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  • On 3rd Base Coaching Decisions

    Letís start with this: I donít care if Aaron Hicks slid or not Ė Joe Vavra blew the call to send him last night in the fourth inning. This is not debatable. I doubt Vavra would debate it. And even had Hicks slipped into some shiny leather and slid like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, he was still going to be out. It was not close. It was Vavra's mistake that the announcers should have been talking about.

    Here was the situation. The Twins lead 2-1 in the top of the fourth inning. Hicks was on second base, which he had easily stolen. Leadoff hitter Brian Dozier was up to bat with one out. He hit a line drive to left field. It appears Hicks got a slow start but was waved home the whole way by third base coach Vavra. It was not close, the throw reached the catcher on a bounce and Hicks was out by several feet. He tried to dipsy-doo around the catcher, looked silly, and was criticized by announcer Roy Smalley for not sliding. And he deserved that. But the the more significant message was delivered by play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer who announced that Hicks was being sent home with (what I would call) surprise in his voice. Because Hicks never had much chance.

    Making outs is a cardinal sin for a third base coach. (Technically, I forget whether itís a subset of ďgluttonyĒ or ďgreedĒ.) But in this case, the story is not to beat up Vavra about a bad call. Itís just to explain the philosophy a third base coach must have, and the math behind why he must have it. And maybe learn why Vavra could risk a little more on this play.

    The basic rule for a third base coach is if you think thereís a decent chance your runner can get thrown out, stop him. This can be shown mathematically, which Iíll demonstrate below, but it also just makes sense: the value of the extra base, even though itís tied to a run, is nowhere near the cost of adding an out AND losing a baserunner at 3rd base.

    Sabrmetrics has provided a lot more precision, and it lends a little extra insight in this case. In this game, because the hitter can advance into scoring position on a throw to the plate, that rule is not quite as stringent.

    Sabrmetrics, for problems like this, uses something called Palmer and Thornís Run Expectancy Matrix. Pete Palmer and Roger Thorn studied 75 years worth of baseball games and found out the average number of runs that scored in basic situations. (By the way, they did this back in 1975.) You can find it here, but these are the relevant numbers:


    1. The average team with runners on 1st and 3rd and one out will score 1.088 runs in that inning. Thatís what happens if Vavra holds up the ďstopĒ sign.
    2. The average team with a runner on 2nd and two outs will score .348 runs in that inning. Thatís what happens if Vavra waves Hicks home and heís thrown out.
    3. The average team, with a runner on 2nd and one out will score .699 runs in that inning, PLUS they would have already scored a run, so thatís 1.699 runs. Thatís what happens if Vavra waves Hicks home and heís safe.


    So if Hicks is sent home and safe, the Twins gain about .6 runs. If heís out, they lose .75 runs. It doesnít take a math major (just a good algebra background) to see that Hicks needs to be safe about 55% of the time to break even. If Vavra felt it was a ďcoin flipĒ situation, sending Hicks is defendable. (It didnít look like it was, but given Hicks speed, maybe he had additional confidence.)

    Now thatís just the base rule. It assumes that there are average hitters and average pitchers and average fielders, etc. In this case there were some extenuating circumstances.

    For starters, the next hitter was not average. In face, Doug Bernier didnít have a major league hit and he's 32 years old. He might be more likely to strike out or to hit into a double play than an average hitter, so maybe sending the runner makes more sense. Of course, Joe Blanton is on the mound, and he hasn't been an average pitcher. He might be more likely to give up a couple more hits, so maybe it's a better idea not to send the runner. Finally, batting behind Bernier is Joe Mauer, who is a pretty good guy to have up in a clutch situation, which is probably the best reason to keep everyone from risking that extra out. So in this game, itís hard to find extra incentive to risk that out.

