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Walking Pujols

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Last night Royals’ manager Trey Hillman walked Albert Pujols w/ runners on 2nd and 3rd and no one out in the top of the 3rd inning. The score was 2-1 in our favor and the walk brought cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick to the plate. We all know what happened next. Ludwick deposited one in the left field seats and the game was effectively over. Three nights ago, Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland intentionally walked Pujols w/ Schumaker on 2nd and 1 out in the bottom of the first inning.

Al lauded last night’s decision by Hillman as a good one though the Royals’ win expectancy actually went down from 25.1% to 23.1% following the walk. Leyland’s decision Tuesday night caused the Tigers’ win expectancy to also fall – from 43.4% to 41.5%. Many of you will point out that these win expectancies are generic win expectancies assuming average players and don’t take into account Albert’s greatness. That’s true; they don’t.

The question then is when should teams give Pujols the "Barry Bonds treatment?" Under what circumstances is it appropriate to walk baseball’s greatest hitter? My gut told me that walking Pujols in the first inning w/ 1 out was asking for trouble Tuesday night. As it turned out, Duncan then singled and, after an Ankiel strikeout, Molina hit a 2 run single. Verlander then balked in a run and Thurston doubled in Molina and the Cards were off and running to a 4 run first and what would eventually be an 11 run outburst.

Last night’s grand slam put the Cards up 6-1 and the Cards went on to win 10-5. To Hillman, the walk made sense b/c it allowed them to avoid the damage Pujols might do by bringing a weaker hitter to the plate, and it also set up a double play by creating force plays at every base. This is why Al thought it was a good move as well. A lot of things can go wrong, however. First of all, there was nobody out, which meant that Kyle Davies was in the position of having to pitch to the next 2 hitters (Ludwick AND Duncan) and in all likelihood, the next 3 (+ Molina) with the bases loaded in order to get out of the inning. It’s not just about what Ludwick might do. Second, the pitcher has no wiggle room w/ no bases empty. Walks and HBPs lead to runs. Doubles and triples now lead to 3 runs instead of 2. Homers lead to 4 runs instead of 3. Sure, the defense has a chance at getting a double play or a force at home and getting out of the inning unscathed but the potential for a big inning increases.

But is that true by walking Pujols? Isn’t the potential for big damage greater w/ Pujols at the plate and 2 runners on than it is w/ Ludwick up and the bases loaded? The Book examined this scenario – when should exceptional hitters be intentionally walked? The most similar scenario to last night’s was when it looked at a hitter w/ a wOBA of .465 (Albert’s current wOBA is .455 and his career wOBA is .435) and every hitter following him is a league average hitter w/ roughly a wOBA of .335. Ludwick’s current wOBA is .327 but his career wOBA is .360. Duncan’s current wOBA is .329 for his career it is .355. Molina’s numbers are .339 and .299 and Ankiel’s are .312 and .341. We’re talking about 4 guys who are, at least, in the neighborhood of league average and, in a couple of cases at least, somewhat better than league average. The Book determined that the intentional walk to Pujols in the scenario the Royals were facing last night – w/ a great hitter followed by 4 roughly league average hitters – increased the OFFENSE’S win expectancy by .193 or 19.3%. In the scenario Leyland faced Tuesday night, the Cards’ win expectancy rose by .131 or 13.1%. The bottom line – it’s a bad move even considering the fact that it’s Albert Pujols they’re walking.

The Book found that there are almost no circumstances where it would make sense to intentionally walk Pujols. If there is a runner on 2nd and 2 outs, the effect of an intentional walk favors the pitching team, but it’s negligible – 0.4%. The only scenario when it definitely makes sense to walk even an Albert Pujols-like hitter (setting aside any platoon splits) is if there are runners on 2nd and 3rd and 2 outs in the inning. A walk in this circumstance favors the pitching team by 3.3% (notice there’s no potential for a double play here). The effect is somewhat different in the bottom of the ninth, as you might expect, but our discussion here deals with every other inning scenario.

The Book reaches the conclusion that it almost never makes sense to intentionally walk a hitter, even Pujols, w/ no one out. With one out, a team should never intentionally walk a hitter if doing so advances the lead runner. With 2 out, the walk only makes sense to Pujols if there are runners on 2nd and 3rd.

So how should this affect Cards’ strategy? First of all, as Cards’ fans, though we like to see Pujols hit, we should almost always want the opposing manager to make the mistake of intentionally walking Pujols. Second, we notice – from reading The Book – that the run-scoring environment is affected by the number of hitters who will most certainly hit in that inning following Pujols plus 1. In other words, if there is no one out, 3 men will almost certainly hit but the potential impact of the 4th also affects the amount of runs we should score. If there is 1 out, 3 men matter. If there are 2 out, 2 men matter though, in each case, the impact of the last hitter is much smaller than the impact of the previous hitters. That said, the run-scoring environment is affected by the previous hitters nearly equally. With no one out, the burden last night didn’t fall entirely on Ludwick. It fell on Ludwick, Duncan, and Molina almost equally. (Don’t believe me – read pp. 302-304.)

For our purposes, then, it almost doesn’t matter which of Duncan, Ludwick, or Rasmus follow Pujols. If Ankiel returns to form, he could fit there as well. Molina’s not quite in their league but, if he continues hitting this year the way he’s begun the season, he could provide adequate protection for Pujols. Remember – we’re better off when teams intentionally walk Pujols. Our lineup, therefore, needs to be focused on getting runners on base in front of Pujols rather than worrying "protection" after Pujols. As long as the hitters following Pujols are league averagish or better, he’ll be "protected" as well as we can protect him. The true protection comes from getting runners on base in front of him and forcing the opposition into situations where they have to decide whether or not to pitch to him. And the more intentional walks Pujols receives, the better off we’ll be.