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Examining Terry Francona’s strategy in the 7th inning of ALCS Game 4

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Indians manager Terry Francona chose a seemingly poor strategy in the top of the seventh inning to try and see his team out of a no-outs jam against the Blue Jays and it didn’t pan out. While the choice earned him immediate and widespread criticism — at least from what I saw on Twitter — I think it was the correct choice and I’d like to try to explain why.

First, let’s set up the scenario. Reliever Bryan Shaw was on the hill. He allowed leadoff batter Ryan Goins to reach on a single to left field. Jose Bautista then hit a tapper to the left side of the mound, which Shaw fielded cleanly but threw wildly past first base. Goins moved to third base on the error. With reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson coming to the plate, Francona came to the mound to discuss the situation. Ultimately, Shaw intentionally walked Donaldson to load the bases. This was the controversial move.

It didn’t work out, as Edwin Encarnacion came up and singled up the middle to plate two runs. Donaldson was thrown out at third base on the play while Encarnacion advanced to second. Reliever Mike Clevenger entered the game and was able to see the Indians out of the inning.

The obvious downside of walking the bases loaded is that it increases the Blue Jays’ run expectancy. According to Baseball Prospectus, during the 2016 season, teams scored an average of 1.68 runs when they had runners on first and third base with no outs. They scored an average of 2.27 runs with the bases loaded and no outs. So, generally speaking, the Indians gave the Jays a half-run more with the walk. (There’s some noise included with that number, as pitchers who load the bases with no outs have slightly worse skill on average than pitchers who only put runners on first and third base with no outs. But that’s another discussion.)

The walk did set up a force at every base, giving the Indians a higher probability of getting out of the inning giving up exactly zero runs. That’s the “winning” play as opposed to the “lose less” play. Going into the eighth inning, the Indians’ win probability based on their deficit looks like this, according to The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin:

  • Down by one run: 26.6%
  • Down by two runs: 14.6%
  • Down by three runs: 7.7%
  • Down by four runs: 4.0%

Since the Indians would expect to give up two runs on average, their deficit should be expected to be three runs. And there’s no meaningful difference between a three- and four-run deficit, so putting the third runner on base doesn’t really matter. Meanwhile, if the Indians are able to escape the inning, they’re still very much alive. The difference between escaping the inning unscathed and the expected outcome is nearly 20 percent in win probability.

Beyond the in-game strategy, there are outside factors to consider. The bullpen was taxed heavily in Game 3 as starter Trevor Bauer could only go two-thirds of an inning. Starter Corey Kluber was pitching on short rest in his Game 4 start. Clinching the ALCS on Tuesday and giving the pitching staff potentially an entire week of rest might have set them up well going into the World Series.

Francona’s gamble was worth it. It didn’t pay off, but the Indians weren’t likely winning Game 4 once the Blue Jays put runners on first and third with no outs in the bottom of the seventh anyway.

Indians send down Clevinger, Plesac after virus blunder

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CLEVELAND — After hearing Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac explain their actions, the Cleveland Indians sent the pitchers to their alternate training site on Friday after the two broke team rules and Major League Baseball coronavirus protocol last weekend in Chicago.

Clevinger and Plesac drove to Detroit separately with their baseball equipment on Thursday for an “open forum” meeting at the team’s hotel before the Indians opened a series with the Tigers.

Indians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said following “the discussion” that he met with manager Terry Francona, general manager Mike Chernoff and decided it was best to option Plesac and Clevinger to the alternate training site instead of allowing them to rejoin the team.

“We had a chance to meet as small group and decided this would be the best path of action for us,” Antonetti said.

So before the opener, the Indians activated Clevinger and Plesac from the restricted list and optioned them to Lake County.

It’s a stunning slide for the right-handers and close friends, both considered important pieces for the Indians. There’s no indication when they may be back on Cleveland’s roster. They’ll have to be at Lake County for at least 10 days.

Last weekend, the pitchers broke the team’s code of conduct implemented during the pandemic by leaving the team hotel and having dinner and socializing with friends of Plesac’s and risking contracting the virus.

While the Indians got a car service to take Plesac back to Cleveland, Clevinger flew home with the team after not telling the Indians he had been out with his teammate.

Although both players have twice tested negative for COVID-19 this week, the Indians aren’t ready to have them back.

Earlier this week, pitcher Adam Plutko said he felt betrayed.

“They hurt us bad,” Plutko said after Cleveland’s lost 7-1 to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. “They lied to us. They sat here in front of you guys and publicly said things that they didn’t follow through on.”

Antonetti was asked if there are still hard feeling in the clubhouse toward the pair.

“We’re all a family,” Antonetti said. “We spend a lot of time together. Sometimes there are challenges in families you have to work through. I’d use that analogy as it applies here. There are things that have happened over the course of the last week that have been less than ideal and people have some thoughts and feelings about that.”

Both Clevinger and Plesac issued apologies in the days after their missteps. However, on Thursday, the 25-year-old Plesac posted a six-minute video on Instagram in which he acknowledged breaking team curfew but then aimed blame at the media, saying he and Clevinger were being inaccurately portrayed as “bad people.”

Antonetti said he watched the video.

“I’m not sure Zach was able to convey what he intended to convey in the video after having a chance to speak with him afterwards,” he said. “I think if he had a do-over, he may have said things a bit differently.”

Francona also felt Plesac could have chosen a better way to handle the aftermath.

“I was disappointed,” he said.