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I Love The Suicide Squeeze

I'm not just saying this to rile up unhappy Angel fans. That's a bonus.

There were a lot of factors that ultimately led to Anaheim's losing this series in four games, but their most obvious blunder as a team came in the top of the ninth inning tonight, when - in a 2-2 contest - Erick Aybar attempted to lay down a squeeze bunt, missed, and got Reggie Willits hung up between third base and home. Willits was tagged out, the threat was erased, and just minutes later the Red Sox went on to walk off to the ALCS. Where at one instant it looked as if the Angels were poised to fight back in the series, the next Boston once again had complete control. It was a risky decision that's sure to have people questioning Mike Scioscia's strategy in the morning papers.

I don't think they should, though, and here's why - it seems to me as if the squeeze was the right call. More than that, even; it seems to me as if the squeeze was the easy call.

Let's get right to the math. According to my outdated but generally reliable spreadsheet, with one out and Willits on third, the Angels' win expectancy stood at 66.3%. From this point, a squeeze bunt has two main possible outcomes:

-Success; 3-2 Angels, two outs, bases empty, 78.4% win expectancy (+12.1%)

-Failure; 2-2, two outs, bases empty, 38.4% win expectancy (-27.9%)

Now, obviously, there are other possible outcomes; bunts are crazy. But for the sake of simplicity let's look at the situation in black and white. With the information presented above we can calculate a breakeven rate. That is, the rate above which bunting pays off, and below which bunting does more harm than good. The equation is as follows:

1 - (.121 / (.121 + .279))

The equation spits out a final value of 69.75%. In other words, for Scioscia to justify calling for Aybar to try to squeeze, he had to have at least 69.75% confidence in Aybar's ability to get the bunt down as a success.

69.75%. That doesn't seem too bad, right? Especially against a pitcher who isn't going to be throwing fastballs way up high or offspeed stuff in the dirt, what with the runner on third and all and a 2-0 count. While I will admit right now that I don't have squeeze-specific information at hand, and therefore can't speak to the league-average success rate (and so I might be totally wrong!), it seems to me as if you should be able to rely on Aybar to get that thing down at least 70% of the time. He's a bad hitter. You have to figure he's pretty good at bunting, especially being on the Angels.

In reality, the breakeven rate isn't even that high. That's the simple, approximate calculation. But there are other factors to consider that serve to make the bunt look even better:

  • Aybar may get the bunt down and still reach base, either because the Red Sox threw home in a futile attempt to get Willits, or because they threw late to first or committed an error
  • That calculation assumes that an average team is playing an average team, with 25 average players apiece. This wasn't the case (and never really is). In this particular situation, the switch-hitting Erick Aybar was facing the right-handed Manny Delcarmen in Fenway Park. Aybar is bad and Delcarmen is good. If Scioscia lets Aybar swing away, odds are fairly high that he doesn't drive the runner home from third. Not only because he's bad, but also because a sac fly seemed unlikely; Delcarmen throws hard, fly balls already tend to be hit the other way, and left field in Fenway is shallow. Granted, Chone Figgins was standing on deck, but with the light-hitting Aybar at the plate, Scioscia had to weigh the risks and benefits of letting him swing or ordering the squeeze, and decided on the latter.

Erick Aybar had nine bunt singles this year, twelfth-most in the Major Leagues despite appearing in fewer than 100 games. He knows how to bunt, and ahead 2-0, with a buntable fastball almost certainly on the way, Mike Scioscia had to believe that his shortstop would be able to get the ball down. Instead Aybar stabbed at the ball and missed it, leaving the runner out to dry and ending Anaheim's threat. Their win expectancy dropped well below 50% and never recovered, as it wasn't long before their season would end.

Scioscia, though, shouldn't be blamed, at least not for this. I think he made the right decision. Scoring that run was of vital importance, and Erick Aybar sucks, so rather than cross his fingers and hope for a miracle, Scioscia got burned for siding with probability. Shit happens, but a bad result doesn't automatically mean it was a bad idea.

When you need a run, I love the squeeze, and I feel like it's pretty underutilized in the game today as a strategy. Probably because of situations like tonight's - regardless of how often it works, when a suicide squeeze goes wrong, it goes really really wrong, and people tend not to forget, because it's embarrassing. And nobody wants to be embarrassed. It's the same as how in football coaches don't like to go for many fourth-and-shorts. When push comes to shove, coaches and managers alike tend to be conservative, because that way there's less risk of them looking stupid. But conservative isn't always the way to go. There's a time and a place for being aggressive, and while it can fuck you over when it fails, a good manager understands that the upsides are worth the occasional downside. And Mike Scioscia's a pretty good manager. He just wound up tasting downside at an awful awful time.

If you've listened to any baseball broadcasts ever, the talking heads would have you believe that the Angels invented smallball a few years ago on their way to the World Series. That their biggest gaffe of the season came on a missed bunt just tickles all the right bits of my heart.

Note: while the post contains some math, this is mostly just opinion and educated guesswork. Do not take me at my word. Bunting may very well have been the wrong decision at the time.