The Play That May Have Turned Game Four Against the Indians

No game is ever decided in its entirety by a single play, but a curious third inning decision by the Cleveland Indians in Game Four of the ALCS certainly didn’t help matters.

The Cleveland Indians ran into a buzzsaw named Aaron Sanchez in Tuesday’s Game Four of the American League Championship Series. Sanchez tossed six innings of one-run, two-hit ball as the Toronto Blue Jays won 5-1 to stave off elimination.

Given the lack of offensive production from Cleveland, and the commanding 3-1 lead the club still holds in the series, it’s easy to write the loss off as just one of those games that every team has. Playoffs or not, no team is likely to rip off the 11 wins in a row (for non-Wild Card teams) needed to win the World Series, and as much as the Indians have defied the odds this season, they are not the exception.

One loss is not a reason to panic, either, and while fans and some in the baseball media are convinced the sky is falling, the guys in the clubhouse are not.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor put it this way:

“Some days, the other team is just better. We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy series. We just need to come back tomorrow and play better baseball, play like the Tribe. That’s all.”

The sentiment is true. This is a Cleveland team that is still just one win away from punching its ticket to the World Series. But it’s also fair to question why that win didn’t come in Game Four, and one curious decision early in the game may point to an answer.

After navigating the first two innings with just a walk and no real danger, Sanchez threw a 94 mile per hour two-seamer right into center fielder Tyler Naquin’s nitro zone low and out over the plate leading off the top of the third. Naquin put a fine swing on the ball, driving it into the left-center gap for a standup double.

At this point, with a runner in scoring position and nobody out, the Indians’ win expectancy in the game shot up to 57 percent. The Tribe now has a critical opportunity to play from in front and the potential makings of a big inning, right?

Catcher Roberto Perez followed Naquin, and while there was no one at the Rogers Centre or watching on television that was surprised by the fact that he was called on to lay down a sacrifice bunt, that doesn’t mean it was the right call. Perez laid down an effective sacrifice, moving Naquin to third with the lineup turning over, and Cleveland’s win probability actually decreased to 55 percent.

As we know, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis both grounded out to second base after that to end the inning and strand Naquin at third. The Indians’ win probability due to the wasted opportunity fell to 44 percent, and after Josh Donaldson took Corey Kluber deep for a 1-0 Blue Jays’ lead in the bottom half of the inning, nosedived to 37 percent.

Perez would double off the wall in left-center his next time up, driving in the Tribe’s only run of the game, and leaving everyone involved to wonder what would have happened if he’d been swinging away in the third.

There’s no way to know, of course, and he could just have likely struck out, popped up on the infield, or hit a lazy grounder that would have left the runner standing on second base. But the fact that the widely-accepted strategy of using the sacrifice bunt, particularly so early in the game, actually hurt Cleveland’s odds of winning the game makes it perfectly acceptable to question why it was done.

Bunting is gospel in baseball. But as we’ve begun to see with other closely-held truths of the game like pitcher wins and closers being kept in bubble wrap only until the ninth inning, gospel doesn’t mean untouchable. After a game in which the decision to bunt possibly altered the outcome (no way to know for sure), perhaps it’s time for the Indians to rethink their strategy.

Tribe manager Terry Francona has proven to be an effective blend of old-school baseball orthodoxy and new-school advancements in strategy, but some deeply-ingrained beliefs like the value of the bunt are difficult to break free of. It’s unfair to say Cleveland lost Game Four solely because of a sacrifice bunt in the third inning, but much like failing to bring in a closer before the final frame, the decision neglects the fact that the game is always, always on the line. If the Indians find themselves in a similar situation going forward, perhaps the best strategy would be to abandon the accepted one.

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