The Most Fascinating Stolen Base That Didn’t Matter

The Cubs just won Game 5 of the World Series, forcing the series back to Cleveland. There were some really obvious high-drama moments from the game, and we’ll talk about them very soon. But right now, I want to talk about a stolen base that had no impact on the outcome of the game whatsoever.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Jason Heyward singled off Cody Allen, then promptly stole second base to put himself in scoring position. But Javier Baez then did what Javier Baez does, striking out on a pitch that went about 59 feet, which forced Aroldis Chapman to the plate. Being a reliever and all, Aroldis Chapman doesn’t hit much — he had two career plate appearances in the big leagues before tonight — and thus he was pretty unlikely to get a hit, especially off an elite reliever like Allen.

So Jason Heyward decided to steal third. And I was surprised.

In general, going from second to third base with two outs is not worth the risk of getting thrown out; a hit that scores you from third probably also scores you from second, so my initial reaction was based on the normal risk/reward calculations that deter most runners from stealing third with two outs. But as a bunch of people pointed out in response to my tweet, this was actually way more interesting than that. Sam Miller even took the polar opposite position.

The argument for Sam’s position can be pretty easily summed up as weighing the odds of a throwing error by Yan Gomes or a subsequent wild pitch/passed ball that would allow Heyward to score from third against the odds of a hit by Chapman. And given Chapman’s lack of experience at the plate, the odds of Gomes airmailing the throw into left field were probably higher than the odds of Chapman not making an out, not even accounting for the chances Allen bounces a curveball or gets called for a balk or something. So by baiting Gomes into a throw, Heyward likely increased his chances of scoring versus if he just stood on second base, which is why Sam rightly called it clever.

But what about the bottom of the 9th? In response to the idea that having Chapman due up to lead off the 9th was an additional downside of getting thrown out, a lot of people responded that there’s no way Chapman would be hitting in that spot anyway; the scenario would only come about if he blew the lead, and there’s no way he’d be going back out for the 10th if that happened. And because Joe Maddon hadn’t used Kyle Schwarber yet, having Chapman’s spot due up really just means you had Schwarber due up to lead off if the Cubs needed to score more runs.

But I’m not sure that’s entirely a neutral factor, because if Chapman makes the last out of the inning, then you get to go Fowler-Bryant-Rizzo in the 9th, almost certainly against Andrew Miller. That group has a better chance of scoring off Miller than Schwarber-Fowler-Bryant. Swapping out a guaranteed Rizzo AB for a Schwarber AB isn’t as bad as sending a pitcher up to the plate or anything, but it’s still a downgrade. And it would force Maddon to burn Schwarber in a bad situation, where if Chapman had made the last out of the inning, Schwarber could be used to pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot the next time it came up if the game went extra innings, and Miller may not be on the mound at that point, given that this would be his third straight day working.

But that’s a lot of what ifs and maybes, with the potential cost coming only under a very particular set of circumstances. In the end, I think Sam is right; the chance of getting Gomes to throw one into left field was probably worth it, since the difference between a 3-2 lead and a 4-2 lead at that point is huge. This was definitely not your average attempt at stealing third with two outs. For Heyward to (potentially, since we don’t really know for sure) work through all that in real time is crazy, and a credit to his baseball instincts.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dino Spumoni
5 years ago

An important addition here is I believe it was Gomes catching and not Perez? His throws to second looked pretty weak and it was clear once he came on that the Cubs didn’t think too highly of his arm. I’ll be glad heading back to Cleveland that the chance of Gomes seeing the field is for the most part eliminated.