The beauty -- or the agony, if you're a Royals fan -- is that we'll never know. We'll never know what would have happened if Kansas City third-base coach Mike Jirschele had sent Alex Gordon home with two outs in the ninth inning of Wednesday night's World Series Game 7.
We know what did happen. Salvador Perez popped up against Madison Bumgarner to end the game and the Series, and Gordon was stranded on third. The Giants won, 3-2, dodging the potential disaster that loomed after Gregor Blanco booted Gordon's drive to left-center and left fielder Juan Perez fumbled the ball as he tried to pick it up at the wall.
"Believe me," Jirschele said, "I wanted to send him. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. I didn't want to go the whole offseason with Alex getting thrown out halfway to home plate."
Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver estimated that Gordon would have needed to be safe 30 percent of the time for sending him to have been the correct call, and Silver thought the right move was to wave him home. Joe Posnanski, however, looked at the same data and came to the opposite conclusion, writing on his blog: "That would mean if that play happened nine times, Gordon would score on three of them. I don't buy that all." So how can we split that difference? We'll give it a shot.
We know Gordon moves well; he's an AL Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder, after all. We know Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, the relay man, has a strong arm. We know Gordon wasn't thinking extra bases out of the box, which likely cost him a little bit of time on the back end, as did his slight stumble rounding second. We know Giants catcher Buster Posey is nimble and athletic behind the plate, and we know that Gordon wouldn't be permitted to run over Posey at the plate.
"I'm not as fast as Jarrod Dyson," Gordon said of the Royals' speedy pinch-runner. "If I was, I probably would've scored."
Perez, a lifetime .285 hitter, followed by chasing a series of pitches out of the strike zone and ultimately ended the game with a foul popup to third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Bumgarner preserved his historic relief effort -- in which the ace lefty worked five scoreless innings of two-hit ball on two days' rest -- and the Giants secured their third title in five seasons.
And Royals fans everywhere were left to wonder, what if?
So let's take a look at what we can determine from the math, and from the video. Per MLB.com's Statcast, Gordon reached a top speed of 18.7 mph as he steamed toward third. By helpful coincidence, Gordon was almost standing on third when Crawford turned toward the plate to throw. This, if nothing else, makes the arithmetic a little cleaner.
If Gordon were somehow to maintain that 18.7 mph top speed all the way from third to home, which is obviously a tall task and doesn't account for him rounding his route, he'd get there in 3.3 seconds from third base. That's before accounting for the fact that he would lose some speed by sliding, since there would be a catcher in his way and he couldn't just run right through Posey.
Still, it's a number to work with. Earlier in the game, we have data on another throw by Crawford, in which he had a .77-second release time and reached a velocity of 72.2 mph. That was on a difficult double play, so it's likely he'd be a little quicker on the release on this play, but again, it's the ninth inning of Game 7. You never know.
If we estimate Crawford as being about 140 feet from home plate, then we can do some algebra with the information we do have. If it takes Crawford 0.7 seconds to release the ball and the ball travels at 72 mph, you're looking at a total of two seconds from when Crawford begins his throw until it's at home plate -- 0.7 on the release and 1.3 in the air.
Even if you account for a full second for Posey to catch the ball and apply a tag, that's a 0.3-second advantage to the catcher. That may not seem like much, but it's about eight or nine feet at Gordon's full speed.
So the math is pretty friendly to Jirschele. But there are other elements to consider. One is an old baseball adage, a directive, really: force them to make a play. It's the World Series. It's the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. Force them to make a play.
Of all of the pieces that go into a potential play at home, Gordon has by far the easiest job. All he has to do is run and slide. Crawford, meanwhile, has to transfer the throw from Perez to his throwing hand. He has to make a clean, strong, accurate throw. Posey has to position himself, catch the throw cleanly and apply a tag.
None of those things is automatic, and while Gordon certainly could slip on his way home, there's a lot more that could go wrong for the Giants than for the Royals.
It's even possible that Craword could make an error. He made a throwing error approximately once every 140 innings during the regular season, which isn't a lot but can't be dismissed.
Then there's the batter, and the pitcher. The right-handed-hitting Perez, it's true, has a history of putting the ball in play and hitting singles -- the one thing the Royals need. And not only did he come through with the game-winning hit in the Wild Card game, but he homered off of Bumgarner in Game 1, the only run the World Series MVP allowed in the Fall Classic. But Perez also appeared compromised after being hit by a pitch on his left leg early in the game, and he struggled more against lefties than right-handed pitchers in 2014.
But then, it is MadBum and in hindsight maybe you'd rather have a Game 7 settled on a play at the plate instead of a foul pop. Of course you would. Call it third-guessing.
Here's the bottom line: If we assume Perez's career .285 average is a true measure of his hitting ability, Gordon would have needed to be safe at least 29 percent of the time for it to have been worth it to send him. That is right in line with the 30-percent break-even point that Silver came up with, but based on the calculations above, it's hard to feel confident about Gordon's chances.
In the end, it's a classic baseball problem. The numbers seem to suggest one thing, but as we all know, it's still flesh-and-blood humans playing the game. The rational case is that Jirschele made the right call. The emotional counter, though, may not be wrong -- take your chances, force them to make a play and see what happens.