Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/12/12

Of all the big Tuesday night games, perhaps none was bigger than the barn burner in Minnesota between the Twins and the Royals. The Twins failed in their quest for that elusive 60th win, and the Royals solidified their grip on third place in this 9-1 thriller. Some might say the game was not compelling, but I found at least two things that drew my attention in the first inning alone: a failed bunt and a failed steal. When these plays first happened, I found each a source of irritation and I planned on writing that up. However, after looking a bit more closely, things were not so clear cut, and I thought it would be even more interesting (to me, at least) to write that up.

The Royals started the game in style as their lead-off hitter, Lorenzo Cain (Alex Gordon has been dropped down to third so that he will stop thinking about getting on base so much — great idea!), hit a double. That is a nice way to start a game: in 2012, the run expectancy with a runner on second with no one out is just over 1, and the heart of the Royals’ order — Alex Gordon and Billy Butler — were coming up against Scott Diamond. First, Alcides Escobar, who is having a suprisingly decent year with the bat, was coming up. This plate appearance will not make his highlight reel, however. Escobar tried to bunt, but could not get the ball down. He flew out to the pitcher.

This was incredibly annoying to me when it happened. Yes, sometimes bunting makes sense, especially late in games when a one-run strategy makes sense and a team wants to get a runner over from first to second. However, this was the first inning with no outs and the score tied. Neither team exactly had an ace on the mound. Oh, yeah, and the runner was already on second. There was no reason to fear Escobar grounding into a double play. Escobar, even this year, is not a guy likely to hit the ball out of the park, but whether he bunted on his own or got the sign from the dugout, it made little sense to me. The Royals had a runner on second with no outs, and ended up with no runs to show for it.

I was annoyed last night, but then I slept on it. I am still not sure it was the right decision (even if it had worked), but on a closer examination, there were some mitigating factors. I did not get a good look at where the infielders were positioned — they may have been playing back. Escobar or the bench may have decided they were far enough back that they needed to be tested. Escobar himself is a fast runner, and has managed to bunt for a hit in 40 percent of his attempts this year (including last nights failed bunt). His 10 bunts for hits are the second-most in the majors so far this year to Erick Aybar. It is very unlikely that 40 percent is his true talent, but his performance is good reason to think he is pretty good bunting for hits, and the Twins probably were not expecting it.

Would I have advised a bunt in that situation, if a team were so pathetic that they asked for my advice? I do not know. Probably not. However, I can see why it might make sense, even if it ultimately failed due to poor execution.

The second play that initially made me shake my head came in the Twins half of the first inning. Minnesota’s first two batters, Ben Revere and Jamey Carroll, singled to put runners on first and second with no outs. After Royals starter Will Smith struck out Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau came up. During his at-bat, the Twins tried to double steal, and Carroll got thrown out by Salvador Perez. Revere did make it to third, but with two outs. Morneau struck out anyway.

Again, while base stealing does make sense in the right place with the right players, this initially struck me as crazy. Yes, Revere is an excellent thief, and Carroll has been efficient throughout his career. However, it is not as if Will Smith is a guy most teams need to “small-ball” against. Prior to the game, he had a 5.45 ERA, 4.86 FIP. While Justin Morneau is not his old self, he is not having a bad year. Most importantly, however, why would you run on Salvador Perez? Perez has always had a reptuation as a defensive monster, and prior to the game, Perez had thrown out 44 percent of basestealers this season (he is now at 47 percent) — well beyond the break even point. It just seemed like to big of a risk.

However, there were other factors to consider. First, as noted above, Revere and Carroll are good baserunners — maybe not enough to offset Perez’s awesomeness, but in combination with other factors, it is worth noting. Second, while Morneau is having an okay season with the bat (.342 wOBA), he has a pretty big observed platoon split, and was facing a lefty — so it is not like the Twins were running in front of a great hitter in that situation, or even a good one. Third, Morneau has had been grounding into double plays more frequently this year.

There may be other considerations worth discussing, but the most interesting one was pointed out to me by our own Jeff Zimmerman: Perez may have been tipping the pitches. Rather than doing a pre-pitch frame, Perez seems to have been simply getting ready to block a breaking ball in the dirt. It seems like the Twins picked up on that, and twice tried to steal in such situations (one that I am discussing here, another one later in the game).

Of course, Perez is such a rifleman he managed to throw out would-be stealers both times anyway, costing the Twins valuable outs (well, they seemed pretty valuable at the time, in the grand scheme of things, they probably did not matter that much in the blowout). I am guessing they will be more careful against Perez in the future. Again, I don’t think that is the move I would have made against Perez even with that information, but I can see why there is justification for it.

It is easy to criticize the decisions each team made, especially since they failed. I do not mean this post as a mere defense of those moves. It is meant as an illustration of how looking at these things in a larger context can make seemingly poor decisions (leaving the outcome aside) make more sense. I am not part of the growing school of baseball bloggers who infer from the truth that teams have more information than we do to the conclusion that almost any “outsider” criticism of managerial or front office decisions is unwarranted. Obviously, I do not know how much of the stuff above went into the thought processes behind the bunt and steal attempts. But a bit of a deeper look allowed me to see how they might be justified. Whether all of this is illuminating to anyone else, I can’t say.


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