Evaluating Rob Thomson

Late-night rumors: Rays, Yanks battling for 4th OFers
Kevin Long making his rounds this winter
Thanks for nothing, Randy. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Earlier this week the Yankees did the expected and brought their entire coaching staff – sans Dave Eiland – back for the 2010 season. Third base coach Robbie Thomson was obviously included in that mix. I don’t think there’s anything more disappointing or frustrating in baseball than a runner being thrown out at home, so I wanted to evaluate how the Yankees, and Thomson by association, fared in this department last season. With a hat tip to R.J. Anderson for some procedural assistance, I did just that.

There are really just two situations in which a third base coach sends a runner: when there’s a single with a man on second and when there’s a double with a man on first. Now that’s just a general statement because not all singles are created equally (a runner’s not going to score, or even necessarily advance from second on an infield single) and the same is true of doubles (umpires can allow a runner to score from first on a ground rule double at their discretion, but we rarely see it happen). All I did for this post was look at these situations to see how many times a runner was sent and how many times he scored.

Before we get into the data, there’s two important things to mention. First of all, I eliminated plays with errors. So if a runner scored because the outfielder made a bad throw or bobbling the ball, I just ignored the play and treated it as if it never happened. Secondly, remember that there can be other runners on base as well. If there’s a runner on second when there’s a single, there can also be a runner on first and/or third at the same time, but we don’t care about those guys. Our attention is paid just to that guy on second. Same deal when there’s a a double hit with a man on first, we don’t care what the other two potential runners ahead of him do. Now that that’s over with, here’s the stats…

Update: Typo in the tables, it says double with a man on third. That should be first, obviously. The data is correct however.

Okay great, now what? For this to tell us anything meaningful, we need context, so here’s the same data for the other 29 teams in the league…

At first glance we see that last year, the Yankees were below average at scoring from second on a single when the runner was sent, but above average when scoring from first on a double, again when the runner was sent. That “when the runner is sent” part is important, because we’re only looking at instances when the runner actually tries to score. Poor old Jorge Posada is barely able to go from first to third on most doubles, but we’re not going to hold that against the team here.

Even though the team was below average at scoring from second on a single, we have to remember that we’re dealing with a pretty small sample of data. If one of those seven runners is called safe instead of out, their success rate in those situations climbs to 94.5%, which for all intents and purposes is league average. When it comes to rounding third and scoring, the Yankees are basically average once again. The 0.6% difference overall (both situations) is nothing, it’s not worth getting upset over. League average isn’t sexy, but the Yankees aren’t a team that needs every last runner to score to be successful.  I have a feeling that if  I went back and looked at the data for former third base coach Bobby Meacham, it would be a lot more interesting. That’s another post for another time.

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

One thing I have to mention is that the the title of this post really isn’t fair, because sending a runner home in these spots isn’t entirely up to him Thomson. Sure, he puts up the stop sign or waves guys in, but how often do we see a player run through the stop sign? It happens quite a bit, but it isn’t accounted for in this data. Another thing to remember is that the umpires have a say as well. They botch calls at the plate, and that will skew the numbers as well. I’m sure that stuff evens out over a 162 game season, so it’s not a huge concern.

Objectively, I think Thomson does a fine job. A runner getting thrown out at home doesn’t automatically equal a bad send, because a lot of times it takes a perfect relay throw and tag by the defense. I guess there’s two ways to look at it: you don’t want the Yanks to take unnecessary risks because their lineup is so strong, so being a little conservative at third isn’t the end of the world. The other side of the coin is that because the Yanks have such a good lineup, they can afford to take more chances since they’ll get more opportunities to score later. We really have to look at this stuff on a case-by case basis, but this data tells us that the Yankees are doing just fine here. I’d be more concerned if they were well below average that I would be excited if they were well above.

Aside: I also took a quick glance at sacrifice flies when there was a runner at third at well, and the Yankees were a perfect 44-for-44 in that department. The third base coach doesn’t have much, if any, say in those situations though because it happens so quickly, which is why I didn’t bother to include it in the data.

Late-night rumors: Rays, Yanks battling for 4th OFers
Kevin Long making his rounds this winter
  • TIm

    Your tablessay “single w/ man on 2nd” and “double w/ man on 3rd”. That’s switched up with what you described before and after the tables and what seems to be the correct thing.

