Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ninth-inning analysis

There's a lot of banter over the weird suicide squeeze play that ended the Angels' season last night, so I'm going to talk about it also.

Let's start with the situation. Runner on third, 1 out, Erick Aybar at the plate. Reggie Willits is fast, leading off third, and is generally considered a smart baserunner, at least when compared with, well, Aybar.

So the count goes to 2-0. I presume Scioscia puts on the squeeze because he's been watching Aybar flail away at the plate for the last three games. Aybar misses the bunt, Varitek catches Willits running home, chases him down, and tags him out. Maybe. Why maybe? The ball squirts into left field during the play.

So here's what I'm going to look at:

1.) Was the squeeze a good play call?
2.) What went wrong with the execution?
3.) Was Willits safe because Varitek dropped the ball?

1.) The second link up there is a link to the Mariners site Lookout Landing. It's an interesting analysis on the intelligence of calling a suicide squeeze, and aside from Jeff's typical Angel bashing, he makes a valid point: If this play works, it's the best play call all series. Look, the Angels haven't been a top-tier offensive team since 2000, and haven't really even been above average since 2002. Erick Aybar has one hit in the series, albeit a big one, and is facing Boston's second-best relief pitcher in Manny Delcarmen. He can get the run home in a couple different ways:
  • Deep fly ball
  • Soft grounder to the right side
  • Base hit
I know, you know, and Scioscia knows a hit isn't likely. A soft grounder looks like a reasonable chance, and a deep fly ball is almost as likely as a hit. So ideally, a soft grounder to the right side is what you want. What's an easy way to hit a soft grounder to the right side? Well, a bunt. The Angels had previously executed a successful suicide squeeze against Boston, and several over the course of the year.

I won't say it was a great play call, but it wasn't a terrible one, either. Those calling for Scioscia's head are looking for answers in the wrong place.

2.) The execution of the play was the problem. Aybar's a good bunter, but why they tried to run the play on a 2-0 count is confusing. Make him throw a strike, or otherwise, get him to 3-0 because you might as well expect a fastball down the pipe at 3-0. Second, Aybar NEEDS to make contact, and if he doesn't, he needs to interfere with Varitek. Period. If he can't hit the ball, he needs to get hit by the ball or prevent the catcher from getting to/throwing over to third. Worst case, Aybar is out and there's another chance.

Willits, also, needs to do a better job of getting back to third. Without his little stutter step, I think he can dive in under the tag of Youkilis. Even if he doesn't, he at least forces a throw and increases the chance of an error.

3.) Whether Willits was safe is another one of those calls in baseball where you just wish someone had written a damn clear rule for once. Frankly, I think he's safe. Why? Well, let's say a guy is running to first. The throw comes in to the first baseman who gets pulled off the bag but puts the tag on the runner by diving into the basepath. The runner touches first, the first baseman hits the ground and the ball squirts out. Every time, the runner's going to get ruled safe. This is the *exact* same thing that happened last night. Willits was running to third, Varitek dove, tagged him, Willits touched third, Varitek hits the ground and the ball squirts out. Reggie was safe.

I wouldn't be surprised to see a new rule to clarify this, much as they did with the 2005 Doug Eddings dropped-third-strike rule.

The Angels beat themselves this series. The Rays won't.

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