Monday, July 17, 2017

The Strategy Behind Tonight's Walk-Off Win by Dee Gordon and the Marlins

Baseball is a game of strategy, but if you always stick with the same strategy you become predictable—and your team loses. A textbook example of the importance of flexibility in forming strategy occurred today in extra innings in Miami. With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth the Marlins had had the bases loaded, and couldn’t score. In the top of the tenth the Phillies had had the bases loaded, and couldn’t score. Now, in the bottom of the tenth, and with two out, the Marlins again had the bases loaded. My baseball hero, Dee Gordon, was coming to the plate. Dee is a poster boy of small ball; his game is beating out the throw to first, and then stealing a base, and then when the throw from the catcher or the pitcher goes astray, taking another base on the error.* But infield hits are harder to come by when the bases are loaded with two out and the defense is playing five infielders.

That’s where you need strategy—and, if I may be immodest for a moment, that’s where I come into the picture. For weeks I’ve been fine-tuning strategy with my two Miami Marlins hats; I wore the beige hat with the bright red and yellow and blue logo when I saw the Marlins play two games in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago; they lost, so for a few days I switched to the dark grey/light grey hat. When that strategy backfired I went back to the beige hat—and the Marlins responded with a string of wins going into the All-Star break. I had to switch again when the Dodgers beat the Marlins last Friday—but the switch proved ineffective. I switched to the beige again on Sunday; that wasn’t working either.

Back to tonight. I had put the grey hat on as the game went to the bottom of the ninth. But that hadn’t done the trick in the ninth; how best to deal with this crucially important opportunity now, in the bottom of the tenth? Dee was down a strike after the first pitch—and that’s when it came to me. I grabbed the beige Marlins hat and put it on—right on top of my double grey Marlins hat. And presto—on the very next pitch Dee lined a run-scoring single to right. Walk off win for the Fish!

Now I don’t want to take all the credit for this; many events have more than one cause, and I have to believe this was one of them. The quality of the pitch, the placement of the Phillies outfielders, the strategy of Don Mattingly and of the Marlins’ coaching staff—all these probably played a part. Dee’s own skill may have had something to do with it. But it would be absurd to claim that the hat strategy wasn’t also in this case a contributing cause. I’m waiting now for Don and for Dee to be in touch—to say thanks, of course, but also to advise me on how often I should resort to the two-hat strategy in the future. Should it be reserved for these sorts of game-on-the line crisis moments? Or should there be a place for it in everyday strategy?

* * *

As a nine-year old I’m sure something close to one half of my mind was persuaded that I really could influence the outcome of far-away hockey games by putting on a Montreal Canadiens jersey. The equivalent percentage now is down to—what? Perhaps an eighth or a tenth of my mind? But like so many humans, I’m loath to give up that 1/8th or 1/10th. It would be like letting go completely of the child within. And who wants to do that—even at the ripe old age of 63? Go Fish Go! I’ll do what I can to help.

*Fans love stolen bases (and bunt singles, and going first to third on a another player’s single, and scoring from first on another player’s double, and all the other manifestations of speed on the base-paths), but for many years now baseball’s conventional wisdom has underrated the value of speed—in large part, I would suggest, because it’s difficult for statistics to capture its disruptive impact; when a Dee Gordon or a Billy Hamilton is on base, pitchers are distracted, fielders tense up—and the defense makes mistakes (many of which are not egregious enough to show up in the box score as errors, but can still cost a base or a run).

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