When Teams Have Walked, Walked, Walked It Off

In Tuesday’s game between the Padres and Cubs, the two teams entered the bottom of the 10th inning tied up. Steve Cishek came into the game and induced a groundball out from Ty France; Luis Urías followed with an infield single. Then, things got out of control.

Austin Hedges, who at the time had a 52 wRC+ on the season, walked on five pitches. The first three pitches were all borderline, but outside the zone and were called balls. After a pitch right down the middle, Cishek couldn’t make a competitive pitch:

Then in stepped Travis Jankowski, with a career 79 wRC+ in nearly 1,000 major-league plate appearances, but also a robust 10% walk rate. After working the count to 2-2, Jankowski was nearly hit by a pitch. The play was reviewed and it was called a ball. After a 3-2 four-seamer down the middle was fouled off, Cishek through a sinker well out of the zone:

Joe Maddon was then faced with a difficult decision. He could leave Cishek, who had just walked his last two batters, to try to right the ship, or bring in a new reliever with absolutely no margin for error. The Cubs bullpen was fairly well rested prior to the game; here is its usage entering play on Tuesday from our Depth Charts page.

Before the Padres got to Cishek, Cubs’ starter Jose Quintana lasted just three innings, so Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Kintzler, Kyle Ryan, David Phelps, and Rowan Wick had all pitched. Of the pitchers who hadn’t pitched night before:

  • Adbert Alzolay has posted double-digit walk rates in the majors and minors this season, and walked two batters in his one-inning outing last Friday.
  • Pedro Strop has walked 12% of batters faced this season, including 14% in the second half and three in his last two outings.
  • Danny Hulzten had pitched around 30 professional innings since 2013 before making his major league debut on Sunday. The lefty would have been brought in to face the righty Manuel Margot, who doesn’t have a long track record in the majors, but does have some platoon splits that could favor a lefty-righty matchup.
  • Duane Underwood Jr. has walked 11% of the batters he’s faced this season between Triple-A and the majors. In his last outing, he allowed a hit and a walk to the first two batters he faced. In the appearance prior to that one, he threw a wild pitch during the first plate appearance.

Of the pitchers who pitched the previous day, Derek Holland is a lefty with a double-digit walk rate, James Norwood is a righty with a 14% walk rate in Triple-A the last two years, and Alec Mills has primarily been used as a starter and has pitched just one time on back-to-back days in his eight-year pro career.

The options for Maddon were not very good. At this point, the Padres win expectancy was already up to 82.9%. According to run expectancy charts, the odds of scoring a run that inning were around 68%. With the help of Sean Dolinar, I ran a couple of searches of our database to look for data that might help inform decision-making in a situation like this. First, I wondered what the odds were that another walk was coming if a relief pitcher had just walked two batters. In roughly 3,000 opportunities, the third batter was walked 8.9% of the time. In general, relievers walked 9.5% of batters, so another walk was probably just as likely with Cishek as with a random reliever.

Tuesday night’s circumstances were somewhat unique, given that the bases were loaded in a tight game. To examine games with those conditions, I looked at all bases-loaded situations for away relief pitchers in the ninth or extra innings in high-leverage situations since 2002. There are only about 2,000 of these plate appearances, and in only about 10% of those was the plate appearance the first batter a reliever faced, but here’s the comparison:

High-Leverage Away Bases Loaded Situations in 9th or Later
1st Batter Not 1st Batter
BB% 7.5% 7.0%
K% 21.0% 21.9%
BA .243 .285
OBP .280 .327
Run % in PA 35.5% 38.2%

Pitchers who loaded the bases and tried to finish the job got slightly worse results than pitchers coming in fresh, but there isn’t really enough here to draw conclusions. Maddon opted to let Cishek keep pitching; the righty kept going low and inside to Margot with the sinker. That strategy isn’t the worst in the world given that Margot swings at sinkers low and in, and they are likely to stay on the infield for a play at the plate or present an outside shot at a double play. Unfortunately, Cishek couldn’t get close to the plate the first three pitches, and the fourth was in the exact same spot:

If you are wondering if a pitcher has ever walked three straight batters to lose a game in extra innings, wonder no more. A search through the Baseball-Reference Play Index for losing pitchers on the away side of a walk-off with at least three walks and under an inning pitched illuminated 75 such instances. In most of those situations, the walks were not consecutive. In some, the walk-off did not come on a walk. In others, one of the walks was intentional, which didn’t happen here. After sorting through those game logs, I found seven games with three straight walks to end it:

Steve Cishek can now be added to the list above, with the Padres the beneficiaries of the only two such games in the last 15 years. Whether Maddon should have made a change is debatable. The Cubs don’t have a great bullpen and the options at the time, particularly when it comes to avoiding walks, were very thin. When the bases are loaded on the road in the 10th inning with just one out, there are no good choices to be made, only likely bad results.

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