Texas Rangers v Houston Astros

The Astros shocked the world with their 8-2 opening day defeat of the Rangers on Opening Night. Of course, we really shouldn’t be surprised — the Astros were an MLB team playing at home, and even the historically inept 1962 Mets won at home 27.5 percent of the time. And this year’s Astros are better than the 1962 Mets.

Still, Houston’s 2-0 lead entering the fifth inning felt tenuous at best. The idea of Bud Norris and the Astros’ bullpen shutting down the Rangers’ lineup completely was far-fetched; they were going to need more.

In the bottom of the frame, the Astros pulled away with two more runs. The key play was a Ronny Cedeno-and-Brandon Barnes hit-and-run, which turned from a single into a “triple” as Nelson Cruz fumbled the ball around right field and Ian Kinsler bobbled the relay throw. Barnes scored comically easy thanks to his running start. Cedeno scored the Astros’ fourth run on the proceeding at-bat, a Jose Altuve single.

The play was worth plus-9.2 percent WPA, good for third-largest of the game behind Justin Maxwell‘s two-RBI triple in the fourth and Rick Ankiel‘s three-run home run to ice the game in the sixth. The copious amount of moving parts, however, makes it the most interesting by a wide margin.

The hit-and-run, somehow, has seemingly evaded dissection under the sabermetric microscope. Whereas Mitchell G. Lichtman — colloquially known as MGL, one of the authors of a definitive sabermetric tome, The Book — devoted 6,269 words to a pair of sacrifice bunts in the 2009 ALCS, the term “hit-and-run” doesn’t even appear in The Book‘s index.

I think this owes to the uniquenss of the hit-and-run play — it’s one of the few baseball manuevers which requires strict timing and execution to pull off. As such, it’s difficult to analyze it as a decision, as we do with the sacrifice bunt or stolen base, rather than merely analyze its execution.

It’s easy to see the hit-and-run as a risk reducing play, as starting the runner at first base limits the chance of a ground ball double play. The potential reward exists, too, as we saw with Cedeno — a ball hit to the right side will almost certainly push the runner to third base, and the running start can gain another extra base on an error or a hit past the outfielder.

But here we are assuming proper execution. Such execution demands much from the players involved. The runner must avoid a pickoff but get a good jump and the batter must make contact with whatever pitch he faces just to avoid a caught stealing. If contact is actually made, the batter must avoid a line drive to an infielder, a sure double play. To actually reap the benefits, the batter must hit the ball to the opposite field and out of the outfielder’s range; in many cases — a foul or a fly out — starting the runner turns out to be a futile endeavor.

To make matters worse for the Astros, Matt Harrison is excellent at suppressing the running game. He has allowed just 14 stolen bases on 27 attempts (51.9 percent) over 94 starts and 624.1 innings spanning five seasons; six of the 13 caught stealings came on pickoffs.

On a hit-and-run, the baserunner is not going on the pitcher’s first move, as most basestealers do against left-handers. Instead, he must make sure the pitcher is going to the plate. Harrison uses a quick slide step, and as such Barnes’s jump off first base was poor, even by the lower standards of a hit-and-run play:

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You can see the trail of the ball exiting the lower right corner, and yet Barnes hasn’t even begun his acceleration towards second base. As such, he’s lucky Cedeno even made contact with the wild pitch Harrison uncorked:

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It was practically a pitchout; had Cedeno failed to make contact, A.J. Pierzynski probably throws Barnes out by two or three steps.

But Cedeno did make contact, and he almost hit the ball too hard. Cruz has a strong arm, and thanks to Barnes’s poor jump, he may have had a play at third base. Cruz reached the ball on the third hop, but as soon as it ricocheted off his legs Barnes’s jump became more than enough to guarantee a run.

On the relay, Ian Kinsler may have had a play at third — it was impossible to tell live or on replay, as the camera never gave us a good view of Cedeno on the bases — but his focus was on a potential play at the plate, leading to a bobble and Cedeno subsequently cruising into third.

For Houston, the play was a coach’s dream. Cedeno not only made contact with a difficult pitch, he kept it in play and to the opposite field, as the hit-and-run dictates. Barnes was able to overcome a poor jump by running hard and keeping his eyes on his base coach. It shows why managers are willing to take the risk of putting the runner in motion: perfect execution can yield big results, and it puts pressure on defensive players to make clean, quick plays in the field.

The Astros turned that execution and the Rangers’ cracks under its pressure into two quick, important runs Sunday night. The end result? Say hello to your AL West first place Houston Astros.

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