  • Monteroisdinero

    His signs are often ignored as evidenced by the swing away signs he gave to Nick Johnson and Gardy. (sarcasm)

    And Randy Winn? Greg Golson much better.

  • John

    To fully evaluate Thomson’s job, we would also have to analyze the number of times (as compared to the other teams) where Thomson put up the stop sign when the runner would have been safe at home. But that is clearly impossible to do so. Nice analysis.

    • bpdelia

      exactly. WHile I enjoyed the attempt this is one place where we can’t gain much insight with numbers.

      • Bulldozer

        You can gain some insight. Too high of a number, and he isn’t sending enough. Too low and he is sending too many. However, you would probably need to know the league standard deviation to make it meaningful.

  • http://twitter.com/billreichmann Bill in Boston

    I took the liberty of calculating some confidence intervals.. Just to give everyone a sense of the variability in these estimates.. Especially for the Yankees because of the small samples. Note: I was not able to account for within team correlation for the rest of the league because I just used the raw data. (Apologies if this double posts as for some reason I have problems w/ Mozilla)

    Scoring from 2nd on a single: (87.2%, 97.4%)
    Scoring from 1st on a double: (83.5%, 99.4%)

    Rest of the league
    Scoring from 2nd on a single: (94.1%, 95.6%)
    Scoring from 1st on a double: (92.4%, 95.3%)

  • steve (different one)

    With 2 outs, I generally want the runner sent almost every time (with obvious exceptions, Posada running, Markakis in RF, shallow sinle to LF, etc). It’s HARD to complete a throw to the plate, so you should challenge the opposition to do that. Over the course of a year, you’ll lose some guys, but you have to factor in how many runs you lose if you held the guy and the following batter made an out.

  • Dave Moore

    I recall a year when Willie Randolph *never* had a runner thrown out at home. I think it was referred to the following year when it happened to the new 3rd base coach early. I’m not saying it’s a good thing as I think Willie’s problems with just about everything stemmed from his being afraid of being called out for a bad decision. Few people complain about the no-send, at least if it’s close.

  • bpdelia

    you forgot one very important 3b coach task. ANd that is deciding to send runners on TAG plays from 3b.

    It is the third base coach who decides whether a runner tags from third and attempts to score.

    Also in my playing days in college it was the third base coach who decided whether you were going on contact or waiting for grounders to clear the infield in less than two out runner on third situations.

    Just pointing that out. In my opinion this is one of those aspects of baseball that will NEVER be able to be effectively reduced to numbers and percentages.

    There are way too many variables and they have to be examined case by case. In this instance subjective gut level analysis is going to be just as effective as objective analysis because the objective analysis is flawed.

  • http://www.baseballhalloffame.ca Tom Valcke

    Interesting data and read, but quite a flawed approach. The points mentioned in previous comments are all valid, plus there are simply way too numerous margins for error here, how many outs, what was the score, who was coming up next, who was the outfielder, who made the relay, did the runner obey Thomson, did the umpire get the call right, and so on. If the chart you created had Thomson 20% below the norm, that might warrant further discussion. He has a keen eye, great knowledge and experience in the game, he has survived in NYC 22 years, and nobody can fool anyone that long. The Yanks are lucky to have him – he should be the Blue Jays manager!

    • Wil Nieves #1 Fan

      Yes, it’s quite clear the approach is flawed, however, I think most of the readers can acknowledge that and accept the analysis for what it is. But, I agree, a true analysis would have to include what’s mentioned above. I doubt the writers would have time to compile such data.

  • Wil Nieves #1 Fan

    I’d be very interested to see how the numbers would look if they discriminated for ballpark — or even just Yankee Stadium vs. Not Yankee Stadium. And just for kicks and gigs, I’d also be interested to see the success rate based on current game score and inning. Obviously I’m being greedy now. Nice little article, Axisa.

  • http://www.baseballhalloffame.ca Tom Valcke

    Also, Thomson was quoted a couple of years ago, and an SI article similarly concluded that if a third base coach gets nobody thrown out at home, that would be defined as a bad season.

