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Brett Butler, Craig Kimbrel, and sending home the winning run

The Miami Marlins had a golden chance to send home the potential game-winning run with no one out against dominant closer Craig Kimbrel and the Atlanta Braves, but passed up the opportunity. Were they right to do so?

Did Brett Butler make the right baserunning decision last night?
Did Brett Butler make the right baserunning decision last night?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, in the Miami Marlins' eventual 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, the Fish stumbled upon an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity versus one of the most dominant closers in recent league history, Craig Kimbrel. In the top of the ninth inning, down 2-1, Jarrod Saltalamacchia drew a walk and Adeiny Hechavarria was gifted a base on catcher interference, leaving runners at first and second with no one out. FanGraphs put the Marlins' chances of winning the game at that time at 42.6 percent. In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Tom Tango et al's seminal resource on sabermetric baseball decision-making, the win probability chart provided (likely for a higher run scoring environment) put the Fish at a 45 percent chance of winning.

Derek Dietrich then hit a pinch-hit double that brought home the tying run and put runners on second and third with no one out. FanGraphs had Miami winning that game approximately 82 percent of the time. The chart on The Book agreed with about an 82 percent likelihood.

The question came in the decision to hold the runners there at all. Adeiny Hechavarria was the trail runner and was held by third base coach Brett Butler, figuring that the Fish would still have opportunities to score him with nobody out. But Kimbrel recovered and struck out the next three batters to retire the side and leave the game tied. Eventually, Evan Gattis hit a two-run homer in extra innings to win it for the Braves.

Did Brett Butler make the right decision there? Was it smart to hold the runner? Let's examine the play under normal circumstances and consider the context surrounding it.

Win Expectancy

As with most of these plays, you can make a calculation to determine if a decision should or should not have been made, regardless of the eventual outcome of the decision. The choice in question here is whether Butler should have sent the runner Hechavarria home. Assuming all else average, win expectancy can help.

As mentioned above, the Marlins stood at an 82 percent chance of winning with runners on second and third. If they send the runner home and he makes it successfully, the chances of winning go up to about 88 percent, a six percent increase. However, if the Marlins fail to score the runner after sending him home, the chances of the Marlins winning falls to 55 percent with a runner on second and one out in the tie game. That represents a 26 percent decrease in the odds of winning.

That means that the Marlins need to succeed about once every 4.3 tries in this decision in order to break even. Knowing this, we can calculate a "break-even" percentage that makes this decision a reasonable one. With that number, that means that Butler should have sent Hechavarria home if he thought Hech had an 81 percent chance of success in scoring that run.

Let's look at the play and see if that may be the case.

A couple of notes should be made regarding that play:

- Reed Johnson, the lead runner who pinch-ran for Saltalamacchia, got a late start because of the fly ball looking potentially catchable. He held at second, and that held up Hechavarria. As a result, Hechavarria was right behind Johnson for much of the way until third base.

- The throw comes in high, but it comes in right around when Johnson touches the plate. There almost certainly would have been a play at the plate had Hechavarria come home and the throw was more in line from shallow left field.

Fish Stripes reader dcfish mentioned yesterday in the game thread that, had Hechavarria gone and the throw been on line, it would have beaten Hechavarria to the plate.


But the calculations with win expectancy assume average teams and a 4.5 or so runs per game run scoring environment. The Marlins, despite their early season success, are still probably not an average offensive team, so some of those sure-fire percentages with runners on and more outs available should decrease. Furthermore, Miami was not facing just any old run environment, but actually faced the best one-inning pitcher this side of Mariano Rivera. Kimbrel holds a career 1.50 ERA and 1.40 FIP, meaning he and the Atlanta Braves' defense have held teams to around 1.63 runs per game.

In lower run scoring environments, hits are less likely and outs are plentiful, so the degree of difficulty for baserunning becomes less important. Baserunning errors are more forgiven in those situations because base advancement is so unlikely, and that would have affected the Marlins' decision here as well. With a dominant Kimbrel on the mound, even if he was wavering and playing at less than expected levels, should the Marlins have risked a play at the plate with Hechavarria tailing Johnson? Without a win expectancy hart tailored to Kimbrel's projected un environment of about 1.6 runs per game, it is hard to tell just how the percentages would be affected, but it needs to weigh heavily in the mind of Butler that the team is not a good hitting squad and is facing an elite pitcher.

Ultimately, it is difficult to tell if the decision was a right or wrong one without more statistical information. I'll leave that up to you, Fish Stripers! What did you think the odds of Hechavarria scoring on that play were, and did you think those odds were worth it? Let us know in the comments.