The Baseball Equivalent of Throwing on the One Yard Line

Last night, the New England Patriots snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, intercepting a pass on their own goal line with just 30 seconds to spare. Before the play, Advanced NFL Stats gave the Seahawks an 88 percent chance of winning, as most teams end up converting 2nd-and-1 into a touchdown in that situation. Of course, most teams run the ball into the endzone from a yard out, and in the aftermath of the game, the primary focus was on Seattle’s decision to throw the ball rather than run it.

On both NBC and Twitter, incredulity seemed to be the most popular reaction. The overwhelming consensus appears to be that the Seahawks screwed up, and simply should have run the ball. The tenor of the commentary suggested that any other play call was demonstrably wrong; 2nd-and-1 from that spot on the field, with a running back like Marshawn Lynch, throwing the ball should apparent not have even been a consideration.

Of course, the reaction is inextricably tied to the result. Had the play worked, we’d likely be spending this morning hearing about what a genius Pete Carroll is for his creative play calling, zigging when the Patrios expected him to zag. This isn’t to say that throwing the ball was definitively the right decision, but I’m naturally wary of analysis that suggests that there is ever only one correct strategy to deploy, with no other decision ever being reasonable to consider. But because I don’t know football well enough to have an informed opinion, I started wondering what the baseball equivalent would be to the Super Bowl’s ending.

My initial reaction was to think of something like a dominant closer throwing a rarely used pitch in an 0-2 count in the ninth inning of the final game of the World Series. This is the element of surprise play, attempting to trick an opponent with a play they aren’t expecting, rather than simply attempting to beat them with your best weapon. And we actually just saw the Giants do exactly this two years ago.

The final pitch of the World Series came on Sergio Romo throwing a belt-high fastball down the middle to the best hitter in baseball. Buster Posey, on the decision after the game:

“That guy,” Posey said an hour later, shaking his own head in amazement. “He shook to a fastball there. That shows the type of guts he has and faith in what he’s got. It’s just a great job by him. This is not a knock, but he throws 88 or 89, but he’s got a plus, plus slider.”

Everyone in the world, Cabrera included, was expecting a slider. Romo has a great slider and a meh fastball. As Jeff noted in that post, Romo had thrown a slider 85 percent of the time in two strike counts that year, and had gotten even more extreme with his pitch selection in that World Series. He had an unhittable slider, got into a slider count, and then instead chose to throw Cabrera a hittable fastball instead. The element of surprise worked; Cabrera took strike three and the Giants were the World Series champions.

But the more I thought about that situation, the less comfortable I was with the analogy. The Giants were trying to win the World Series, but they had no chance to lose it if things went wrong. They were up three games to none at that point, and holding a 4-3 lead in the 10th inning of Game Four. Even if Cabrera crushes the fastball for a home run, it’s only a tied game, and the Giants would get to keep playing. And even if they lost that game, they’d have had three more chances to win one game. Romo’s fastball didn’t give the Tigers a chance to win the World Series had it gone wrong, and if you change the stakes to Game Seven, maybe he doesn’t throw that pitch.

So maybe we need to find a comparable baseball situation that isn’t a closer protecting a lead. After all, while win probability had the Seahawks as the favorites at that point, they were still losing, and failure to score meant that they didn’t have another chance. Perhaps we need something like the tying run on third and the winning on second base, with nobody out, and a great hitter at the plate. According to the Win Expectancy charts, that situation results in the team down a run winning 71% of the time, so to get up to the 88% mark from the Super Bowl, the batter/pitcher match-up would have to really favor the hitter. To tilt the numbers even farther in favor of the offense, we probably need to put a runner on first base as well — taking away the intentional walk and raising the initial Win Expectancy to 74% — and then also start the count in the hitter’s favor; we’ll say 2-0, since failure on the next pitch would have left two more opportunities, just as it would have for the Seahawks.

So, that’s perhaps a comparable situation from a win probability standpoint. Bottom of the 9th inning in Game Seven of the World Series, down a run, but with the bases loaded and nobody out, and your best hitter at the plate, with the count already worked 2-0 in his favor. But what’s the surprise play there? The defense wouldn’t be expecting a bunt, but a bunt doesn’t present a win-or-lose dynamic, as the runner on second base isn’t scoring on anything short of a defensive debacle. Stealing home would also be a wildly unexpected attempt, but again, that doesn’t offer the win-if-it-works incentive, and the rally doesn’t end if it fails.

