There was an interesting play in the Oakland A’s game against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday.
In the 3rd inning, the A’s led 2-1, and they had a runner on third base (Matt Olson) with one out. At the plate was Matt Chapman, who worked a 2-2 count and then lofted a fly ball into the left field corner. There was plenty of time for outfielder Billy Hamilton to get there and make the routine catch, but it was also deep enough that there was no chance at throwing out Olson at the plate. The run scored on a sac fly, increasing Oakland’s lead to 3-1, and neither team scored again the rest of the day.
Here’s the play.
Chappy has 6⃣9⃣ RBIs this season pic.twitter.com/DH3YLaEKup— The Rickey Henderson of Blogs (@RickeyBlog) September 9, 2021
Here’s the question: Would it have been better for the White Sox if Hamilton had let that ball drop?
If the ball lands, then it’s foul, no harm done. Chapman continues batting with a 2-2 count, and Chicago gets another chance to prevent the run from scoring. Chapman is second in all of MLB in strikeouts, and there were already two strikes in the count, so the matchup is favorable if you’re trying to avoid allowing contact.
However, there’s also a risk. Given another opportunity, Chapman could come through and get a hit to score the run anyway, or even a homer, or he could draw a walk to put two runners on with one out. Giving up the easy out might mean opening a chance for a bigger rally early in the game.
There’s also the matter of practicality. From our viewpoint it was clear that the ball was going foul, but Hamilton had to run over to get it, while playing in a visiting park with its own unique dimensions. He would need to be absolutely certain it was foul and make that judgment in real time while in motion and looking up at the air to track the fly. It’s not quite the same as a third baseman deciding whether a bunt will stay fair, with both the ball and the chalk in plain view.
But leaving aside that last part and assuming the outfielder can be sure that the ball is in foul territory, what’s the play here? Of course it relies heavily on context — if it’s going to be the walk-off run in the 9th inning then obviously let it drop, and if you’re leading 10-0 then go ahead and get the out instead of making your pitcher work more.
How about in this case?
It was a close game but it was still early. One way to turn a close game into a not-close game is to make mistakes that give your opponent extra chances. But on the other hand, if it remains a close game (which it did) then that scarce run might loom large, putting the opponent up two instead of just one.
Chapman makes an out 68% of the time and strikes out 31.5% of the time, but only gets a hit 22% of the time, and he already had two strikes on him. The pitcher still had the advantage in terms of odds, plus the benefit of the righty-righty matchup. But Chapman also has power and he’s hot right now and he just hit this fly fairly deep, so maybe get him out of there while you can.
It also matters that there was only one runner on base. If the bags were packed as part of a bigger rally then you might be more inclined to prioritize the out, especially if there weren’t any outs yet. With just the single runner and one out already, the downside of rolling the dice is lower.
There’s not necessarily a right answer here, but it’s an intriguing idea to discuss. It combines elements of a couple other concepts, like playing the infield in to make a throw home on a grounder (possibly trading an out to stop a run), and sort of an intentional walk equation (accept this imperfect result, or take your chances against the hitter). What would you do?
Armchair outfielder! What would you do if you were Billy Hamilton in this exact situation?
Let it drop