Why Was Allen Craig Running?

Hidden among all the intentional walks and sacrifice bunts during the tic-tac-toe game that was game five of the World Series, there were two caught stealings that may have turned the game. In both cases, Allen Craig was gunned down during an Albert Pujols plate appearance. Before the face palm napalm dropped, there was a question hidden in the initial stunned silence, heard all the way up into the booth:

Why was Allen Craig running?

In the top of the seventh, in a tie game, Craig was at first and Pujols was facing Alexi Ogando. On a one-and-one count, Craig took off for second base. This is a man who stole all five of his attempts in the regular season, but it’s also a man that never stole more than eight in a full minor league season. Plus, he was stealing in front of Pujols. There was a chance that, even if he stole the base, the Cardinals’ reward would have been the same intentional walk that Ogando issued once Craig was caught stealing. Open base and all.

But the idea seemed misguided from a win probability standpoint, too. In the top of the seventh, in tied road game, the Cardinals had a win expectancy of 50.3%. If he steals the base, they have a 53.2% win expectancy. The caught stealing dropped their win expectancy down to 42.9%.

The break-even point for that stolen base was 71.8%. What with Craig’s 19 combined stolen bases in over 2500 career professional plate appearances, it seems like folly to expect that high of a success ratio. The average baseball player managed a 72.2% success rate, but in 119 career games in the major leagues, Craig’s Bill James speed score is 3.6, and the average number in that category is 5.0. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense for a player with below-average wheels.

Pujols only struck out in 8.9% of his at-bats this year (9.5% career). Once the ball is in play (about 80% of the time for Pujols), batters hit into double plays about 11% of the time in your typical double-play situations. At most, there was a 20% chance that the Cardinals ended up in the two worst possible situations if they don’t attempt the steal. Managing to avoid that double play seems to be a strategy that focuses too much on a slight negative.

Which segues us nicely to the second Craig caught stealing. In the top of the ninth, with the team down by two, Craig at first, and Pujols at the plate and facing a full count, Tony La Russa opted to send the runner. This one may have made more sense.

Back to that 11% chance of hitting into a double play. This statistic assumes that there is a double play opportunity and that the ball is put into play. With the count full, this all comes down to one pitch. Pujols has a 86.5% contact rate, and so the chance of a double play was somewhere around 9.5%. If someone like Matt Holliday was up there (77.7% career contact rate), that percentage drops to 8.5%. Mike Napoli (71.1% career) would have had a 7.8% chance.

But Pujols is Pujols and he’s likely to make contact on a pitch that needs to be in the zone. On a pitch in the zone, he was 92.2% likely to make contact (and 10.1% likely to hit into a double play). So maybe you send the runner to avoid a 10% chance at the super-bad situation. The strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play was only about 2.5% likely given the players involved.

Still, those were two caught stealings that made a nation scratch their collective head. One may have been worse than the other, but viewers will remember them in tandem. Add in the fact that this was the World Series and you can add insult to injury: Not since Billy Martin in 1955 has a player been caught stealing twice in a World Series game.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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12 years ago

if you’re down multiple runs in the 9th with a runner on first, no matter how many outs, the win expectancy added from the successful stolen base in no way justifies sending the runner. the cards were down two craig had to score no matter what.

12 years ago
Reply to  Jack

I agree. Plus, the Rangers had Feliz, a strikeout pitcher on the mound. Stealing there only makes sense in a tie game or 1-run game. It’s well-known that hitters fare slightly worse when distracted by a runner running on the pitch. With Pujols up as the tying run, why reduce the likelihood that he’s going to get a hit? It’s bad strategy in both cases.

12 years ago
Reply to  Jack

I’m not so sure about this. The way this series has been managed, if Craig successfully steals second, Pujols will be intentionally walked putting two runners on base. I realize that in the actual situation it’s not possible once the full count was reached (as it’s impossible for Craig to steal second without Pujols striking out), but let’s evaluate a straight steal like you said.

At the start of Pujols at bat, the Cardinals’ WE was 17.2%. Assuming a successful steal means an IBB to Pujols (essentially guaranteed), Craig stealing second equals runners on 1st/2nd with 0 outs. Let’s give Craig a 65% success rate, which I think is reasonable. I also can’t find the exact WE for a 2 run deficit, but I believe my numbers below are close and conservative:

Failure (1 out, no runners on) leaves the Cards with ~2% WE
Success (0 outs, 1st and 2nd) – WE is at least 26%.

So (.65 * .26) + (.35 * .02) = 17.6% WE, which is greater than the original 17.2% WE. There’s a chance Craig’s actual success rate is lower, but I believe the success WE should be higher. If it’s up around 30%, then Craig only needs a success rate of 55% to break even.

Heck, now that I’m looking at the data maybe the straight steal was the right play from the beginning! If my data is off please correct me, but I couldn’t find more accurate WE.

12 years ago
Reply to  James

It was a 3-2 count….. if he successfully steals the base the only way that happens is if Pujols had struck out.

You are confusing the 7th inning hit and run with the 9th inning situation (where there was no possibility of a IBB as it was a 3-2 pitch)

12 years ago
Reply to  Jack

I think it was more about staying out of the double play and PRESERVING the base runner than advancing him. It was a 3-2 count.

12 years ago
Reply to  Brian

That’s what the writer is saying. Their are four possible outcomes to that 3-2 pitch. There was only an 8% chance that Pujols would strike out. There was a 10% chance that he would hit into a double play. The odds say send the runner. I know there have been studies done showing that hitters hit worse while runners are going in front of them, but Pujols is the world’s best hitter – I have a hard time believing a runner moving will affect him.