Instead, you need some kind of strategy that results in both the runners on second and third scoring on a successful execution, but the inning ending on a failure. Basically, you need the downside to be a triple play.

And that means a hit-and-run. All the runners take off with the pitch, and the guy at the plate is told to simply hit the ball on the ground; if it finds a hole, the runner from second scores easily and they win, and even if it ends up going right at a fielding, sending the runners means that they can’t get the force at home, so they’d get to send another hitter up with a chance to drive in the go-ahead run from third base and less than two outs. That chance would be wiped out if the batter hit a line drive right at an infielder near a base, turning one out into three outs in short order. Maybe it would look something like this.

From a win probability and risk/reward standpoint, this probably comes close, and it really is hard to imagine a manager calling for a hit-and-run in that situation in the World Series.

But when comparing this situation to the last play of the Super Bowl, this does fail on one important element of the Seahawks play call: the match-up variable. The Seahawks specifically chose to throw the ball in response to the Patriots defensive package, and the post-game rationale was essentially a game theory argument. If everyone in the world thinks you have to run there, then throwing the ball has a higher probability of success than it would on any random play during the game, since the defense is specifically aligned to stop a run play.

You don’t get that on a hit-and-run, really, because it’s not designed to exploit the flaws in a defensive alignment. The best baseball equivalent of throwing the ball against a goal line defense is probably something like bunting against the shift, which is not at all a controversial strategy when its deployed. It’s pretty widely accepted that if a team is overstacking their infielders on one side of the ball, a good hitter should attempt to go the other way, even if he’s a dead pull hitter whose strength is hitting the ball hard to the pull field.

From a strategic perspective, a better fit would be bunting against the shift, but there are very few plays in baseball where a bunt can decide the game in favor of both teams at the same time, depending on the outcome. And, of course, teams don’t overshift the right side of the infield when there are runners on second and third.

So perhaps we back to the beginning. Perhaps the closest corollary we could get is if Romo’s fastball to Cabrera came in Game Seven, and if there had been a runner on first base, so that a home run from Cabrera allowed the Tigers to walk off as World Series champs.

If the World Series had been on the line, would it still have been wrong for Romo to go for deception rather than playing to his strength? Was it clearly the wrong call for him to throw Cabrera a middle-middle fastball rather than his dominant slider because of the risk of Cabrera hitting it to the moon? Or was it the right call because the stakes were lower for the Giants in that situation?

I don’t think I have an answer. Instinctually, I’m against the idea that there is ever only one correct decision to make, even if your opponent knows that’s what’s coming. But on the other hand, if you have a dominant weapon that almost always works in spite of the lack of surprise, is the final play of the championship game really a time to be messing with game theory, or should you just let your best go up against their best and accept the result?

I’m probably a bit more sympathetic to the Seahawks play call than the national response, but I don’t know football or game theory well enough to say that it was justifiable. I do wonder, though, how different Romo’s decision to throw Cabrera a fastball really was. The circumstances weren’t exactly the same, but the concept was similar. Do we think Romo’s pitch selection was insane, even though it worked? Or are we just allowing the result of the play to define whether or not the idea was sound?

We hoped you liked reading The Baseball Equivalent of Throwing on the One Yard Line by Dave Cameron!

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flac0
Guest
flac0

I don’t think those are good analogies because it isn’t obvious that running is safer than throwing, at least in terms of turnovers; throws at the one have a very low interception rate (Bill Barnwell said the turnover rate is about even). Romo’s fastball, or the hit and run, are high risk choices.

But the part of the analogy I like is that Romo’s fastball was down the middle; most would say, if you are going to throw the fastball there, miss off the plate. Similarly some might say that, if you are going to throw at the one in that situation, miss low where it can’t as easily be intercepted, even if it lowers the odds of scoring on that play.

John Elway
Member

Hay, the big difference is that Romo had already thrown a bunch of sliders so Cabrera was probably geared up to hit it, and he probably could do damage with it.

On the other hand, I don’t think the Patriots could have done anything to stop Lynch from scoring, even with three straight runs up the gut. If they wanted to switch things up, they could have used the read-option with the threat of Wilson keeping the ball and running it in.

Just neighing.

TR
Guest
TR

Oh I get it, neighing, because Elway has a horseface. That’s clever, you must be the first person to think of it!

Joke Police Auxiliary
Guest
Joke Police Auxiliary

TR, dude, that’s like his go to joke! It adds a little silliness to a world of statistics and arm mechanics. Enjoy the insanity and the inanity. I’ll let you off with a warning.

