Last season, Chad Holbrook took a ton of grief for bunting Joey Pankake with two on and no one out in the first inning of the Gamecocks' final game of the year, a 5-4 loss to top-seeded North Carolina. Some of that grief came from me.
One thing I've loved about Holbrook over the last 8 months has been his willingness to acknowledge the error. In a subscription-only article posted by The Big Spur's John Whittle, Holbrook expressed regret about the decision, saying he should have let Pankake swing away.
Today, Whittle (the class of Carolina baseball coverage, notwithstanding our own fine coverage here at Garnet and Black Attack) posted another interesting item from the Carolina-Clemson series (again, subscription required). In the fifth inning of the Gamecocks' 5-3 win on Sunday, Holbrook sent Connor Bright home from third on a grounder back to the pitcher with no outs and a runner also on first. Bright stayed in a rundown long enough for the runners to get to 2nd and 3rd with one out and no runs scored. Had Bright held long enough to allow Clemson to start the double play, he likely would've scored, though Carolina would have no one on and two outs (though with a run in).
Is this the right choice? Absolutely. Per Boyd Nation's expected runs table, a team can expect to score the following number of runs in the most common situations to result from this choice:
|Empty, 2 outs, run in||1.12||Runner scores, defense turns DP|
|1st and 2nd, 1 out, no runs||1.10||Lead runner out, others safe|
|2nd and 3rd, 1 out, no runs||1.56||Lead runner out, others advance two bases|
|3rd, 2 outs, no runs||0.45||Hold runner, defense turns DP|
Basically, if the Tigers go after Bright and get him, the Gamecocks' expected runs are unchanged - 1.12 to 1.10 is a negligible difference in what to expect from the inning. And if the Tigers don't go after Bright but just turn the double play, it's similarly about the same result.
But here's the key - sending Bright also gives us the chance for what happened, which was the runners advancing to 2nd and 3rd. That's actually a better result than Bright scoring, as it increases our net expected runs in the inning overall. All of this also assumes that Clemson can execute the rundown successfully, which given the involvement of a catcher, may be harder than turning a clean double play (that's debatable, and feel free to debate it).
That means that sending Bright carries almost no risk (the outcome is normally going to be the same whether he scores or not for the Gamecocks over time) but plenty of upside if he can get in a rundown long enough to get the runners to 2nd and 3rd. Any chance you have at an all-upside bet, you need to make. And Carolina did.
The only possible objection here may be if you think the one run itself is critically important. But the odds of scoring at least one run with 1st and 2nd 1 out and 2nd and 3rd 1 out is higher than if you have a runner on 3rd with two outs. So unless you think the runner has a very high percentage chance of making it home, the percentage play is to send him just to rely on the other baserunners to score, because it preserves an offense's most precious asset - outs.
This is great baseball by the Gamecocks, and better yet, it goes to show that Chad Holbrook and his staff think about these things and make the right choices. If Holbrook continues to grow as a game manager - given his abilities as a coach and recruiter, along with those of Jerry Myers and the rest of the Gamecock coaching staff - the program is well-placed to continuing its excellence in the years to come under his leadership.