    But the decision by Vavra to send Hicks by might not have been as egregiously wrong as it initially looked. (And certainly not as bad as it looked after Bernierís double.) Third base coaches need to be pretty conservative in general, but as far as picking a moment to be aggressive, this was a pretty good choice.
    This article was originally published in blog: On 3rd Base Coaching Decisions started by John Bonnes
    Comments 31 Comments
    1. h2oface's Avatar
      h2oface -
      I thought Hicks was much faster than I saw tonight sitting a bit above the Angel's dugout at Angel Stadium. It sure made him look silly to not try at all to make a competitive slide. Worse than silly. Made him look like he didn't care.
    1. glunn's Avatar
      glunn -
      Quote Originally Posted by h2oface View Post
      I thought Hicks was much faster than I saw tonight sitting a bit above the Angel's dugout at Angel Stadium. It sure made him look silly to not try at all to make a competitive slide. Worse than silly. Made him look like he didn't care.
      I was sitting near you h2o and agree with you 100%. I hope that someone on the coaching staff speaks with Hicks about this.

      But with all due respect to John, the impression of everyone in my section (including me) was that Hicks would likely have been safe if he had slid. It also seemed to me that he was not at full speed as he approached the plate.
    1. h2oface's Avatar
      h2oface -
      Quote Originally Posted by glunn View Post
      I was sitting near you h2o and agree with you 100%. I hope that someone on the coaching staff speaks with Hicks about this.

      But with all due respect to John, the impression of everyone in my section (including me) was that Hicks would likely have been safe if he had slid. It also seemed to me that he was not at full speed as he approached the plate.
      That is exactly what my son and I thought. Hicks just decided to not make a play and gave up on it. All kinds of runs have scored on a creative slide. It just looked pathetic and he really did pull up early and not even contest the plate. I like making the defense make a play. Sure, you may get thrown out, but more often than not the throw is not even close to the plate and you can score even it you would have been thrown out with a good throw. It is better to have tried than get stranded at third......... like tonight's first and third with no outs, and twice first and second.
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      I would suggest from what was shown on the broadcast that it looked like Hicks had zero chance of being safe, slide or not. So if John saw it on TV that might explain the difference.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      Yeah, I don't mind aggressiveness at all. Depends on the situation, of course, and I didn't watch it (just listened) so I can't speak more to it than that. But I have no problem with aggressiveness in general. Make the other team make a couple of good throws.
    1. NC-Twins's Avatar
      NC-Twins -
      I disagree. Hicks had a good chance to be safe and from my view probably would have been with a decent slide. The catcher's arm was in motion upward from having to scoop the ball. Also, those sabermetric values don't describe how the Twins perform with runners at first and third. We hit a lot of ground balls.

      I guess the biggest point I want to make is that we have not been hitting well and that we generally lack aggressiveness. Although it did not work out well for us in this situation because of what I would call poor base running, we still put a runner on second. Challenge the other team to make plays and be aggressive. I support Vavra's decision to send him. I am aghast that Hicks came into the plate like that. That shouldn't even happen in a high school game, much less a major league one. Sit his butt on the bench for playing like that.
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      I was watching it on TV. I gotta say, I didn't think there was a chance he was safe. And I didn't think there was a chance he was going to be safe as he rounded 3rd base. It was even more clear to me as he approached the plate. The catcher had the ball, he was blocking the plate, Hicks was still several steps away.

      It's interesting to me that people at the game had a different perception. Maybe there is something about the TV angles I'm missing.
    1. Gernzy's Avatar
      Gernzy -
      Hicks could have tried to slide, but we have no way of knowing if he'd be safe or not. Would have been more exciting at least.

      Speaking of Vavra, I think he's done a pretty good job at third. I can't think of many other times that he sent someone that he shouldn't have.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      I think Vavra has done a very good job. He prepared so much as a hitting coach and it seems he's well prepared at 3B. He seems to position himself very well.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      I think the real issue with this play is the poor jump Hicksie got off second base. Even with the poor jump, it took an online throw and a good shorthop snag by the catcher to get an out. IMO sliding wouldn't have had any positive result, and with the catcher blocking the line, Hicksie was probably better off trying to speed by him on the run and figure out some way to touch the plate later.