As for you, John Elway, do you have any comment on the fact that “My Little Pony” actually appeared in a Super Bowl commercial? Are you excited for the further advancement of equines into sports or are you disappointed that Ponyville cheers for the Colts? Perhaps both?

John Elway
Member

Hay JPA, no probs with the My Little Pony stuff. And I don’t care who Ponyville roots for as long as they don’t end up in a Nationwide ad.

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente

Is that a Frau Blucher joke?

hookstrapped
Guest

Or miss high if you’re going to miss, where if your guy doesn’t catch it, no one will catch it. Like the TD pass to Matthews at the end of the first half.

It wasn’t so much the decision to pass, but the particular passing play. A quick slant at the one has increased dangers and less chance for success for a similar reason that running it does: the box is stacked; the defense needs to defend a much smaller territory.

John Elway
Member

That’s right. If they wanted a pass play in that situation, they probably trotted out the worst possible option.

David Steinberg
Guest
David Steinberg

You NEVER miss high on a throw to the middle of the field. A) there is most likely a saftey behind him who could make a play and B) high balls are more likely to be deflected up and defenders make more plays on those than receivers. If your going to miss on that throw you miss low and in.

Mike Matheny
Guest
Mike Matheny

this all goes to the point that a short slant was the LAST play anyone expected, so it’s success rate would hypothetically increase. However, the CB said they had been coached on that formation and knew where the ball was going, so interception

rottenchops
Member
rottenchops

the reason why no one would expect that play is because it’s such a bad idea to call that play. no one intelligent play caller would do it.

if other the other team isn’t expecting something, it’s because it has a low probability of working.

John C.
Guest
John C.

See, to me, the quick slant there is not even the worse possible play call there. Not that it’s a great call, but it’s not terrible. The turnover rate is not really high on that play. And the Seahawks liked the matchup for a reason – Wilson read the coverage, and it was a pick play. Pick plays vs. man coverage are extremely effective.

A worse play call to me: a toss sweep. You never go laterally on the goal line because the defense is up and the possibilities of a serious loss in yardage and being tackled in bounds, requiring the Seahawks to burn their last timeout and therefore meaning that running on third down would be extremely risky because they likely wouldn’t have been able to get a fourth down play off. And that’s not even considering the chance of a fumble, enhanced by the toss.

cs3
Member
cs3

“A worse play call to me: a toss sweep.”

Are you kidding me? Even if you lose 5 yards, at least you still have the ball and 2 more downs to try to convert the game winning TD.

ANY running play > the pass play Seattle actually ran

John C.
Guest
John C.

Except that on goal line plays there are about as many turnovers on running plays as passing plays. Add the element of a toss to go awry and yeah, I think that’s a worse call. I’m not saying the slant was a good call – just that it’s possible to make a worse call. If only just.

libradawg
Member
libradawg

The point is to go to the play that would allow the fans and players to sleep at night. Sure, he could have fumbled, but rule number one in sports is to go to your best in a tight situation. Rule number two is to go to the hot guy. Lynch was both. Instead, they ran a play that a guy who was taking orders at Popeyes Chicken several months earlier picked them off. As Woody Hayes once said, 3 things can happen on a pass play and 2 of them ain’t good. Lay it all out on the field, pound their best with your best. Instead, SEA went with trickeration. Bad move, no excuses.

David K
Guest
David K

When I was watching the game, and Seattle took their 2nd timeout after the long pass play, I said that I hope burning that timeout won’t come back to bite them because now they can’t run 3 times.

So I figured they’d probably throw on 2nd down, which would give them an option to either throw or run on either 3rd or 4th down, which would make the defense think the most on both future plays. But if they ran and were stopped short on 2nd down, they’d be forced to use their last timeout, which means everyone knows they’d probably throw on 3rd down to give them two more chances to score.

I thoguht it was the right move to pass on 2nd down, but I would have called a play action fake, and had Wilson roll out, with one tight end or tackle-eligible guy breaking to the outside. Maybe Wilson gets a clean shot at the end zone and waltzes in, or the receiver gets wide open, otherwise Wilson could just throw it away. I knew they weren’t going to attack the Pats’ corners on a fade route, and I am sure the Pats knew that too.

Marcus
Guest
Marcus

I wonder if Barnwell’s numbers (I didn’t see them) applied in that specific play, or in general. I could imagine (and my anecodtal memory supports) that INTs occur at a higher rate when you have a more shallow field, since there is a higher density of defenders.

flac0
Guest
flac0

I’m quite sure that they were just all plays at the one yard line, or something like that. So most of those were probably play action stuff where the guy is either wide open or you throw it in the seats. Which means that there might well have been more risk on that play than the run. So maybe the first part of what I said was wrong.

