It would have been close. Alex Gordon might have scored, particularly if he’d been in the mindset to do so all along. Or maybe not. I’m sure there will be Zapruder-film-type breakdowns, and I’ll look forward to seeing them. It would have been one hell of a moment: Gordon, 220 pounds, who looks like he could have been a strong safety at the University of Nebraska, bearing down on Buster Posey, the catcher whose season-ending injury in 2011 helped inspire baseball’s home-plate collisions rule.
Game 7 will leave us with that sense of what might have been. Partly because it involved the Kansas City Royals, who were making their first World Series appearance since 1985. But mostly I’m referring to that penultimate play: When Gordon hit what was officially scored as a single and wound up on third base because of defensive miscues by San Francisco Giants outfielders Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez. It seemed to take an eternity — it was actually just 13 seconds — but I was surprised that Gordon wasn’t rounding third base by the time the TV cameras returned to the infield.
Here’s what I know: Gordon should have tried to score even if he was a heavy underdog to make it. It would have been the right move if he was safe even 30 percent of the time.
Between 1969 and 1992 — I’m using this period because it better approximates baseball’s current run-scoring environment than the offensive bubble of the 1990s and aughts — a runner scored from third base with two outs about 27 percent of the time, according to the tables at Tangotiger.com. We should probably round that down a bit in this example. The Royals had Salvador Perez at the plate — a league-average hitter — and the light-hitting Mike Moustakas due up after that.
More importantly, they were facing Madison Bumgarner. That Bumgarner had been so dominant in the World Series is not as relevant as you might think. There’s extremely little evidence for a “hot hand” in pitching: In-game performance tells you next to nothing about how the pitcher will fare in future at-bats. Instead, you should look toward longer-term averages. Still, I feel comfortable asserting that Bumgarner was an above-average pitcher at that moment: Certainly not the first guy you’d want to have on the mound if you were the opponent. So let’s round that 27 percent down to 25 percent.
So, Gordon should have tried to score if he had even a 25 percent chance of being safe?
It’s just a touch more complicated than that. With the Royals down 3-2, Gordon represented the tying run rather than the winning run. If he’s thrown out at home, the game’s over; it forecloses on the possibility of Perez scoring as the winning run, like with a walk-off homer. What was the probability of that? Perez homered in about 3 percent of his plate appearances this season, but he could also have scored in other ways — by doubling, for example, and then scoring on a base hit by Moustakas. We can turn to Tangotiger’s tables again, which suggest that a league-average batter has about a 6 percent chance (I’m rounding down slightly) of eventually scoring from home with two outs.
So, after Gordon holds at third, he has a 25 percent chance of scoring. Six percent of the time, Perez (or pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson?) also scores, and the Royals win outright. The other 19 percent of the time, Gordon is the only Royal to score in the ninth and the game goes to extra innings. If we assume the Royals are even money to prevail in an extra-inning game, their chances of winning at that point are:
6% + (19% * 50%)
That works out to 15.5 percent. Not coincidentally, this matches FanGraphs’ in-game win probability for the Royals (after Gordon held at third) almost exactly.
What if Gordon rounds third and tries to score? If he’s successful even 30 percent of the time, the Royals’ win probability is at least 15 percent — a 30 percent chance of Gordon scoring, multiplied by a 50 percent chance of the Royals winning in extra innings. But it’s slightly higher than that. The 30 percent of the time that Gordon scores, Perez still has his 6 percent chance of scoring the winning run in the ninth. That brings the Royals’ overall win probability up to about 16 percent.
We’re splitting hairs. The point is that if even Gordon had been a 2-to-1 underdog to score, he should have tried.
These decisions can be counterintuitive. Sometimes a strategy that’s successful less than 50 percent of the time — like splitting eights in blackjack — is still the right move because the alternative is even worse. In this case, the alternative involved trying to score against Bumgarner with your catcher at the plate and two outs, and then having to prevail in extra innings.
It would have made for one of the best plays in baseball history. We’re talking about the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series: Even a sacrifice fly can be thrilling under those circumstances. But this would have been in a league with Bill Mazeroski and Kirk Gibson and Bill Buckner: under serious consideration for the greatest play of all-time. (The play already had a little Buckner in it, with Blanco’s and Perez’s misplays in the outfield.)
Unlike any of those moments, it would have involved an incredibly gutsy decision. It’s an extraordinary play if Gordon scores. It’s an extraordinary play if there’s a collision at home plate — and baseball needs to decide whether to invoke the “Buster Posey Rule.”
And if Gordon were thrown out, it would have been the most extraordinary way to lose a game in the history of baseball.
CORRECTION (Oct. 30, 11:14 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the first name of a Kansas City Royals catcher. He is Salvador Perez, not Santiago Perez.