Francona managing by the numbers?

October, 13, 2009
10/13/09
2:21
PM ET
John Harper on the surprise ending to the Red Sox's season:
    The Red Sox love their numbers, we know that. Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, is a consultant to the organization. GM Theo Epstein is a "Moneyball" disciple, and once upon a time Terry Francona was hired as manager at least partly because of his devotion to statistical analysis.

    Obviously you can't argue with their success in recent years, but the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs by the Angels Sunday in shocking fashion, losing Game 3 at least partly because Francona paid dearly for allowing the almighty numbers to dictate his ninth-inning strategy in the 7-6 defeat.

    --snip--

    So the Angels had put runners at second and third with two outs in the ninth, trailing by a run because [Jonathan] Papelbon had allowed a single, a walk and Bobby Abreu's RBI double off the Green Monster, as Fenway Park suddenly went silent.

    [Torii] Hunter was due up but Francona decided to intentionally walk him, loading the bases for [Vladimir] Guerrero, trusting the numbers.

    In his career, Hunter was 3-for-5 with a home run and a strikeout against Papelbon, while Guerrero was 1-for-10 with a walk and three strikeouts in 11 plate appearances against the Boston closer.

    Is that enough to dare a hitter like Guerrero to beat you at such a crucial moment? It was for Francona.

    "It's tough to walk the bases loaded," he said afterward. "But Pap throws strikes and he had had a lot of success against Guerrero. I think Hunter was probably 3-for-7 with a homer against him.

    "I guess, to put it in a nutshell, we thought it would give us a better chance to win. It didn't work."

In the immortal (and obviously apocryphal) words of Tonto, "Who's this 'we', Kemo Sabe?"

"We thought it would give us a better chance to win?"

I'm very nearly certain that Terry Francona was not, at the moment of decision, on the phone with Bill James or Theo Epstein or even Billy Beane, the guy who wrote "Moneyball." If he had called Bill or Theo (or Billy), he probably would have been informed that batter-vs.-pitcher numbers, with their generally tiny sample sizes, tell us absolutely nothing about whether or not an intentional walk is in order.

In fact, if you draw up a list of sabermetric marching orders, "Thou shalt not intentionally walk the bases loaded" is somewhere near the top, particularly if you're not: 1) gaining a platoon advantage or 2) desperate to set up a force at the plate or a double play.

Harper writes, "This wasn't a Grady Little moment, to be sure. And in no way does it absolve Jonathan Papelbon of his horrific meltdown."

Correct on both counts. But it wasn't anything like a sabermetrics moment, either.

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