OTOH I still think you have to miss low with that throw. And Romo’s too.

Strange to see a discussion about late game QB issues, and use Romo, and not have it be Tony Romo.

jpg
Guest
jpg

From Barnwell’s piece:

On goal line opportunities from from at or inside the one yard line this season:

There have been 223 running plays that have generated 129 touchdowns (a 57.8 percent success rate) and two turnovers on fumbles.

There were 108 throws and those passes had produced 66 touchdowns (a success rate of 61.1 percent, down to 59.5 percent when you throw in three sacks) and zero interceptions.

ChrisS
Guest
ChrisS

It’s unfair to categorize all passes the same way like Flac says above. A play action roll out to a TE in the flat is usually easy money if the box is stacked against the run. And if he’s not open, the pass goes to the fans. That play happens every weekend.

Throwing an inside slant in a stacked box to an inexperienced receiver is super low percentage – especially when the other option is a large strong RB who excels in those situations.

R Wilson & P Carroll
Guest
R Wilson & P Carroll

Hey, when you’ve got a receiver as good and as tried and tested as ol-what’s-his-name-Lockette, you’ve just got to try and get it to him. You simply MUST.

When you think of world class receivers playing today, you think of Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas and so-and-so Lockette.

Trotter76
Guest

Just goes to show that the lack of a big play, big bodied receiver hurt Seattle. The best plays IMO would be power run, read-option, play action rollout, or fade throw to the corner. They don’t have a receiver that can win that battle, but damn, there were a lot of better options than a quick slant.

cs3
Member
cs3

You also have to account for the fact that Lynch is one the best, if not the best Rb’s in the league and probably the best bet in the NFL to pick up 1 yard in a goal line situation.

In Barnwells analysis, how many of those running attempts were by crappy backs with crappy O-Lines?

B N
Guest
B N

This. I mean, I really don’t get why you bother throwing it. Plus, Wilson hadn’t been making short passes all that well the whole game (12 completions total- whole game, half of which were longer routes). Plus, they have one of the best running backs in the game, which the Patriots had given up 100 yards to.

It’s like having Barry Bonds at the plate, bases loaded, bottom of the 9th, 3-0, and giving him a bunt sign or something for the “surprise” effect.

Marsupial Jones
Guest
Marsupial Jones

Exactly. The problem with Barnwell’s logic as is that he is looking at league wide numbers and then applying them to specific players in a specific sitiation.

The league wide success rate on running plays from the 1yd line may be 57.8% but the rest of the league doesnt have Marshawn Lynch(or Russel Wilson for that matter who may be the best running QB in the NFL), and none of those other situations were win the super bowl/lose the super bowl situations. So its kind of irrelevant information.

Its a bit like saying that the league wide SB% is 75% (i made that up, I dont know what it actually is) so therefore you have a 25% chance of throwing out Terrance Gore or Billy Hamilton.

Pete Carroll
Guest
Pete Carroll

Fans just don’t understand what goes into these decisions. The personnel dictated passing in that situation. Billy Beane would have done the exact same thing.

Petey C
Guest
Petey C

Also 9/11 was an inside job. Because our government is slick and masterful, not bumbling and inefficient.

arc
Guest

Personnel dictating pass isn’t the same as personnel dictating slant.

libradawg
Member
libradawg

Personnel has nothing on logic and common sense.

Sam
Guest
Sam

It isn’t just that they threw it. Had they run the typical fake dive/ roll out/ throw to the tight ends and fullbacks leaking out play, there would have been no argument. However, they not only threw it, they threw it with a particularly stupid formation. That play call would have been stupid from the 1 yard line regardless of the personnel or game situation. They forced the Patriots to put multiple defensive backs on the field. Then they forced them to stay in the middle of the field. Then they threw into the crowd.

This wasn’t the equivalent of Romo throwing a slow-ish fastball to Cabrera. It was the equivalent of Babe Ruth trying to steal second at the end of the 1926 world series. It wasn’t just a gamble, it was a stupid gamble.

Nationwide Kid
Guest
Nationwide Kid

I would have run it with Lynch, but I was dead.

Katy Perry's shark (on the left)
Guest
Katy Perry's shark (on the left)

I can’t follow a dance routine but even I would have given it to Lynch (except that the exchange is VERY difficult when you have flippers and not fingers).