There are a couple of key questions in baseball over the past several years that regularly intersect: “Why can’t the Angels win anything when they have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, two unique talents among the greatest the game has ever seen?” and “How did Joe Maddon ever win a World Series with the Cubs when he’s forever wrapped up in whatever gimmick he’s trying?”
Friday night, that intersection was lit up like Times Square, because Maddon pulled an all-time stinker, while Ohtani, Trout, and Jared Walsh (an All-Star in his only full season, and owner of an .841 career OPS in 215 games) powered the Angels to a 9-6 victory over the Rangers.
Maddon’s latest “look at me, the big brain genius” move came during the main “why can’t the Angels win with these generational talents?” portion of the proceedings, as starting pitcher Reid Detmers got knocked out in the fourth inning, down 3-2, with two runs already scored in the frame and runners at the corners with one out.
Austin Warren came in from the Los Angeles bullpen and walked leadoff man Marcus Semien on four pitches, loading the bases for Corey Seager, whom Maddon chose to intentionally walk, bringing in a run.
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This is an incredibly rare move, one that makes very little sense on its face, but that can be practical in very special situations. On August 17, 2008, for instance, the Tampa Bay Rays had a four-run lead over the Rangers in the ninth inning at the old Arlington ballpark, the one that didn’t need to be replaced with an enormous Home Depot. That night in Texas, the Rangers had Josh Hamilton representing the tying run at the plate, and this was the first of Hamilton’s big years – he was a month removed from his iconic Home Run Derby performance at Yankee Stadium and on his way to leading the league in RBIs and total bases.
Maddon, then managing the Rays, issued a free pass to Hamilton, making it 7-4. Dan Wheeler relieved Grant Balfour, struck out Marlon Byrd, and the game was over.
Before that, the previous instance of a bases loaded intentional walk was the most famous: May 29, 1998, when Barry Bonds got a free RBI from the Diamondbacks rather than be allowed to put four on the board with a grand slam in Arizona’s 53rd game ever – and obviously, even though it worked, it’s not something they’ve repeated in 24 years since.
In that case, there were again two outs in the ninth inning, and the choice was pitching to Bonds (up as a pinch-hitter for Chris Jones, who’d actually homered earlier in that game) with the bases loaded, up 8-6, or pitching to Brent Mayne with the bases loaded, up 8-7. Mayne had a .652 career OPS coming into 1998. Bonds had a .609 slugging percentage that year. That’s why the reaction to Buck Showalter’s move, which worked when Gregg Olson struck out Mayne, was that yeah, it was weird, but also, it was Barry Fucking Bonds (and this should be a reminder of how amazing and feared he was before BALCO) with the bases loaded against an expansion team, and you gotta get weird in that situation.
There have been four other intentional walks with the bases loaded in MLB history, according to SABR, but those were in a segregated league and don’t matter. This was the third time it happened in 75 years, and it happened not in the ninth inning with two out, but the fourth inning with one out.
Seager is a damn good player. He’s a two-time All-Star, the 2016 National League Rookie of the Year, 2019 league doubles leader, and 2020 NLCS and World Series MVP. He got a $325 million contract this winter for a reason. He’s also off to a good start on that pact, having gone 9-for-26 in his first six games, with a homer and five RBI.
There’s still a big gap between “this guy’s a damn good player” and prime Bonds or Hamilton. Seager’s career high is 26 homers, and that was in his rookie year. He hasn’t gone deep 20 times in a year – during a homer-crazy era – since 2017, when he hit 22.
Seager now has 18 intentional walks in his career. Bonds’ 120 freebies in 2004 is obviously the record and stuff of legend, but Bonds only had five seasons (one of those 2005, when he played 14 games) when he was intentionally walked fewer than 18 times – because Bonds had more career home runs by the end of his first MVP season, 1990, than Seager has hit in his entire time in the majors.
You don’t intentionally walk Corey Seager with the bases loaded because even though he has two career grand slams, the chances of him hitting one are far lower than the chances of him making an out. In fact, in his career, Seager has grounded into three double plays with the bases loaded. Since he’s not a home run hitter, the biggest worry about Seager should be a double, which he’d done four times in his previous 58 career plate appearances with the bags full… compared to five strikeouts. Why not give him a chance to do those things and maybe escape the inning with zero more runs? Why put a free run on the board and invite an opponent who’s already ahead to build their lead?
Seager doesn’t warp the run expectancy matrix so much as to make Maddon’s strategy defensible in a Bondsian or Hamiltonian situation, let alone when it meant expanding the Angels’ deficit from one run to two, with a pitcher on the mound who had thrown four balls and zero strikes. Regardless of how it worked out, it was boneheaded managing.
And even though the Angels won, thanks to Ohtani going deep twice, Trout reaching base three times and homering, and Walsh smashing a two-run shot for insurance in the seventh, it didn’t work. Mitch Garver missed a grand slam by the length of the warning track, settling for a sacrifice fly, and then Warren balked home a run to make it 6-2 – the score it would’ve been had Seager lashed a bases-clearing double.
Adolis Garcia fouled out to end the inning, and the Angels strung together six straight hits in the top of the fifth to make it all moot – on this occasion. But it’s this kind of nonsense from Maddon, and a pitching staff that has ranked in the bottom half of the American League each of the past four years and hasn’t been in the top 5 in runs allowed since 2011, that are the answer to the bigger of the questions for Orange County, and baseball at large: why, for as good as Ohtani and Trout are, we don’t see them in October. The Angels won Friday night, but Friday night was why.