      Also, barring something unusual, Vavra should be sending a fast runner on a clean single to left pretty much every time. It's a fine line, but if you're never getting a runner tossed out at the plate, you're doing it wrong.
    1. NC-Twins's Avatar
      NC-Twins -
      Quote Originally Posted by John Bonnes View Post
      I was watching it on TV....
      The catcher had the ball, he was blocking the plate, Hicks was still several steps away.
      I saw the game on TV, too. I would say the catcher was only sorta blocking the plate. It looks to me like an alley to the inner half of the plate was open. Hicks decelerated greatly in the last few steps. He was probably trying to decide whether to slide or take out the catcher and hesitated so long that he did neither. But, from the video replay, it is clear that the on deck batter is telling Hicks to slide in plenty of time for him to do so. Plus, Hicks makes two mistakes after he passes Vavra, who was well down the line. You can see from the replay that Hicks briefly turns to look to see where the ball was, presumably looking to see if the play was coming or if it was going to be cut off, but either way, he should've been expecting to slide from the crack of the bat and been looking to pick up the on deck batter for further instructions. After he looks back, he then cowers a bit as if he thinks he's going to be hit by the throw. This is when he starts to slow down. When the catcher controls the ball, he and the glove are high, leaving a nice little path for a low slide.
    1. Old Twins Cap's Avatar
      Old Twins Cap -
      HIcks plays a pretty mellow game of baseball. It looks cool when it works, but when it doesn't, he just comes across as someone who doesn't care about outcomes. He's a young kid. He could still change. But, we already have Mauer, who takes unemotional to a robotic level. Between the two of them might as well nod off during the game and read the boxscore.
    1. LimestoneBaggy's Avatar
      LimestoneBaggy -
      Vavra made a bad judgment call sending the runner based upon the circumstances; it happens. Hicks made a bad judgment call (bad break) coupled with mental mistakes (looking to the ball, oddly slowing down near the plate, on deck batter), and what appears to be some lazy play (not sliding). Bad judgment calls happen, mental mistakes happen, the lazy mistake (if it was one) is more troubling from a coaching perspective. All these things can be coached and fixed. I'd be more worried if I saw continuous repeats from Hicks, but he appears to have these mistakes and then correct them when coached.

      Should he have learned these things earlier, sure, but it's not like he's being Manny out there.
    1. nicksaviking's Avatar
      nicksaviking -
      I agree with Chief that the biggest issue was the jump.

      Hicks had no chance at scoring and it he was in an awkward postion to do so. From my viewpoint (on my couch) the catcher was only partially blocking the line but he was up the basepath and the ball beat Hicks to the catcher. Hicks could have tried to slide under the tag, but then his slide would have still had to carry him 8-10 feet just to reach home plate. Hicks would have normally slid where he got tagged out, but to avoid the tag, he would have had to start the slide several more feet up the line, no way does a slide from there reach the plate and we would be making fun of him for coming up short.
    1. Rick Niedermann's Avatar
      Rick Niedermann -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      I think Vavra has done a very good job. He prepared so much as a hitting coach and it seems he's well prepared at 3B. He seems to position himself very well.
      I agree completely. He's done a very nice job coaching 3rd. Much better then the last few years. Hicks should of slid. And with Angel Marquez making the call, you never know, he may of been called safe.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      Quote Originally Posted by nicksaviking View Post

