Judging the Royals

Should Alex Gordon have tried to score? The argument lives on

On October 29 of 2014 Alex Gordon stepped to the plate with game seven of the World Series on the line. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, there were two outs, nobody on base and the Royals were down by one run. Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants best pitcher, was on the mound. With the count 0-1 Bumgarner threw a slider and Gordon lined it into left-center field. Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco misplayed the ball and Gordon wound up on third base.

Should Alex Gordon have tried to score?

It’s been over two months since that play happened and you can still get a pretty good argument going just by bringing it up. Recently the Kansas City Star’s sports staff had a meeting about Royals coverage for 2015; the Gordon play was mentioned and everybody had an opinion. Just the other day Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback defended his "bold" tax policies by saying: "I’m the sort of guy who would have sent Alex Gordon from third base."

The play and the argument lives on; did third base coach Mike Jirschele make the right call when he threw up the stop sign or should Gordon have been waved home? Before we get into the pros and cons of trying to score Gordon, let’s go back and look at what led to that moment:

Start with the number of outs; with nobody on base and two down in an inning the outfield defense plays no doubles. That means they back up and make sure to keep the ball in front of them. The defense can live with a single—the runner will still be two singles away from scoring—but a double puts the runner in scoring position.

After Gordon lined the ball to the outfield, centerfielder Gregor Blanco charged in hard, but then decided he couldn’t make the catch. Instead of playing the ball conservatively—the whole point of no doubles—Blanco was aggressive and ran himself into a tough hop; the ball landed at his feet. That mistake led to everything that happened afterwards.

Blanco then made a second mistake; he failed to get his body in front of the ball. If a ballplayer does that and fails to make the catch the ball still hits his body and lands at his feet. But Blanco did not use his body to knock the ball down and it went to the warning track.

That’s where left fielder Juan Perez misplayed the ball once again; Perez reached for it and missed. The ball kicked away, Perez chased it down and threw the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford, positioned in shallow left-center. The Giants had already made three mistakes on the play and Juan Perez then made a fourth; his throw short-hopped Crawford. But Crawford handled the short hop, had the ball in his glove and was turning toward home plate as Gordon was reaching third base—time to make a decision.

The case for stopping Gordon at third base

I haven’t talked to anybody who thought Gordon would have beat Crawford’s throw home—and most people don’t think it would have been close. Ending the World Series on a play at the plate where the runner is out by a wide margin would have been even more disappointing than the way it did end: Salvador Perez making the final out by popping up to third baseman Pablo Sandoval.

The Giants had already made four mistakes on the play; did that make it less or more likely that they’d make another? If Crawford’s throw had beat Gordon by a large enough margin, catcher Buster Posey would have had time to adjust to a less than perfect throw and still make the tag. The "Buster Posey Rule" dealing with collisions at home plate meant Gordon would have been called out if he went out of his way to try and knock the ball loose by running over the catcher the rule is named for—Buster Posey.

But remember; with two outs the case for stopping or sending a runner home depends on the next hitter. If the runner has a better chance of scoring than the hitter does of getting a hit, send the runner. If the man due up has a better chance of getting a hit than the runner does of scoring, throw up the stop sign.

The hitter due up—Salvador Perez—had homered off Madison Bumgarner in game one of the series. Hold Gordon at third and the guy who won the wild card game and had already homered off Bumgarner would have a shot.

The case for sending Gordon home

But that Perez homer came in the later innings of game one; the Giants had a seven-run lead at the time. In that first game Bumgarner was throwing Perez a string of fastballs; he was hoping to get some easy outs. But in game seven with the Series on the line, Bumgarner took a different approach: he once again threw Perez fastballs, but now that a hit could hurt him, Bumgarner took advantage of Sal’s aggressiveness by throwing high fastballs.

And even with that wild card game winner and some success in the World Series, Perez was scuffling in the post-season, finishing with a .207 post-season batting average—and his average against Madison Bumgarner was worse than that.

So here’s the question: was it more likely that the Giants would make a mistake on the play at the plate or more likely that Salvador Perez would get a hit?

Given the circumstances that night let’s say the chances of Perez getting a hit against Madison Bumgarner were more than 10 percent, but less than 20 percent. If you send Gordon home 10 times do the Giants make the play at the plate all 10 times? Do they make the play nine out of ten times? Or eight?

If you think the Giants make the play eight times and screw it up twice, send Gordon home; his chances of scoring are better than Sal’s chances of getting a hit. But if you think the Giants make the play all ten times or even nine out of ten times, hold Gordon at third; Sal’s probably got a better chance of driving him in.

And you need to do the math fairly quickly; Gregor Blanco’s mental mistake meant the Royals had to make their decisions on the fly. On a ball that looked like a single at most, Mike Jirschele and Alex Gordon had to switch gears and make a decision that would help decide the World Series.

A couple other scenarios people have suggested

Stop Gordon at third, pinch run Jarrod Dyson or Terrance Gore and steal home:

Even with Gordon on third, Madison Bumgarner was pitching out of the stretch. Send a faster runner out to third base and Bumgarner sure wasn’t going to throw out of the windup. Stealing home was not much of an option.

Stop Gordon at third and pinch hit for Perez:

Here were the pinch-hit options: Jarrod Dyson, Terrance Gore, Josh Willingham, Jayson Nix and Erik Kratz. None of them had seen much of Bumgarner and the only two with good matchup numbers were Willingham (1-3) and Kratz (2-6 with three strikeouts).

Kratz—the guy with the best numbers—did not have a post season at bat. Asking a cold hitter for a pinch hit against a top-of-the-line pitcher with game seven of the World Series on the line was not an ideal situation either.

Stop Gordon at third, pinch run Gore, send Dyson to the plate and have him bunt:

With two down Dyson would have to bunt for a hit and the Giants would probably have third baseman Pablo Sandoval playing way in on the grass to stop that from happening. That might force Dyson to swing away and then Jarrod’s matchup numbers against Bumgarner don’t look so good (0-3 with two strikeouts).

So what’s the right answer?

Don’t look at me; at the time the play happened I thought Mike Jirschele made the right decision. Crawford had the ball too quickly—I thought Alex would be thrown out easily. After the game ended Jirschele said he wanted to send Gordon but when he saw where Crawford secured the ball, felt like he couldn’t.

But do the math on the Royals chances after Gordon was stopped at third base and it’s closer than you might think; with Bumgarner on the mound Salvador Perez was struggling at the plate and the Royals did not have any obvious pinch hit options.

It’s been over two months since the play happened and I still think you hold Gordon at third base—but I’m pretty sure over two years from now you could still get a pretty good argument going by saying so.

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