The Blue Jays lost last night 6-5 in 10 innings, after rallying from a 5-0 deficit. It was one of those games which could easily have gone the other way- the perfect launching point for the baseball-obsessed to pore through the fine details of the game to see if one can make some sense of it.
We, the baseball-obsessed, often speak of a player’s baseball IQ, which essentially means the ability to make good quick decisions on the diamond- usually in the field or on the bases, but occasionally at the plate. Some of it is preparation (knowing the arm or speed of the other involved players, the characteristics of the ballpark…), some of it is instinct and some of it is knowing the game. A player can get better at it (by more thorough preparation), but there are limits governed by their own native ability.
It's one thing, though, to make the decision while static- like the baserunner on first who tags up on a long flyball to left-center and decides whether to try to advance. Standing in one place looking at the leftfielder or centerfielder converging on the ball, and knowing where it is and how well each throws and how fast you run. You weigh all that standing on first base and then either go, or stop, or maybe provisionally go while you see the quality of throw. That initial decision is really quite straightforward and standing in one spot, the process isn’t that much different than me setting in my office and making a decision in my work.
It's another entirely to make a decision while moving at speed. When I’m running as fast as I can or even at 75% of full speed, there is no way that I could make an important decision. But some ballplayers can do it. Devon Whyte was so comfortable in centerfield that he could make decisions at full speed without looking at the ball. It was a beautiful thing to watch. And at the other end of the spectrum…no wait, let’s save that for the end.
There were three very different plays last night, one early and two late, where we saw different players making decisions on the move, with the decisions being of varying complexity and difficulty.
TOP OF SECOND- HERNANDEZ THROWN OUT TRYING TO STRETCH
The most straight-forward of the decisions was Teoscar Hernandez’s decision to try to stretch a line-drive single in right-center into a double leading off the second inning. He was thrown out on a great play by centerfielder Mark Contreras. The play was in front of Hernandez, and he had to consider that the centerfielder would need to spin around and make an accurate throw. The commentariat (Nigel and me) was divided on whether Hernandez ran as hard as he could out of the box. Nigel thought that he ran 75% of full speed and I thought that he ran at full speed. On sober second thought, I think that we were in a way both right. Teoscar has many fine qualities, but the one thing he cannot do is make decisions at full speed. He can run and make decisions- in the field usually slower than on the basepaths- but just not all out. So, Nigel was correct that he was running 75% of full speed, but I was correct in the sense that he was running as fast as he could (for him) given that he had to make an important decision. It wasn’t a question of effort.
TOP OF TENTH- BIGGIO’S HESITATION ON LINE DRIVE OVER ARRAEZ’ HEAD
The situation. Top of the tenth, one out, Biggio on second, Guerrero Jr. on first and Lourdes at the plate. Second baseman Arraez is playing fairly deep. Biggio takes a very good-sized secondary lead. Gurriel Jr. hits a line drive which is over Arraez’ head but sinking as it approaches him. Biggio takes maybe a step then hesitates. Arraez jumps but can’t reach it, and Biggio advances to third but does not score when Hernandez and Bichette strike out.
Biggio’s baseball IQ is excellent, but, man, this was a tough decision. There are three factors- how likely is Arraez to catch it, is Biggio a dead duck even if he hesitates before the ball is caught because of how far off he already is, and what is the break-even point on a decision to go. Arraez is 5’10”, but you’ve got to know his jumping ability (has Biggio even see Arraez jump? I certainly had no idea but would have guessed correctly that Arraez does not have much vertical) and you’ve got to be able to project the arc on the ball from a bad angle. And that’s just the first part of the decision. And as for the break-even point, it would take me 15 minutes to run the calculations in general and then you have to consider whether to adjust for Fulmer facing Hernandez and Bichette. The calculations have more uncertainty than usual because there’s a relative shortage of data on the extra-inning ghost runner situation.
I don’t know whether Biggio made the right decision and in particular how committed he already was when he stopped, but I can certainly understand why he made it.
BOTTOM OF TENTH- JANSEN AND THE BLOCKED PITCH
The situation. Gordon on second, nobody out, tie game, Cave at the plate. Romano coaxes on a swinging strike three on a slider in the dirt which Jansen blocks and the ball rolls up the first base line as Cave hesitates only briefly. Jansen pounces on the ball and swipes at Cave as he goes by but misses. Jansen tries to throw him out, but Cave is in the way so the throw is high. Guerrero Jr. jumps and the ball is in his mitt, but he can’t squeeze it. Gordon advances to third when the ball falls away from Guerrero Jr.
Did Jansen make the right decision to attempt the tag, or would he have been better to pounce, step to the side and make an unimpeded throw? I tend to think the latter. However, again, this is a decision made at full bore with moving parts, the ball and the baserunner. I can’t imagine having to make those decisions under those conditions for a living, but that’s why they pay them the big bucks.
Incidentally, it was very important that Guerrero Jr. was unable to hold on to the ball. The degree of difficulty on that play was less than Jansen’s. If Gordon had remained on second, Chapman would have had a shot at a 5-4-3 on Beckham’s grounder, or at least to go 5-4.
THE CONTINUUM OF DECISION-MAKING ABILITY WHILE IN MOTION
So, at one end of the spectrum, we have Devon Whyte in centerfield and then we have Biggio on the basepaths or Jansen on the field and then we have Teoscar on the basepaths or in the field and then at the other end, we have…Raimel Tapia after he hits the ball.
It’s generally not a hard thing to decide what to do after
you hit the ball. Unless you’ve fouled
the ball off, you run. And if there’s
any doubt at all whether you’ve fouled the ball off, you run. The worst thing that happens to you if you
run on a ball that’s clearly foul is you look a bit foolish. Is that why Raimel Tapia doesn’t routinely
run when he hits the ball- fear of looking the fool? I don’t think so. I think he just needs to process what has
occurred and to decide what to do, and he needs to just stop. It’s obviously not an asset, but it’s a
quality like a quick twitch reflex. It
means that he will ground into more double plays than you would think given his
speed, but it’s not a big moral failing or something. It just is.
One of the really nice things about baseball is that the team gets to play the very next day after a tough loss like last night's. And the slate is clean.