For an athlete, a constant struggle in decision-making exists between the body and mind. When presented with a choice, there are two routes a person can take. The most informed route, typically, is to hand over the keys to the mind. The mind can think logically and, with ample time and preparation — sometimes just a few extra seconds — the mind can parse out a number of options, choose what it believes to the best one, and send the correct signal to the body.
But the body reacts faster. Under pressure, when an instantaneous decision is required, the decision-making process defaults to the body’s reaction, because it gets to skip the step of the mind parsing information and sending a signal. This is an involuntary response. The mind still parses, and still sends its signal, it’s just, sometimes, the body beats it to the punch. So it’s hard to fault someone when they choose the body’s reaction over the mind’s conclusion, because all that means is that the mind didn’t have enough time, in the moment, to trump the body’s reaction. Yet, here we are.
Before you can question Andre Ethier for his choices in Thursday’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly that scored Daniel Murphy and tied Game 5 of the Dodgers-Mets NLDS at 2-2, you’ve got to take a step back and examine how we got there.
For those unaware, Murphy scored on a sacrifice fly, caught by Ethier, that maybe shouldn’t have happened. It maybe shouldn’t have happened because Ethier had another option, but we’ll get to that in a minute, because there’s a few others reasons why it maybe shouldn’t have happened.
It almost didn’t happen, because Murphy nearly got doubled off first base on a shallow fly ball caught by Joc Pederson earlier in the inning:
Perhaps my use of “nearly” is a bit liberal here, as the play really wasn’t all that close, but if Murphy had gotten in one more step towards second base before his mind signaled to his body to retreat, maybe Pederson’s strong throw gets him and that’s the play we’re here analyzing, rather than Ethier’s.
It almost didn’t happen because Lucas Duda, who took a ball four that set Murphy in motion toward third base, nearly didn’t walk. At least, he didn’t think so:
The pitch was low, definitely, but catcher Yasmani Grandal presented it well to the umpire, and Duda momentarily second-guessed himself. I do wonder if this initial confusion had anything to do with the events that transpired in the immediate aftermath. It’s such a minor thing, and it didn’t seem to have any tangible effect on the Dodgers’ infielders, but it is an unusual moment that led to a larger unusual moment, so it must be considered.
You’ve probably heard about what happened next:
In a brilliant display of heads-up baserunning, Murphy went first-to-third on Duda’s walk, largely because the Dodgers had been playing Duda in a shift. Not just that, but something of an unusual shift:
Rather than each infielder shifting one spot to his left, per the norm, rookie shortstop Corey Seager and second baseman Howie Kendrick remained in their positions to keep the standard double play pairing in tact, with third baseman Justin Turner plugging the hole on the right-hand side of the infield. This alignment is somewhat atypical, though not entirely uncommon for the Dodgers.
Upon Duda’s walk, Turner began the trek back to his typical territory, working in time for a chat with second base umpire Alan Porter:
Zack Greinke decided it was a good time to kick some dirt:
So did Mets third base coach, Tim Teufel:
Seager and Kendrick convened at second base, as they would after any walk:
But this wasn’t any walk. This walk included a pitcher thinking about a close ball four, a third baseman on the opposite side of the field, and a rookie shortstop left to cover the left side of the infield:
In the play’s aftermath, the broadcast crew remarked that it’s either Greinke or Turner’s responsibility to protect third base in that situation, but manager Don Mattingly put it on Seager in his postgame press conference. It’s unreasonable to expect Turner to run back to his position from second base after a walk, and Greinke is the pitcher — the infield isn’t his responsibility. Seager, really, just had to take a few steps toward third, rather than take a few steps toward second, and Murphy wouldn’t have had the room to run.
It’s easy to fault Seager here, because he is the one at fault. To play Devil’s Advoctate, though, he’s a rookie, and shifts like this are used sparingly, if ever, in the Minor Leagues, so it’s entirely possible this is the first time Seager’s ever been in this particular situation. He was also never out of position in the shift, so, subconsciously, there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about his post-walk responsibilities. His body’s reaction was to just do what he always does after a walk. I assume this is something that was covered by the coaching staff when this alignment was instituted, but even then, someone probably have reminded Seager of his responsibility when this individual shift was engaged to avoid the exact situation that ended up happening.