      Hicks had no chance at scoring and it he was in an awkward postion to do so. From my viewpoint (on my couch) the catcher was only partially blocking the line but he was up the basepath and the ball beat Hicks to the catcher. Hicks could have tried to slide under the tag, but then his slide would have still had to carry him 8-10 feet just to reach home plate. Hicks would have normally slid where he got tagged out, but to avoid the tag, he would have had to start the slide several more feet up the line, no way does a slide from there reach the plate and we would be making fun of him for coming up short.
      I agree, and would add that had Hicks slid, 20 ft from the plate, and the catcher mishandled the shorthop even slightly, we'd be asking why Hicks slid and allowed the catcher time to recover and make the tag.
    1. NC-Twins's Avatar
      NC-Twins -
      Quote Originally Posted by USAFChief View Post
      I agree, and would add that had Hicks slid, 20 ft from the plate, and the catcher mishandled the shorthop even slightly, we'd be asking why Hicks slid and allowed the catcher time to recover and make the tag.
      Not to beat a dead horse here, because it really doesn't matter, but the reasons that Hicks was still 8-10 feet from the plate (or 20) have everything to do with the original post, whose point was that Vavra made the mistake. I agree completely that Hicks got a bad jump, and that's something Vavra could have (or did) take into consideration. But, Hicks made three mistakes AFTER passing Vavra that may have made all the difference in the world despite his slow jump. In my opinion, that exonerates Vavra from blame.

      Incidentally, is his slow jump related to his lack of base-stealing prowess? I think so. However, he seems to get good jumps on defense *most* of the time.
    1. jm3319's Avatar
      jm3319 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Old Twins Cap View Post
      HIcks plays a pretty mellow game of baseball. It looks cool when it works, but when it doesn't, he just comes across as someone who doesn't care about outcomes. He's a young kid. He could still change. But, we already have Mauer, who takes unemotional to a robotic level. Between the two of them might as well nod off during the game and read the boxscore.
      If you'd rather sleep through the Hall of Fame career of the best Twin in recent memory, then by all means go for it. Wouldn't want greatness to get in the way of a nice nap.
    1. Kwak's Avatar
      Kwak -
      It sounds to me that this is a wakeup call to Hicks--don't assume and play to maximum effort. I also agree with Chief, if nobody is ever thrown out trying for an extra base, then you're not aggressive enough.
    1. Steve Lein's Avatar
      Steve Lein -
      Quote Originally Posted by Old Twins Cap View Post
      HIcks plays a pretty mellow game of baseball. It looks cool when it works, but when it doesn't, he just comes across as someone who doesn't care about outcomes.
      As a guy who has always been a Hicks backer, and watched him play quite a few games before he ever reached the majors, I can tell you it's not a situation where he "doesn't care about outcomes."

      As you observe, it's his game.

      What someone might take for "lackadaisical" play, is his form of confidence. He wants to be smooth with all of his movements on the baseball field and it is his natural form of athleticism.

      This is why you'll see him catch fly balls on sort of a jog, instead of racing to get to the spot and camp under it. It's also why you've seen people comment on him "slowing up" or "not getting a good jump" on some fly balls.

      Personally, when I played in the OF, I hated racing to the ball to get under it and camp unless I had to for setting up a throw, because that meant I was either going to take my eyes off the ball (and risk losing it), or the physical movement of sprinting would make my depth perception/ball-judgment harder to mesh correctly. It felt awkward, plus doing this cost me an ACL (though I did make the catch). It was better for me to keep my running pace and eyes focused on meeting the ball at the endpoint - in other words, much easier/natural to keep it as "smooth" as possible. Some can do the sprinting thing very well (and Hicks does when it's required), but it's not what everyone is going to do on every ball hit toward them.

      Now, this doesn't necessarily comment on him for his pace toward home on this particular play which some people here have an issue with (kind of seemed like he tripped or something on his way home a little to me as well), but I would argue that he didn't have a chance from the get-go. Which is also why I would guess he didn't take off from second at the pace some of you seem to have expected (though I don't see what you're getting at here either). I'd call it a situation of bad judgement on the hit from Vavra - Which John is writing about. "A clean single to left" is not going to score a guy from 2B every time, even if the runner is Billy Hamilton. I'd guess most of the time a line-drive "clean single" to LF isn't going to get the runner home - especially one where it was hit rather well (not a "soft liner") and the LF-er picks it up on only one hop, like this one.

      Aaaaand I've rambled.
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