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The decisive sequence in the Houston Astros’ World Series Game 2 victory certainly felt like a departure from 2021 baseball norms.
With one out in the second inning, No. 6 hitter Kyle Tucker started a rally that went: Single, single, run-scoring single, two-run single aided by a Braves error, lineout, run-scoring single. When Alex Bregman finally grounded out to end the frame, the Astros had turned a 1-1 tie into a commanding 5-1 lead they would never relinquish, ultimately landing a 7-2 win over the Atlanta Braves to even up the series.
Braves starter Max Fried must have been left wondering how a four-run inning sprang from just one hard-hit ball, while enthusiasts of The Way Things Used To Be immediately saw what they wanted to see.
— Alex Rodriguez (@AROD) October 28, 2021
Even June Cleaver would have to be proud of that blind rush to embrace the sepia-toned surface details of the rally. Everyone can agree that the second inning was very un-2021, but what it says about the Astros whose bats brought it to life is more complicated. In what will apparently come as disappointing news to A-Rod, the ability to make contact is closely tracked by (gasp!) statistics and coveted by analytically inclined front offices. This wasn’t the Astros doing some sort of small-ball Wayback Wednesday for the former player favs. It’s the foundation of their success.
Over the five-year run where they have reached the World Series three times, the Astros have distinguished themselves by consistently finding and nurturing hitters who excel at avoiding strikeouts. (And yes, run an infamous sign-stealing scheme that perhaps aided in that pursuit in parts of 2017 and 2018.) As whiffs proliferated around the league, it amounted to a Moneyball-esque zag, one that has turned out to be powerfully prescient, not nostalgic.
This season, Astros hitters struck out less often than anyone. At 19.4%, they were the best in the majors and the only team under the 20% threshold that stood as the league average as recently as 2013. In the playoffs, the Astros have 21 fewer strikeouts than the Braves despite taking more plate appearances.
Houston’s hitters made contact on an MLB-best 80.6% of their swings during the regular season, where the league average was 76.1%. And they didn’t just lead baseball in this metric, they lapped the field. The gap between their mark and the second-place Toronto Blue Jays was larger than the gap from second to 26th.
That wide-ranging ability to turn back the clock on strikeout-minded pitchers has fueled a core lineup that will go down as one of the best in baseball history — scandal or not. That second inning wasn’t a demonstration of this lineup at the peak of its powers, but it was an awesome example of why — in contrast to the famed declaration from Moneyball — the Astros’ s*** always seems to work in the playoffs.
How the numbers explain the Astros rally
Analytics — that invisible force that A-Rod and others tend to invoke as an ominous bogeyman — is a broad-brush way of referring to the effects of the sabermetric movement. Originally an attempt by devoted fans to better understand baseball through data, it proved so transformative that those curious observers and their descendants now run the sport’s front offices and shape the strategies that win World Series games and often make longtime fans lose their minds.
One of the earliest insights that infiltrated and changed baseball was Voros McCracken’s theory that pitchers had little to no control over balls that were put in play behind them. Pitching talent was best observed and projected, the thinking went, by stripping away the results that didn’t directly result from the core pitcher-batter duel.
From that theory emerged FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching. It estimates what a pitcher’s ERA should be based only on what he alone controls: Strikeouts, walks and homers — the lifeblood of the 21st-century game and the bane of its existence as a frustrated, out-of-favor entertainment product.
Braves starter Max Fried, by FIP’s estimation, was terrific in Game 2. He went five innings, struck out seven, only walked one batter, and didn’t allow a single home run. His start would amount to a 1.37 FIP, and his loss would be deemed tough luck if it weren’t of such outsized importance as to render that phrase infantile. He really did pitch well, though. After that second inning, he rattled off three perfect frames before hitting a jam and leaving in the sixth.
Now, the continued pursuit of understanding — analytics! — didn’t stop with FIP’s conception in the early 2000s. Our grasp on how well pitchers did their jobs has steadily improved, and Statcast data allows us to incorporate the balls that hitters put in play. From that, we can see that only Tucker’s single to start the rally and Michael Brantley’s RBI knock to bring in the final run were well-struck. The other hits all had expected batting averages — based on how hard and how high they were hit — of .310 or worse; they are usually outs.
As A-Rod pointed out, though, they ended up as winning moments because they evaded the Braves’ defensive shifts — another strategic play born of data that tailors the positioning of fielders to where the hitter usually hits the ball.
It’s true that the Braves’ deployment of shifts took them out of position for some of the balls in that second inning, but it misunderstands the point.
In truth, the Astros were trying to hit the ball hard. If they had squared it up as they really intended, the only gloves that would have mattered belonged to fans. If they mostly did what they wanted to, they probably would have hit it in the direction of Braves defenders.
If Fried had done as he intended, the balls never would have been hit at all.
At the highest levels of the game, it’s strength against strength. Winning the World Series requires having the tools to overpower an opponent who takes away the ones you want to use most.
Fried tied down the Astros hitters and beat them in almost every way that counts.
He had AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel in a two-strike count before his single. Same with Brantley. But Gurriel, an international free agent plucked from stardom in Cuba, and Brantley, targeted for his contact skills when his time with Cleveland ran out, were among the five hardest hitters in MLB to punch out in 2021.
And in Game 2, each one managed to make contact and add pressure to the Braves’ defense. On this night, it blew the lid off a World Series game. Impressive indeed.