Dave Nichols: Harper’s eighth-inning sacrifice was case of results trumping process

The Washington Nationals salvaged the last of the three-game weekend set with the New York Mets on EPSN’s Sunday Night Baseball, overcoming an early deficit with a three-run eighth inning to win 6-5, spurred by Bryce Harper’s sacrifice bunt with men on first and second and no outs, trailing by two runs.

The percentages say it was a bad play. Statheads throughout Natstown winced. The Nationals only had six outs left and Harper gave one away on purpose.

The next batter, rookie Anthony Rendon, grounded to short to bring in one run with a runner still at second, the speedy Denard Span, but now with two outs. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a grounder to short that Omar Quintanilla tried to make a play on, but the throw to first didn’t have enough gas on it and Span improbably raced home from second on the infield hit.

Jayson Werth then laced a double to right field that scored Zimmerman all the way from first, and all that was left was for Rafael Soriano to record a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his 36th save of the season, putting the Nats 6 1/2 games behind Cincinnati for the second wild card position in the National League.

Just like they drew it up.

People like to say baseball is a funny game. It’s not, really. It’s almost entirely science. It’s math, statistical probability, physics and geometry. Yet, it’s the most romanticized sport on the planet. Most folks, fans and sports writers alike, don’t fondly recall their high school math, physics and geometry classes, so that part of the sport is marginalized for the more narrative-friendly aspects - the human interest stories, the emotional comebacks, the gritty and gutty underdogs.

See, folks romanticize the game because as humans we’re programmed to remember the positive, the times we succeeded against the odds. It’s part of our genetics. It’s part of our evolution. We downplay the daily, normal, ruinous failures in order to maintain a grasp on the miniscule possibility of success. It’s how we get through our daily lives. Rooting against the odds is in our genes because it’s how we’ve survived as a species.

Baseball is grounded in such routine, monotonous failure that when our team has success against those seemingly insurmountable odds, we start to expect it, though logically we know our team is doomed to failure more often than not. And regardless of how that success was achieved, we instinctively tell ourselves that was the “right way” to do it.

When Harper bunted in the eighth inning, he actually lowered the Nationals’ chances to win the game, by about 2.3 percent, according to the Win Probability Added statistic. Calculated by the indispensable Fangraphs.com, WPA is the difference in win expectancy between the start of the play and the end of the play.

What’s 2.3 percent, right?

Harper’s hitting .190 against left-handed pitching and even worse against left-handed relievers, so the logic goes that it was better for Harper to make one out and ensure the runners move up a base rather than the almost inevitable conclusion that swinging away would have only resulted in a double-play ground ball. Of course, that assumes that Harper’s sacrifice was going to be perfect and achieve the perfect result as it did.

Except, as far as Win Probability had it, it was the wrong play.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Why would a know-nothing blogger be harping that the catalyst play in a three-run comeback was the “wrong” play? Because baseball is a game of percentages. It always has been and always will be. Back in the old days, they invented batting average and earned run average as a method of evaluating players side-by-side since they weren’t able to watch every game in person.

We have much more sophisticated statistical methodology now, but it’s the same idea. Lefty-righty splits, batted ball spray charts, PITCHf/x data, WPA. It’s all there. It’s all math, statistical probability, physics, geometry. You don’t get to pick and choose which stats you think are the right ones. They all are.

Just because it worked doesn’t mean it was the right way to do it.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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