Carlos Correa, Jed Lowrie and the dilemma of pitching in extra innings

The A’s found themselves in an undesirable situation on Thursday night. In the 10th inning, after Jose Altuve’s leadoff single, the Astros’ second baseman stole second base and moved to third on a bunt by Carlos Gomez, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet from home plate and able to score on an out.What’s more, Houston had Carlos Correa at the plate, and the 20-year-old shortstop already was 2 for 3 with a single, a walk and the homer that had given Houston a short-lived lead in the eighth inning. MORE: How does Mike Trout stack up against legends? | Jon Stewart's 10 best Mets mentionsThe old-school strategy in this situation would be to walk Correa and set up a potential inning-ending double play. A look at a run expectancy chart says the Astros would expect to score 0.88 runs out of the runner-on-third, one-out situation, but 1.13 runs from runners on the corners with one out. This is not fully relevant, however, because in extra innings, the goal is to maximize the chance of zero runs scoring, not to hedge against a big inning. The A’s decided to pitch to Correa, albeit very carefully. He popped up on a 3-0 pitch. So, the decision worked out. But was it the right decision?Correa had 11 previous plate appearances with third base occupied and fewer than two outs. He had two homers, two sacrifice flies, an RBI groundout, a groundout that didn’t score a run, a double play and four strikeouts. That’s a 45 percent rate, albeit in a small sample size, of getting the run home.Correa has a .277/.331/.540 line against right-handed pitchers like Edward Mujica, but the A’s weren’t counting on Correa actually hitting — their idea, as evidenced by the way Mujica pitched, was to pitch around him and try to get the rookie to chase. Correa swings at about one-third of pitches out of the strike zone, which is a middle-of-the-pack rate. His contact rate of 68 percent on pitches out of the zone also is pretty average. The same goes for Correa’s line drive and fly ball rates.So, it makes some sense, but there is extreme danger in the pitch-around strategy, namely that if you’re pitching to somebody who you wouldn’t mind walking, there is an ever-present danger of floating a pitch into the middle of the strike zone.On the 3-0 pitch, this is actually what happened. Mujica left a fastball at the top of the strike zone, right down the middle, at 92 mph. The fact that Correa hit a pop-up does not validate the pitch. It was asking to be hit. Correa just missed it.It was the first time in his career that Correa put a 3-0 pitch in play. This year, major leaguers are 71 for 192 (.370) on 3-0 pitches, and therein lies the rub. Even in the most hitter-friendly situation, a pitch that can be allowed to pass if it’s deemed by the man with the bat to be anything less than perfect for pummeling, the pitcher has a 63 percent success rate — before you even add in foul balls and pitches swung on and missed.The pitch-around may have been a suboptimal strategy that worked out because most pitcher-hitter interactions favor the pitcher, but what about the decision to pitch to Correa at all?Mujica has 16 strikeo

uts in 19 innings this year, and a rate of 7.1 per nine in his career. He’s also a ground-ball pitcher, which combined with Correa’s rather average tendencies would serve to limit the chances of a sacrifice fly. With the infield in, the A’s hope would be for a ground ball right at a fielder to prevent the run from scoring.The decision also hinges on Jed Lowrie, on deck behind Correa. Lowrie has one of the lowest rates of ground balls hit in the majors — his numbers this year, limited by injury, are in line with what he has done in the rest of his career, and only seven qualifying hitters in 2015 hit grounders less frequently than Lowrie. There’s also the matter of handedness, with Lowrie being a switch hitter and Correa a right-hander against the righty Mujica, whose numbers are aligned with traditional platoon splits.Setting up a situation where you’re hoping for Lowrie to hit into a double play is setting up false hope. Lowrie has bounced into one twin killing in 100 plate appearances this year, and only 51 in 2,635 career plate appearances. That’s not as good as, say, Gomez’s 51 double plays in 3,946 plate appearances, but it’s not like you’re dealing with Casey McGehee and his 109 GIDP in 2,929 PA.Furthermore, although it’s a tiny sample size, Lowrie was 2 for 3 in his career against Mujica, with a pair of line-drive singles. Another alternative would be to walk both Correa and Lowrie and load the bases for Colby Rasmus, but he has a grand slam in his career against Mujica and an even lower career double play rate than Lowrie — 36 in 3,357 plate appearances. So, when Lowrie comes up, you're going to pitch to him, and better to do so with two outs, when it takes a hit to get the run home, rather than hoping for an against-trend grounder to escape trouble after an intentional walk.The A’s decision to pitch to Correa was unorthodox, but it was the best of a set of unpalatable options. The approach in pitching to the rookie was less than ideal. As it happened, Lowrie wound up hitting a double to put Houston ahead to stay.Bad decisions can be rewarded and good ones punished, because that is the nature of baseball. The nature of A’s baseball in 2015 is just the punishment part — in one-run games, the games that come down to how one decision, good or bad, actually plays out, Oakland has lost 26 of 37.