  • M

    I agree with Tom as this analysis is quite flawed… Errors and Bad throws are a part of the 3B coaches decision… If you have Damon vs. Francouer in LF, you are going to put much more pressure on Damon, because not only is his throwing arm weak, but less accurate, hence the bad throws or a bobbled ball would happen due to Damon or any other player rushing to make a strong accurate throw. This would be in direct correlation to Thompson sending the runner and putting pressure on the weaker defensive player to make the play. Too many variables have been left out to get any true reading on this. However, that being said, watching most of the games, there have been very few times that I have disagreed with Thompsons call and think he does a great job

  • bpdelia

    Yeah, thats’ what I’m saying. It’s not that it isn’t a good idea to do the analysis, and it’s not that we can’t get ANY insight from it. It is and we can.

    It’s just that this is one instance where the eye test actually trumps statistical analysis. There just a ridiculous amount of variables.

    In my opinion Thompson has done a fine job. I’ve sometimes thought he was too conservative on sending runners from third on tag plays but, again, because the yankees have such top to bottom production unless Cervelli was up next (after he reverted to his actual ability) you can argue that being conservative on the bases is the best play for the yankees. And the analysis showed that actually the yankees aren’t sending runners at a rate that is much different from the league norm.

  • Taj

    people need to get a life and stop looking to crunch any number possible…the yanks have a good coaching staff, that is all you need to know….and for that matter a good GM (eye test is all you need/saves a ton of time)

  • Taj

    the only coach who seemed to get undesired results in my opinion was KLong and he seems to get the most credit….not that I think either of these coaches really changes the outcome of a game to often.

  • Brian

    Hey Mike – just a quick question: How do you get the photos you use in your posts? I was at that great game vs Boston [Winn getting thrown out at home was one of the few lowlights], and I would love to find more photos from it online.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Through our agreement with YES. If you go to ESPN and find the game on their scoreboard, it should have photos there.

      • Brian

        Cool. Thanks.

  • KeithK

    Checking the percentage of sends, the Yankees are about 3% and 2% below average in the number of times a runner is sent home in these two situations. As Mike points out this may well have as much to do with who is running (Posada, Texeira) as the coach’s aggressiveness. But still interesting to note.

    I’m curious what the spread on these percentages is around the league. I would guess that at the major league level the frequency a coach sends runners is more or less dictated by the layout of the baseball field – where the fielder gets the ball dictates the “correct” answer most of the time – and thus there wouldn’t be much spread in the data.

  • MattG

    “umpires can allow a runner to score from first on a ground rule double at their discretion, but we rarely see it happen”

    Its actually a grounds rule double, and I believe this statement is incorrect. I think the grounds rules for all 30 stadiums are identical in that the runner will advance two bases.

  • Bo

    One way to tell how he’s doing is how many times you remember seeing really dumb running plays prompted by the 3B coach, and that happened way too often last year. I’ve never had a season where I’ve remembered a 3B coach sending players when they’re clearly going to get thrown out than last year. Aggregate stats become meaningless when you get to close games, and Thomson’s judgment remains dubious compared to jsut about any other 3B coach out there.

  • Brian in NH

    I found this interesting. People rant, rave, and gripe about whatever they can, but this is some nice little evidence to support the fact that the coaching staff has minimal impacts on the game. Unless there is some sort of third base coach savant who know the speed, arm strength and accuracy of every player exactly, and can calculate any number of those variables in his head, chances are your 3rd base coach will score your guys less than 95% of the time.

    reminds of of Wendell “Wavem’ In” Kim, a 3rd base coach for the Red Sox a few years ago. Everyone thought he cost the team a ton of games. Maybe a couple, but over the course of the season, probably 1 or 2 at most. This was pre-2004 Boston so everyone was up for criticism

  • toad

    Besides the other criticisms, I’d say this was a mistake:

    First of all, I eliminated plays with errors. So if a runner scored because the outfielder made a bad throw or bobbling the ball, I just ignored the play and treated it as if it never happened.

    The chance of a bobble or bad throw is part of what the coach should be taking into account. I don’t think it’s good strategy to assume that won’t happen. You’ll be too conservative by far.

    The trouble here, as others have said, is that you need to evaluate the whole set of decisions – the stops and goes – and do it in light of lots of factors. It’s probably not possible. I suspect all you can do is look for outright blunders.