But in the midst of all that madness Sunday night, there was an important eighth-inning decision — or miscommunication, depending on how you view it — that quietly had an impact on the game. It wasn’t a homer. It wasn’t a strikeout. It was a potential sacrifice fly, or it would have been, had the Dodgers attempted to make it one. Did they miss an opportunity? Let’s find out.
If a sacrifice fly that didn’t actually happen doesn’t sound quite as exciting as “home run after home run,” we understand, but there’s more to baseball than the long ball. There are decisions made and chances not taken. In the World Series, they all matter.
Let’s go back to the top of the eighth, with the Dodgers down, 11-9, with one out, Corey Seager at second and Chris Taylor at third. Justin Turner‘s liner to right off Will Harris left the bat at 99.6 mph, and was projected by Statcast™ to go 291 feet had it not been caught, though it made it just 276 feet before right fielder Josh Reddick caught it just above his shoulders.
Reddick came up throwing. Taylor went a few feet down the line, then hesitated, ultimately returning to third base. Andre Ethier grounded out, and Taylor was stranded at third. But should he have tried to run?
There are two interesting aspects to this, the first being that third-base coach Chris Woodward wanted Taylor to run. “Gotta go, gotta go,” Woodward could be heard saying on the television replay. After the play, Taylor returned to Woodward and realized he’d misunderstood “go” as “no,” thanks to the raucous crowd noise at Minute Maid Park.
“It’s OK,” Woodward said. “You were probably going to be out anyway.”
That brings us to our second item, which is trying to figure out if that’s true, and we have plenty of Statcast™ data to help us out with that. We know exactly how far away Reddick was when he received the ball, 276 feet. We know how strong Reddick’s throwing arm is, with a max effort average this year of 87.5 mph. We know how fast Taylor is, with a Sprint Speed of 28.6 feet/second that’s well above the Major League average of 27 feet/sec, and we know he was 90 feet away.
That’s basically all the information that a third-base coach has to know about each player on the field before each game, and it’s what he must process each time making a decision. We, of course, have the benefit of hindsight, based on the three years of Statcast™ data. Knowing how fast the runner is and how strong the outfielder’s arm is, how far away does the fielder need to be for the decision to go — or not go — to be the correct one?
What we’ve been able to do with this tool is to realize that there’s an approximately 50-foot “decision zone.” If the ball is hit deeper than that, the coach should almost always send the runner. If it’s shallower than that, he should almost never send the runner.
In this case, based on what we know about Taylor and Reddick, the “decision zone” was 240-290 feet from the plate, so the fact that Reddick caught the ball 276 feet away puts it squarely in the zone (though on the deeper end of it). That makes it perfectly defensible either way, and as we saw from Woodward’s conversation with Taylor, he wanted it both ways. Woodward did try to send the runner, but was happy when it didn’t happen.
Reddick, after all, has a reputation for having a strong arm, and he did hit 91.4 mph on the play — though it wasn’t completely on target, pulling the catcher 15 feet up the line. It took Reddick 3.82 seconds to get the ball from his glove to his throwing hand to Brian McCann, and Taylor has, in the past, done better than that. In 2017, he’s been tracked as quickly as 3.88 going third to home on a sacrifice fly, and in this case, he would have only needed to make it 75 feet, not the full 90, given where the throw ended up.
But you can’t expect a third-base coach to know whether a particular throw is going to be on target, and in a game as wild as this one, it probably didn’t make much sense for them to be playing for a single run anyway, especially after trying to do the same thing on Enrique Hernandez‘s sacrifice bunt the previous inning burned them so badly.
There is also the math to consider. Based on the win expectancy matrix created by MLB.com’s Tom Tango, here’s how the Dodgers’ win expectancy breaks down with each of the possible scenarios from that play.
When Turner came up: 28 percent
After the play: 16 percent
Had Taylor scored: 21 percent
Had he been out: 6 percent
As you can see, even if Taylor had scored, the Dodgers’ overall win expectancy would have dropped relative to where it was when Turner stepped to the plate, because at that point in the game the out is more valuable than the run, particularly since the Dodgers needed two of them. Of course, the play ended up looming pretty large when the Dodgers scored three in the ninth to tie it at 12 and lost by one run in 10 innings.
After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he had no problem with the outcome.
“In that situation, you’ve got one out, Turner is up,” Roberts said. “Reddick, strong, accurate thrower was coming in on the baseball, and you still need to score that guy from second base, too. In that situation, you still want to give yourself a chance to get a base hit to score the second run. To have a double play right there and not give yourself a chance there, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Taylor was probably safe if he went, but not definitely, and mostly because the throw was somewhat offline. Given the factors at play, you understand why Woodward tried to send him — and why he was OK with Taylor not going anyway.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.