Ron Washington’s decision to intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera with the bases empty in the bottom of the eighth was the kind of move that could have become infamous in postseason lore, especially after Victor Martinez singled him to third base with only one out. At the time, the move was roundly criticized, including by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on the Fox broadcast, but because Cabrera was eventually thrown out at the plate, it will likely become nothing more than a footnote.
Just because Cabrera didn’t score doesn’t mean Washington’s decision was sound. By the same logic, however, Martinez’ subsequent single doesn’t mean it was a foolish choice. Instead, the soundness of the move should be based solely on the context before the decision was made. So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what went into Washington’s unorthodox ploy.
Before his at bat in the eighth inning, Cabrera was batting .385/.529/.846, while Martinez was struggling at .083/.267/.333. Even though both lines were compiled in very small samples, it’s easy to see why the Rangers would want to be cautious with Cabrera, who has gained the reputation as one of the best hitters in the game. When you also consider Victor Martinez’ strained oblique as well as reliever Mike Adams’ success against left handed hitters, the case for walking Cabrera appears even stronger. Finally, when you factor in the lack of speed by both players as well as the presence of Delmon Young, another injured batter, behind Martinez, the idea of not letting Cabrera beat you under any circumstance seems like a wise policy.
When Martinez’ bouncer over first baseman Michael Young’s head sent Cabrera to third base with one out, McCarver and Buck framed the inning along the lines of the Rangers regretting the decision to walk Cabrera. Had the go ahead run scored, however, the real regrettable decision would have been holding Cabrera on because, otherwise, Martinez’ ball would have been a tailor-made double play. Of course, that assumes a pre-determined outcome, which isn’t necessary in this case. As mentioned previously, the case for walking Cabrera was compelling even before considering a subsequent outcome.
Yankees’ fans should be familiar with Washington’s strategy because Mike Scioscia employed the same approach with Alex Rodriguez in the 2009 ALCS. After watching Arod beat his closer Brian Fuentes with a game tying home run in the 11th inning of game 2, the Angels’ manager decided a similar event wouldn’t happen again. In game 3, Scioscia had Fuentes walk Arod with no men on base and two outs, a decision that was rewarded when Jerry Hairston struck out to end the inning. Then, in game 5, he employed the exact same strategy, which one again proved successful when, afte two more men reached base, Nick Swisher popped out with the bases loaded. Whether a coincidence or not, those were the only two games the Angels won that series.
During the postseason, there have been 10 instances of a batter being intentionally walked with the bases empty (not surprisingly, four have involved Barry Bonds). In all but one case, the score was tied or within a run, while in every instance the batter was a preeminent slugger and the inning was late. The only thing that distinguished Washington’s decision to walk Cabrera was there being only one out in the inning. Otherwise, all of the managers were essentially employing the same strategy: “don’t let the big man beat you”.
There are strong arguments against putting the go ahead run on base, but it’s foolish to dismiss the strategy out of hand. Issuing free passes in the late innings of a close game is definitely a risky strategy, but so is pitching to hitters of the caliber listed above. Although seldom intentional, pitchers walk top sluggers in similar situations on a regular basis, so Washington’s proactive approach was really nothing more than an attempt to avoid a loss on a pitch thrown without conviction. Undoubtedly, there are at least a few managers from years’ past who wish they had made a similar decision.