Don’t Intentionally Walk Anyone With the Bases Loaded

You had to know this one was coming. The moment needs no introduction; let’s just start with a clip:

Intentional walk. Bases loaded. Mike Trout staring homeward in disbelief:

Was this a solid baseball decision by the numbers? No. No, it was not. I don’t really have to do the math to tell you that. But doing the math is what we do here at FanGraphs, so just to be certain, and also just for the sake of doing it, I ran through the details. You don’t have to read this article to learn whether it was a good choice or not. I’m telling you that part right up front – it wasn’t.

But if you want to know just how bad it was, or to get an idea of how to quantify things like this, read on. If nothing else, it’s fun to laugh at the Angels for having done this, and going over the specifics in exacting detail is more time you can spend thinking about how absurd and funny it is to walk someone with the bases loaded.

To set the scene: the Rangers got to Reid Detmers in the fourth, putting four straight runners on base with one out. Joe Maddon went to the bullpen and summoned Austin Warren, who proceeded to walk Marcus Semien. The next batter, Corey Seager, came to the plate up a run with the bases loaded.

This was a bad spot for the Angels, regardless of what they did next. Seager is an excellent hitter, and he had the platoon advantage against a rookie reliever. To give you a sense of how big of an advantage, I calculated the Rangers’ run and win expectancy in two ways. In the first, I found that a generic lineup against a generic pitcher would score an average of 1.5 runs from Seager’s at-bat to the end of the inning. Texas would hold on to win the game 77.5% of the time.

Next, I plugged in our projections for Warren and the Rangers batters who were due up next (Seager, Mitch Garver, and Adolis García were the first three up). I used those to simulate the inning a million times, then used the score at the end of the frame to estimate a win probability using our WPA Inquirer. The simulation is a simple one: it compares pitcher and batter lines to each other and to league average to estimate the probability of any outcome in a given at-bat, then generates a random number to simulate the inning one batter at a time. Taking the specifics into account, I estimate that the Rangers stood to score 1.75 runs on average and win the game 79.6% of the time.

The point is, things were bad. There was no wand to wave to get out of this situation; bases loaded and one out is a recipe for runs to score. It’s hard to get that second out without allowing a run, but even if you do, another batter gets to come up with a chance to score multiple runs with a hit. The only reliable way to limit scoring there is with a pitcher who induces piles of strikeouts, or a batter who strikes out a ton, but neither was the case here: Seager has a career 18.5% strikeout rate and Warren projects for a 22.4% mark.

That matchup wasn’t good. Facing Garver would have been better for the Angels. He’s not as good of a hitter as Seager, he strikes out more frequently (26.2% career rate), and he didn’t have the platoon advantage against Warren. If Seager magically disappeared from the universe, leaving Garver to come to the plate instead of him with no intentional walk necessary, I estimate that they would have scored 1.52 runs on average, roughly the same as a generic lineup against a generic pitcher. Garver is a good hitter, but he strikes out a lot, just what the Angels needed.

Of course, Seager didn’t magically disappear from the universe. To secure a matchup with Garver, Maddon walked Seager intentionally. You can tell right away that the math here doesn’t make sense. The difference between Texas’ run expectancy with Seager and Garver up is substantial; it works out to roughly 0.2 runs in just this one plate appearance. That’s a big deal; over the course of his career, Mike Trout has been less than 0.1 runs better than a league average hitter per plate appearance.

So yes, in this huge spot, it would have been extremely valuable for the Angels to face Garver instead of Seager. But, uh, 0.2 runs is less than one run. The Angels paid one run to face Garver; that’s what intentionally walking someone with the bases loaded comes down to. Sure, they were more likely to get from one out to two outs via strikeout, but who cares? The reason you want a strikeout so badly in this situation is so that one run doesn’t score. If you’re forcing that run to score, well… the math doesn’t work.

Put another way, the identity of the batters is small potatoes relative to the score differential. Teams in Texas’ situation before the walk – up a run in the bottom of the fourth with the bases loaded and one out – win around 77% of the time. Teams in the same situation, but up two runs instead of one, win around 85% of the time. If you’ll remember from earlier, the upgrade from a generic hitter to Seager in this situation is worth something like 2% of a win (and Garver is better than a generic hitter). You don’t need a team of analysts to tell you that two is less than eight.

