Each play in the playoffs holds extra weight compared to the regular season. An error can change a game, and a loss can doom a series. In close games and series, it is often the team that executes the small plays that comes out on top.
A particular play in Game 2 of the NLDS between Washington and Los Angeles stood out in this context: Asdrúbal Cabrera singled to right field, driving in Ryan Zimmerman. However, the throw from the outfield held up Kurt Suzuki at third base, and Cabrera was thrown out trying to advance to second base on the throw. Although the Nationals still won the game, the baserunning error was not inconsequential in the series.
Evaluating the Result with WE and RE24
Two statistics – Win Expectancy and RE24 – can be used to show why trying to advance was a bad decision.
Win expectancy (WE) is the probability a team will win given the specific circumstances. Greg Stoll’s Win Expectancy Calculator  shows how potential baserunning outcomes by Cabrera change Washington’s win expectancy in Table 1 below.
The Nationals’ win expectancy before Cabrera’s single was 82.7%. The highest WE is 93.4% and results when Cabrera gets to second base, however, staying at first only decreases Washington’s win expectancy by 0.9%. In comparison, getting thrown out decreases their chances by 6.7% compared to staying at first. A 0.9% increase in WE is probably not worth risking 6.7%, especially in a playoff game where you have the lead.
RE24 captures the change in Run Expectancy (RE) while considering runs scored during the play. RE is the same concept as WE except focused on the probability of a run being scored instead of a team winning the game. The equation for RE24 is:
The change in run expectancy can be evaluated using FanGraphs’ RE24 matrix. Results are shown in Table 2.
RE24 also shows how risky Cabrera’s baserunning was. Making it to second increases his RE24 by 0.212, but getting thrown out decreases it by 0.727. Staying at first would have given the Nationals a good opportunity to score more runs and pad their lead in a big road playoff game.
Burning Scherzer in Relief
It is easy to dismiss this baserunning error because the Nationals won the game and were never really at risk of losing after. In fact, their WE never dropped below 80% for the rest of the game. But the difference in a close win and a blowout win can be huge later in the series.
Dave Martinez used ace Max Scherzer (2.45 FIP) in relief in the bottom of the eighth inning to shut down the Dodgers. This put his next projected start in question and could have derailed the team’s postseason rotation plans. If Cabrera stays at first, Washington has a better chance to score more runs in the eighth inning. If they do, maybe Martinez skips Scherzer in relief and the scheduled rotation never finds itself at risk.
There is no way to know the direct effect of Cabrera’s baserunning error, but in the playoffs, execution of baseball fundamentals become all the more important. This series against the Dodgers could not have been much closer, and Washington needed every advantage they could get to advance.
Engineer and former DIII baseball player. See more of my work at fanalytics.weebly.com