World Series Meltdown, Moneyball, and Ron Washington

Cite this Article
Hal Singer, World Series Meltdown, Moneyball, and Ron Washington, Truth on the Market (October 31, 2011),

Watching my baseball team get eliminated from the World Series was hard to swallow. Watching it happen two years in a row was worse. And watching a manager make critical mistakes when a championship was on the line in Game 6 was beyond the pale. As endearing as Ron Washington is to watch during a rally—his running in place stirs the heart—and as much as the players seem to love playing for him, it’s time to pass the baton.

(Note to TOTM readers: While the connection between a law-and-economics blog and a plea to Rangers’ management is admittedly tenuous, you have to let me vent. I am taking liberty with the “more” in “Academic commentary on law, economics, business, and more.” The alternative is doing bad things to my body or to a Cardinals fan’s body. Just remember that Moneyball has more to do with economics and arbitrage than with baseball. I’ll connect this back to Moneyball in a moment.)

Sports writers have picked up on the questionable “gut” calls by Washington during the Series, including (1) why Esteban German was added to the Game 1 lineup that was always bottom-heavy, (2) why, with a two-run lead in the 10th inning of Game 6, Neftali Feliz was removed facing the bottom two hitters of the Cardinals lineup, (3) why Derek Holland did not start Game 7, and (4) why Nelson Cruz was in the ninth inning of Game 6 with a bad groin with a two-run lead with a better defensive player, Endy Chavez, on the bench.  I want to focus on the fourth, and in my mind, most critical error.

Even if Cruz were at 100 percent health, the decision to replace him in the ninth inning with a defensive specialist was straightforward. Because Cruz’s bad defense in Games 1 (he slid feet-first into a catchable ball) and 6 (after failing to get in “no-doubles-defense” position, he misplayed a ball against the wall) were predictable based on his performance during the regular season, Washington should get the blame. Given Cruz’s groin injury, the decision to replace him at 50 percent health in the ninth inning was a no-brainer.

Thanks to Moneyball, we know that defensive statistics (beyond the simple recording of errors) are kept for each player. Fangraphs has done a good job of recreating the somewhat outdated “ultimate zone rating” (UZR) of players.

UZR assigns a run value to defense, quantifying how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess relative to the average fielder. For an outfielder, there are three components to UZR:

Outfield Arm Runs (ARM) – the amount of runs above average a fielder saves with their arm by preventing runners to advance.

Range Runs (RngR) – the amount of runs above average a fielder saves by reaching balls outside their range.

Error Runs (ErrR) – the amount of runs above average a fielder surrenders based on committing errors.

And here are the relevant stats on Cruz in right field in 2011:

Arm = -3.3, Rng = -1.9, ErrR = -1.3, UZR = -6.5, UZR per 150 games = -9.3

These data suggest that Cruz is a defensive liability in right field relative to the average player at that position. In right field, Cruz cost the Rangers 6.5 runs relative to the average fielder during the regular season in 2011. Had he played 150 games at that position (he was injured and he played a bit in left field), he would have cost the Rangers 9.3 runs relative to the average fielder

Bottom line: Those miscues by Cruz in the World Series were predictable. Because the 10th percentile UZR is -9.5 (the mean is by construction of this metric, the median or 0), Cruz (at -9.3) is actually among the worst in the league at his position—that is, roughly 90 percent of all right fielders are better than Cruz defensively. (As it turns out, Cruz is an above-average defender in left field according to UZR, and David Murphy is above-average in right field, which begs the question: Why were they playing the wrong position the entire season?)

Does Washington follow these statistics or is he just going by his gut? If the latter, then he should be moved to player development and replaced with a more cerebral manager. Ironically, Washington, played by Brent Jennings in Moneyball, was the Oakland A’s coach who traveled with Billy Beane in search of talent that could only be seen through the lens of statistical analysis. Too bad none of it rubbed off on him.