Baseball Codes Musings: Examining Big League Big-Lead Etiquette

  • Monday, March 7, 2011 5:24 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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As a manager, what do you do when your team builds a huge lead? Do you put in some bench players? Do you order runners not to steal or take extra bases? Do you tell your hitters not to swing on 3-0 counts?

These are delicate questions for two reasons. 1) You don’t want to be viewed as running up the score or showing up the other team and possibly incur retribution, but, 2) You can never be sure your lead is safe.

I recently read Jason Turbow’s The Baseball Codes, an entertaining look at the game’s unwritten rules. Turbow delves into the etiquette of hitting batters, doctoring balls, stealing signs and many other things, but to me, an early section about the “proper” way to play with a significant advantage on the scoreboard was one of the most compelling topics.

It’s something that speaks to baseball’s lack of a clock. There are seemingly miraculous comebacks in every sport, but the specter of them looms larger in baseball. For a basketball team down by 15 points with a minute left, a rally is almost physically impossible. The same goes for a football team down by three scores or a hockey team down by three goals near the end of a game.

A baseball team that enters its final at-bat trailing by five runs faces overwhelming odds (a home team’s chance of winning in this situation is about 0.9 percent, according to The Hardball Times’ win probability calculator). But the chance is still there. As long as you keep hitting, the game keeps going.

As the book details, people in baseball possess an array of opinions about the “proper” way to play with a big lead. Some feel it’s disrespectful to keep the foot on the gas with anything more than a four-run lead after the sixth inning. Others take a more lenient approach, while some feel entitled to going full throttle until the point they feel completely comfortable.

Turbow brings up a bizarre game from 2001, when the Mariners led the Indians 12-0 in the fourth inning and 14-2 at the seventh-inning stretch. Both managers took some of their best players out of the lineup, but the Indians scored three runs in the seventh, four in the eighth and five in the ninth to tie the game, then won in the 11th.

It should be noted that this was the biggest comeback in the major leagues in 75 years. Going into the bottom of the seventh, the Mariners had a 99.9 percent chance of winning.

Is it wise for a manager to base strategy decisions on the chance that the other team could make a 1-in-1,000 comeback? Probably not. What about a 1-in-100 comeback? When you consider the relatively small degree to which making a couple of lineup changes and/or altering your baserunning style affects the course of a game over a few innings, it’s hard to get too worked up about it either way. Of course, players and coaches often do get very worked up about it.

At the least, it’s something to keep you interested the next time you’re watching a blowout.

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