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The Tigers should have challenged Ryan Cordell’s stolen base attempt, and here’s why

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Cordell’s steal didn’t really affect the final score, but a successful challenge could have changed the entire game.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed like a fairly innocent play in what ultimately became a late-inning blowout. But we could look back at Ryan Cordell’s stolen base in the top of the seventh inning of his team’s 7-3 Friday night win at Comerica Park as a pivotal play in Chicago’s victory. Cordell slid in ahead of Grayson Greiner’s throw, but replays showed that Gordon Beckham’s tag may have landed on Cordell’s head or shoulder before he reached the base.

Here, take a look.

Whether Beckham actually tagged Cordell doesn’t really matter here. What does is that the Tigers didn’t challenge this play, and that (in)decision was a mistake.

The easy argument for challenging this play comes down to game state. At the time, it was a one-run game in the top of the seventh inning. If Cordell is safe in this situation, the White Sox have a runner in scoring position with nobody out, and could be poised for a big inning (spoiler alert: they were). If the umpires rule Cordell out, the Tigers have one out with Chicago’s eighth and ninth hitters coming to bat.

Long story short, the Tigers were running out of time. Even if they weren’t particularly sure that Cordell had been tagged, they should have challenged the play because there probably wasn’t going to be a better chance to use their challenge in the final three innings (spoiler alert: there wasn’t).

But why just listen to me? Let’s get into the math here.

When a runner reached first base with no outs in a given inning, the team at bat scored 0.87 runs per inning in 2018. This figure, along with expected run totals for all 24 different game states in an innings — runners on first and second with one out, bases loaded with two outs, you name it — provides an estimate of how many runs a team should score when runners reach base. This is called run expectancy, and can help show how drastically given plays in an inning change the outcome of the inning, and even the game.

Here are the run expectancy values from the 2018 MLB season.

Run Expectancy Values 2018

Runners 0 outs 1 out 2 outs
Runners 0 outs 1 out 2 outs
000 0.4997 0.2733 0.1015
003 1.3076 0.9127 0.3614
020 1.0801 0.6673 0.3205
023 1.888 1.3067 0.5804
100 0.8721 0.5284 0.2234
103 1.68 1.1678 0.4833
120 1.4525 0.9224 0.4424
123 2.2604 1.5618 0.7023

While these values will change slightly from year to year, they provide a good estimate of just how much the Tigers could have changed their outlook on Friday by challenging the above play.

According to the 2018 run expectancy values, Cordell’s steal moved Chicago’s expected run total from 0.8721 runs (runner on first, zero outs) to 1.0801 runs. This is a difference of just 0.208 runs. If we look at the win expectancy of that play (more on that later), Cordell’s steal only moved the needle by a few percentage points.

But what if video review determined that Cordell was out? Chicago’s run expectancy goes from 0.8721 runs to just 0.2733 runs, a difference of 0.599 runs. One could also do the math for the challenge itself; going from 1.0801 expected runs to just 0.2733 runs — as would have happened from a successful challenge — is a difference of 0.8068 expected runs, a huge difference for a single play.

How much would have that changed the Tigers’ chances of winning?

We can determine that too! We’ll use Win Expectancy, a concept beautifully explained by our friends at FanGraphs.

Win Expectancy (WE) is the percent chance a particular team will win based on the score, inning, outs, runners on base, and the run environment. These percentages are calculated using historical data, meaning if a team is losing and has a 24% win expectancy, only 24% of teams in similar situations in the past have ever come back to win.

According to FanGraphs’ live scores, the Tigers had a win expectancy of 30.8 percent when Jeimer Candelario popped out to end the sixth inning. That mark dipped to 27 percent when Cordell drew his walk to open the seventh, and then again to 23.9 percent after Cordell’s steal. Things got worse after that, of course, but only because the Tigers continued to bleed runs throughout the inning.

But what if they had won a challenge? Using a win expectancy calculator at gregstoll.com, we can determine how much of a difference the challenge could have made

[Note: we used data from 2009 to 2018 for this exercise to allow for a larger sample of each base-outs situation].

The win expectancy numbers for the above plays are a little different with the calculator, but the change is what is important here; the Tigers had a 29.28 percent chance to win at the start of the seventh inning, a 23.95 percent chance to win after Cordell’s walk, and a 21.74 percent win expectancy after Cordell’s steal. Once again, the actual steal isn’t all that important to the outcome of the game.

But had the Tigers won a challenge, their win expectancy would have jumped up to 32.36 percent. the difference between that and when Cordell is standing on second base? A sizable 10.62 percent. And had that play led to the Tigers getting out of the inning with the score still at 2-1? Their chances of winning would have been up to 35.4 percent.

It’s important to remember that this might not have mattered in the end.

Even if the Tigers had challenged, there’s no guarantee they would have won it. MLB and their umpires tend to err on the side of caution in these scenarios — nearly 60 percent of replay challenges were upheld last season — and the Tigers’ pitching fell apart later in that inning. They had several other chances to get out of the frame, but could not get the job done before things got well out of hand. Hell, Jordan Zimmermann could have done himself a favor by not walking Cordell, who only managed a .281 on-base percentage in Triple-A ball last season.

But with the game already two-thirds over and the score so close, it would have been in the Tigers’ best interest to challenge the close play on Cordell’s steal. The difference in their chances of winning was large enough that it was worth the shot, especially as there was no guarantee they would have a chance to use the challenge later on in the game. By being more aggressive with challenges in later innings in the future, they could potentially turn the tide of a game or two at some point.

And if nothing else, it would have given us another reason to get mad at home plate umpire Todd Tichenor, who seemed to be making everyone ornery on Friday.