After the game, Maddon said he was trying to “avoid the big blow” by walking Seager, and so long as you don’t stop to think about what he paid in runs to do that, he succeeded. Garver was a better matchup for Warren than Seager would have been. Maddon also said he did it “just to stir the group up, quite frankly,” which is outside the purview of my analysis. I don’t have any Trout Stir Units to compare from before and after Seager’s walks, no dugout-buzz-o-meter to use. But sure, maybe?

I was hungry for a more interesting question, because by the numbers, walking Seager with the bases loaded here wasn’t even close to being a good idea. So I decided to cheat. Would it make sense to walk Seager if he were suddenly channeling the skills of Barry Bonds, in his peak 2002 form? Now that sounds like something worth considering.

Plug Bonds’ statistics into Seager’s spot (excluding his intentional walks, naturally), and the Rangers’ run expectancy surges. Bonds hardly ever struck out, and he cracked a ton of extra base hits. Plus, even if you pitched to him, he might walk. In total, I estimate that the Rangers stood to score a whopping 2.15 runs in the rest of the inning on average with Bonds batting. If you’ll recall from above, Seager checked in at 1.75. Barry Bonds: better than Corey Seager, and miles better than an average hitter.

But the intentional walk still wouldn’t make sense! In win expectancy terms, the Bonds Rangers projected to win 83.5% of the time if Bonds batted. After Seager was intentionally walked, my method gave the Rangers an 85.5% chance of winning. Corey Seager could have been literally peak Barry Bonds, and walking him would still have been a bad idea. You’d have to body swap Mitch Garver with, say, Jeff Mathis to make the whole endeavor make sense. And hey, maybe this whole exercise was worth it just to imagine a lineup where Jeff Mathis bats after Barry Bonds.

Back in the real world, the Angels’ gambit didn’t work. Garver flied out to center, scoring a run and advancing the runners. Warren balked in another run before retiring García to end the inning. From the time Seager stepped to the plate to the end of the fourth, the Rangers scored three runs, roughly double their pre-walk expectancy.

Or hey, maybe the Angels’ gambit worked perfectly. Down 6-2, they staged a furious comeback. In the top of the fifth, they scored five runs to take a 7-6 lead they never relinquished. They won the game 9-6. Those slivers of expected runs they sacrificed didn’t matter; their offense was simply too good.

If you’d like, you can credit that to Maddon lighting a fire under his players. That’s not how I’d look at it, though. Maddon made a decision that cost his team some fraction of a win. His players bailed him out by being extremely good at baseball. It’s hard to win baseball games! Both teams are full of well-compensated professional athletes who work year-round to improve their craft. And yet, one team wins every night, often by more than a few runs. Maddon made things a little harder for his team on Friday. The team was simply up to the challenge.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Has the sheen finally worn off of Maddon and his low-percentage plays?

1 year ago
Reply to  descender

This being a no- or negative-percentage play, it doesn’t seem relevant to ascribe this to Maddon being “different” vs a manager making a bad decision even he can’t explain.

Personally, I think intentional walks are usually self-harming, in the sense of stipulating the batter won’t strike himself out if you pitch to him and only offer bad pitches. I have yet to see evidence most batters have great self-control. Maybe Corey Seager does, I don’t know.

1 year ago
Reply to  descender

I think he’s overall a smart guy who gets a little bored sometimes over the course of 162 and does stuff like this or hitting the pitcher 8th just for variety and to see what happens. It’s probably not his best quality as a manager.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeS
1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

He’d have to be really bored this year to have the pitcher bat 8th.

(And granted, he manages the only team where there is a sliver of a chance he does this)

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

I don’t remember him being this bad with the Rays. Near the end of his time with the Cubs he seemed really burned out. Now he’s beyond burnout and he’s just doing random stuff to shock everyone. He even has a quote about how he did it to mix things up. This might be what happens when you have an innate desire to shock people but not an innate desire to keep up with the cutting edge.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Maddon called for a bases-loaded IBB to peak Josh Hamilton in 2008. They won that game too. Obviously he’s a genius. Look at the score..

1 year ago
Reply to  pocoroba

Of course he’s a genius … just ask him.

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Alternate take… he doesn’t know what is going on and people tell him what to do. Not knowing any better he goes along with it.

1 year ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Anything, literally anything at all (some diner gossip or a note scribbled on a napkin?), to back this up?

1 year ago
Reply to  descender

He wears hipster glasses, therefore he is extremely smart. QED.

1 year ago
Reply to  maguro

So you went “WHOOSH” over at least 3 downvoters here, maguro. 🙂

1 year ago
Reply to  descender

The sheen was off in Chicago. In Anaheim the paint is starting to chip.