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A Great Example of Pitch-by-Pitch Strategy

Tom Tippett
October 14, 1998

In game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the Padres and Braves, a critical situation arose in the top of the fourth inning. The Braves were trailing 2-1, and a pair of singles had put men on first and third with one out. John Smoltz, the Braves starting pitcher, was due up.

The Braves, who were down three games to one and facing elimination, had to decide whether to let Smoltz bat or go with a pinch hitter. That decision was fairly easy. As pitchers go, Smoltz has been a better-than-average hitter the last couple of years, and it didn't make sense to pull an often-dominant pitcher this early in the game with only one out in the inning. Especially when the bullpen has been Atlanta's achilles heel all season.

OK, so Smoltz is coming to the plate. If you're managing the Braves, what do you do? Do you let him swing away, risking an inning-ending double play? Do you ask Smoltz to sacrifice the runner to second, holding the runner at third, putting two men in scoring position for your leadoff hitter? Do you have him put down a squeeze bunt? If it's going to be a squeeze, do you use the suicide squeeze (where the runner breaks from third when the pitcher begins his motion) or the safety squeeze (where the runner waits to see the ball in play before breaking for home)?

And if you're the Padres, how do you defend against these possibilities? Well, let's see what did happen.

On the first pitch, the Padres pitcher, Andy Ashby, faked a pickoff throw to third, and Smoltz slid his hand up the bat as if to bunt, giving away the fact that some type of bunt play was on.

On the next pitch, Ashby came home with the pitch. Smoltz swung away, fouling it off for strike one. Knowing that the bunt had been given away on the first pitch, Braves manager Bobby Cox took off the bunt sign this time.

With an 0-1 count on the hitter, the Braves tried a suicide squeeze. But the Padres outguessed them and pitched out. The runner on third, Andruw Jones, was a sitting duck, and was easily retired in the ensuing rundown. The Braves scored no more runs that inning, and were still trailing 2-1 when they took the field in the bottom of the fourth.

In my view, Cox was wrong to use the suicide squeeze in this situation. With Smoltz down in the count, he should have known that the Padres could afford to pitch out, especially with a pitcher hitting. Perhaps a squeeze was in order, but under the circumstances, a safety squeeze would have been a better choice.

It was a quintessential baseball moment. Several viable tactical options on both sides. A classic cat-and-mouse game, with each side getting another chance to outguess the other on every pitch.

A few people have asked me why I think the pitch-by-pitch option that we added to Diamond Mind Baseball in version 7 is a big deal. Well, it's because of situations like this one. If this situation had come up in version 6, or in the games put out by our competitors, you wouldn't have had the same options as Bruce Bochy and Bobby Cox -- to make a pickoff throw or to pitch out, to choose among a suicide squeeze, a safety squeeze and a straight sacrifice, to make new tactical choices after every pitch.

Other games (and older versions of our game) give the offensive manager only one real decision to make -- bunt or swing away. And other games put the defensive manager in a totally passive role, since he does not have the pitchout and pickoff throw options at his disposal. In a critical situation in a critical game, most of the real strategy is lost in a game that operates at the batter-by-batter level. This is why we added the pitch-by-pitch option to the game in version 7.

Copyright © 1998. Diamond Mind, Inc. All rights reserved.