Taking the extra base has long been one of those fundamentals that certain baseball people like to grandstand about, especially come playoff time. Think about all of the pressure put on the defense by a team that's aggressive on the bases! Another of my favorites is that "in October, you can't afford to give your opponent extra outs," which seems directly contradictory.
If each out is vital in a tight playoff game, what's really destructive is watching a rally go up in smoke with an out on the basepaths. In the first and fourth innings last night, the Yankees ran into outs which, make no mistake, took runs off the board just as much as a bases loaded strikeout.
When asked by the TBS talking heads, Joe Girardi said what he should say, "cliche, want our guys to be aggressive, cliche, playoffs." That's fine, neither Ichiro Suzuki or Mark Teixeira deserve to be thrown under the bus mid-game by their manager. But they screwed up and being aggressive on the bases isn't the same thing as being smart on the bases.
A base runner's aggression should be governed by some very simple questions. How much do I stand to gain by getting to the next base? How much do I stand to lose? How confident am I that I can make it? If your answers to those were "not much," "a lot," and "I'm Mark Teixeira and I'm not even running at full speed," then you're probably best off going station to station.
The Yankees led the American League in on base percentage, they lead the league in slugging percentage. Make the pitcher earn his outs at the plate and get into the bullpen. Instead of a gun-slinging-Brett-Favre-is-throwing-it-deep attitude, a simple comparison of risk and reward should be applied.
Aside from that general philosophical quibble, here's some more depth on three plays from last night's game, with help from Tom Tango's Run Expectancy Matrix:
First Inning: Ichiro Suzuki caught stealing third.
Current situation: A runner on second with zero outs, 1.170 runs expected.
Had he succeeded: A runner is on third with zero outs, 1.433 runs expected.
Because he failed: Bases empty, one out, 0.291 runs expected.
By trying to steal third, Ichiro risked losing 0.879 runs for a chance to gain 0.263 runs. Using those average figures, for this to be a winning gamble he'd have to be successful at least 77% of the time. Stealing third base with Matt Wieters behind the plate is unlikely to yield those kinds of odds. It's a spot with a lot to lose and little to gain and no reason to be aggressive.
Fourth Innning: Mark Teixeira thrown out at second base.
Had he held at first: First and third, one out, 1.211 runs expected.
Had he succeeded: Second and third, one out, 1.447 runs expected.
Because he failed: Runner on third, two outs, 0.385 runs expected.
Here again we have a case where very little (0.236 runs) stood to be gained by risking a lot (0.826 runs). In this case, Teixeira would need to be 78% confident of his success for it to be worth the risk. He might have been. The play in right field by Chris Davis was decidedly above average. But when you lay out the run totals like that and consider Tex's gimpy calf, you're really letting the pitcher off the hook getting thrown out there.
Seventh Inning: Russell Martin thrown out at home plate.
Had he held at third: No advance, Ichiro thrown out at first, second and third, two outs, 0.626 runs expected.
Had he succeeded: Yankees score a run, Ibanez advances to third, Ichiro may or may not reach first depending on the fielder's choice.
Because he failed: Ichiro reaches first, Ibanez goes to third, 0.530 runs expected.
Here we have a great opportunity to be aggressive on the bases. By breaking for home, Martin risked only .096 runs to give the Yankees a chance to score a run and give two baserunners the chance to advance.
All three resulted in outs, so it's easy to call this line of thinking hindsight. It might be -- in the parallel universe where Ichiro makes it to third, Tex makes it to second, and Russ scores, I probably don't write this post. But the process of risking much more than you stand to gain is a bad one. It becomes worse when it's Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Nick Swisher who aren't getting the chance to bat.
Taking the extra base will cause the occasional defensive miscue that wasn't factored into this basic calculation. But how often? Often enough to swing some of these drastic odds? I'd tend to doubt it.