s what really happened.  Let’s say Sanches again pitches his two scoreless innings, and it’s now the top of the twelfth.  Well, now we’re in a bad situation again—a tired Sanches, no Papelbon.  Even if the Phillies score in their top of the inning, there’s no one left to close the door, so Sanches has to go out and try to save the game with a dead arm.  So, you know, we probably lose that one even if Papelbon pitches.

    One of the first lessons of Sabermetrics was that the marginal impact of one player or one play was not as large as we thought.   The same holds true of game decisions and managers.  You want to pillory Charlie for some of his decisions—fine, I might even agree with you.  But saying the direct impact of his poor decisions is a difference of four wins is unsupportable.  

  19. Bill Baer

    May 08, 2012 11:50 AM

    My thinking was the bullpen has cost them up to five games, and the bunting another one or two (probably more, but that’s a subject for another article), so I went with four, which I think is fair.

  20. Richard

    May 08, 2012 12:29 PM

    SABR – how long does it take to develop everyday players? How long has Amaro been on the job? How many trades of prospects has he made?

  21. Richard

    May 08, 2012 12:35 PM

    I only chalk up two or three games clearly lost due to Charlie’s mismanagement of the bullpen. These do not include any of those where he refused to use Papelbon in a tie game on the road. Those games may or may not have resulted in wins. But games like the 15-13 loss to Atlanta, where Papelbon should have been brought in to finish off the 9th: those are games where leads were unnecessarily lost, or lost in unnecessary ways. If you bring in Papelbon and he blows it, then so be it, shit happens. But better process will on balance bring better results.

    (I count another 2 or 3 where poor offensive strategy made it very unlikely the Phillies would succeed, though the games were tied at the time, so a win cannot be assumed in those cases. E.g., the bizarre sequence of events in last night’s game, and similarly in the top of the 11th in the Lee-Cain game. Etc.)

  22. KH

    May 08, 2012 02:34 PM

    The answer to how many games Charlie has cost the team already is too many.

  23. hk

    May 08, 2012 03:07 PM

    KH has the answer. They’ve played 30 games and, if we’re debating whether his moves have cost them 3, 4 or 5 games, the answer is definitely too many.

  24. Richard

    May 08, 2012 03:22 PM

    Yes, indeed. One is within the range of tolerable… any more, in only April and May, and you’re talking problems. And this isn’t a team anymore than can afford to shit away games, especially against division rivals.

  25. Phillie697

    May 08, 2012 07:21 PM

    Is it just me or is everything I was saying before the season all starting to (has already) come true? I think now I realize how Bill feels every year. It’s tough to be right before anyone realizes it.

    Can we find a way to replace Santa Claus Cholly with any random monkey we can find in the Philly Zoo? I think a random monkey would cost us less games.

  26. Phillie697

    May 09, 2012 12:01 PM

    With great powers come great responsibilities, Bill.

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