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Examining Terry Francona’s strategy in the 7th inning of ALCS Game 4

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Three

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17: Terry Francona #17 of the Cleveland Indians looks on prior to game three of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on October 17, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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Indians manager Terry Francona chose a seemingly poor strategy in the top of the seventh inning to try and see his team out of a no-outs jam against the Blue Jays and it didn’t pan out. While the choice earned him immediate and widespread criticism -- at least from what I saw on Twitter -- I think it was the correct choice and I’d like to try to explain why.

First, let’s set up the scenario. Reliever Bryan Shaw was on the hill. He allowed leadoff batter Ryan Goins to reach on a single to left field. Jose Bautista then hit a tapper to the left side of the mound, which Shaw fielded cleanly but threw wildly past first base. Goins moved to third base on the error. With reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson coming to the plate, Francona came to the mound to discuss the situation. Ultimately, Shaw intentionally walked Donaldson to load the bases. This was the controversial move.

It didn’t work out, as Edwin Encarnacion came up and singled up the middle to plate two runs. Donaldson was thrown out at third base on the play while Encarnacion advanced to second. Reliever Mike Clevenger entered the game and was able to see the Indians out of the inning.

The obvious downside of walking the bases loaded is that it increases the Blue Jays’ run expectancy. According to Baseball Prospectus, during the 2016 season, teams scored an average of 1.68 runs when they had runners on first and third base with no outs. They scored an average of 2.27 runs with the bases loaded and no outs. So, generally speaking, the Indians gave the Jays a half-run more with the walk. (There’s some noise included with that number, as pitchers who load the bases with no outs have slightly worse skill on average than pitchers who only put runners on first and third base with no outs. But that’s another discussion.)

The walk did set up a force at every base, giving the Indians a higher probability of getting out of the inning giving up exactly zero runs. That’s the “winning” play as opposed to the “lose less” play. Going into the eighth inning, the Indians’ win probability based on their deficit looks like this, according to The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin:

  • Down by one run: 26.6%
  • Down by two runs: 14.6%
  • Down by three runs: 7.7%
  • Down by four runs: 4.0%

Since the Indians would expect to give up two runs on average, their deficit should be expected to be three runs. And there’s no meaningful difference between a three- and four-run deficit, so putting the third runner on base doesn’t really matter. Meanwhile, if the Indians are able to escape the inning, they’re still very much alive. The difference between escaping the inning unscathed and the expected outcome is nearly 20 percent in win probability.

Beyond the in-game strategy, there are outside factors to consider. The bullpen was taxed heavily in Game 3 as starter Trevor Bauer could only go two-thirds of an inning. Starter Corey Kluber was pitching on short rest in his Game 4 start. Clinching the ALCS on Tuesday and giving the pitching staff potentially an entire week of rest might have set them up well going into the World Series.

Francona’s gamble was worth it. It didn’t pay off, but the Indians weren’t likely winning Game 4 once the Blue Jays put runners on first and third with no outs in the bottom of the seventh anyway.

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