The Road Not Taken: Why Didn’t Alex Gordon Try Stealing Home?

Jackie Stealing Home on Yogi

Jackie Stealing Home on Yogi

We will debate forever whether the Kansas City third base coach should have sent Alex Gordon home on the outfield miscue with two outs in the 9th inning of game seven in the 2014 world series, and unhittable Madison Bumgarner on the mound.  It seems like we’ve already been debating it forever. But only one sports writer I could find, Craig Calcaterra, has asked the question: “Why didn’t Alex Gordon try to steal home?”

Good question Craig!  Poets and philosophers from Robert Frost to Yogi Berra have waxed eloquent about Roads Not Taken and Forks in the Road. Frost took the Road Less Traveled. Yogi just urged “taking it.”  And Gordon died at third base.

Gordon stealing home crossed my mind too, as I watched him standing on third, two outs, KC up against the wall, and Bumgarner in total command. He and just about everyone else, must have felt in their gut that the next hitter — poor, banged up Salvy Perez — was already toast; and the Giants just one out from winning their third world series in five years,

What would Jackie Robinson, Pete Reiser, or Rod Carew have done in this situation?”  Why, of course, they’d have attempted a steal to tie the game, and give KC a fighting chance of winning in extra innings.  At least I like to think so. They wouldn’t have just died at third base.  Or would they?

Craig Calcaterra was being fair to Gordon and manager Ned Yost, admitting that he’s not enough of a SABRmetrician (a Money Ball analyst) to know if the odds favored an attempted steal. Here is what I think a good SABRmetrician would say.

Since there have been so few attempts to steal home since the stat geeks started recording every play in every baseball game, there aren’t good data on the success of home plate thefts or on the all important “break even point.”  The “break even point” is the rate of success needed for an attempted steal of home to make sense (in Gordon’s situation).  Since there are so many other ways to score from third base, an attempted steal of home can be a bad play. Would it have been a bad play for Yost and Gordon?

The best analysis I’ve seen on this subject is by SABRmetrician, Josh Goldman, in a 2011 Fangraphs article. Mr. Goldman says that, in general, a prospective thief of home plate , with two outs, needs to succeed about one-third of the time for the play to make sense. i.e., below a success rate of 33%, the runner is more likely to score due to a base hit, passed ball, error, wild pitch, balk and several other scoring possibilities. So, again, an attempted steal would not make sense…..if the expected rate of success is below 33%.

Did Alex Gordon have a better than 33% chance of stealing home?  I would say the answer is clearly YES, though, I don’t fault either the player or manager for not having read (or understood) Josh Goldman’s article.

Why am I so bullish on the steal option?  First, the probability of the hobbled Perez getting a base hit, or even putting the ball in play, against the unhittable Bumgarner,  was much smaller than in Goldman’s “break even” calculation (for the average case).

But, there’s a lot more:

Even though Bumgarner was throwing from the stretch, he doesn’t have an especially quick delivery. In fact, he reaches back quite far in his motion, as you can see in this video.  And, with first base open, all of Bumgarner’s pitches were (deliberately) high and out of the strike zone, meaning the catcher would likely have had a long way to go to apply a tag to a sliding Gordon.

And,  Perez is a right handed batter, which makes it marginally harder for a catcher to react to an attempted steal.  Also, Bumgarner as a lefty, would not have seen Gordon roaming off third base quite as quickly as a right-hander.   The stars were aligned for a steal of home in the world series.  Only thing missing was Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra; or Yost’s familiarity with SABRmetrics.

So, under these special conditions, for an attempted steal to make sense, Gordon would have needed even less than the 33% success rate derived from Mr. Goldman’s generic data; maybe something in the 20 to 25 percent range.

Based on data I found for 2012, among the few runners who attempt straight steals of home, the success rate was about 40%.  These included many speedsters, but also some runners with average speed.  How fast is Alex Gordon?  He’s a big guy, but has stolen 50 bases in the last four years; a lot in this era.  A Kansas City Star sports writer who watches Gordon all the time, thinks he’s got pretty good speed.

So, why didn’t Yost or Gordon take the road less traveled?  As I mentioned earlier, the play is so rare these days, not only is it possible that Yost didn’t give it more than a nano second of thought; it’s likely Gordon had never tried it before, maybe not even in little league. Was there even a sign for a steal of home that Gordon might have looked for?  Probably not,

If Robert Frost had been manager, he would no doubt have coaxed Gordon into taking the road less traveled, perhaps in a poem slipped to Gordon by the third base coach.  Yogi would have just told Gordon to take the fork in the road.  Alex might have been picked off third base while pondering that one.

Either way it would have been a helluva play; one of the memorable ones in world series history, and replayed for years, even if it failed.  A Road Not Taken.








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