So that’s the story of how Daniel Murphy got to third base. Now, for how he got home:
Ethier tracked a fly ball off the bat of Travis d’Arnaud deep down the right field line and made the routine catch. The argument, here, is that Ethier should have let the ball drop — he had no chance of throwing out Murphy at home and a foul ball for a strike is still technically a positive outcome — but this is where we re-enter the body vs. mind, decision-making, Devil’s Advocate portion of the program.
While it may have initially appeared the ball might drop near the line, its trajectory slicing toward the stands, along with Ethier’s proximity to the wall, should have let him know that he was going to end up in foul territory. And I think Ethier probably did know that. The question, here, is whether you can fault Ethier for not knowing the percentages well enough to have have the wherewithal to let this ball drop. Essentially, the question is: can you fault Ethier for making a decision based on his physical instincts in a play that lasted six seconds? Technically, you can fault him, because, again, Ethier is at fault here. In a perfect world, he should have let the ball drop.
Of course, the defense will almost always taken an out if given to them, but Matt Holliday showed last year that it’s not impossible for an outfielder to fight his instincts in this situation, in favor of a more cognitive thought process:
Consider d’Arnaud was already in an 0-1 count, which would have been 0-2 had Ethier let the ball drop. After 0-2 counts this year, Greinke got the batter out 88% of the time, and d’Arnaud got himself out 78% of the time. Of course, some of those outs include ground balls or sacrifice flies that would have scored Murphy anyway, but they also include inning-ending double plays and non-advancing outs, too.
Diving deeper into the math, the Mets’ win expectancy, trailing 2-1 with one out in the fourth, was 37% before Duda’s walk. When Duda walked, it boosted to 42%, and when Murphy went first-to-third, it increased to 46%. At this point, Murphy is expected to score — first and third with one out leads to at least one run nearly 7-out-of-10 times. Ethier caught the ball, Murphy scored, and the Mets’ win expectancy became 47%, the score tied 2-2.
Now, let’s assume Ethier lets it drop. Ethier lets it drop, the count runs 0-2 to d’Arnaud, and runners are still on first and third with one out. In this situation, Murphy is no longer expected to score, because, in an 0-2 count, Greinke will likely retire d’Arnaud, and as long as d’Arnaud makes a non-advancing out, the Mets’ chances of scoring a run with runners on first-and-third plummets from 7-out-of-10 with one out, to 3-out-of-10 with two outs, due largely to the elimination of the potential sacrifice fly.
I hope that’s explained clearly enough, because it’s a bit complicated. Dan Szymborski ran a simulation that considered the distribution of all possible outcomes in an 0-2 count for Greinke vs. d’Arnaud matchup, and found that, had Ethier let the ball drop, it would have been something like a 7% swing in win expectancy, in favor of the Dodgers. Maybe it’s best to just think about it this way:
75% of the time, d’arnaud makes a non-advancing out. It’s not trading an out for a run, it’s a trading *a quarter of an out* for a run.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) October 16, 2015
So, you want to fault Andre Ethier and Corey Seager for helping let a run score in a game the Dodgers ended up losing by one. That’s totally acceptable! But we already walked through why Seager’s situation is difficult, and you saw how much math and explaining it just took to draw the conclusion that Ethier, mathematically, made an incorrect decision. Maybe you think it’s unreasonable for Ethier to know the percentages to that extent, in-game, and that the fielder should just take the out when it’s given to him. Maybe you think Ethier’s played enough baseball in his life to have a good enough feel for the odds that he can confidently let the ball drop, as Holliday did.
Me? I’m not totally sure where I stand, to be honest. Seager’s is probably more inexcusable, but I think you can go either way with Ethier. I’m fully aware that’s a cop-out answer, but I also don’t think there’s really an incorrect position. I’m just just trying to see both sides and make you think about baseball a bit. It’s up to you to decide whether you can fault an athlete by reacting with his body — which is largely how they make their living — before his mind has a chance.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.