NEW YORK -- There’s no easy way to statistically contextualize a team's ability to exploit its opposition’s mistakes. A search filter on FanGraphs or Baseball Savant doesn’t exist for a metric illustrating when one squad blunders and the other responds with a gut punch.
Yet in baseball’s analytical age, sometimes the eye test is plenty. And if there’s one team that’s mastered this ploy better than any in recent memory, it’s been the Astros during their dynastic run in the American League Championship Series the past six years. And there might not have been a more telling example than what occurred early at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.
With two outs in the second inning during the Astros' 5-0 win in Game 3, which gave them a 3-0 series lead, Chas McCormick punched a 98.3 mph fastball from Gerrit Cole that bounced off the top of the right-field wall and over the fence for a two-run homer, reigniting the “Chas Chomp" that has taken life in the Astros’ dugout.
Yet McCormick was only in that position because Christian Vázquez had reached on a sky-high popup to right-center field that ended with Harrison Bader bobbling a can of corn while trying to avoid a collision with Aaron Judge and his 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame. Vázquez, whose ball had just a .060 expected batting average, was then nearly picked off by Cole as McCormick stepped to the plate, but the catcher’s head-first dive back kept the inning alive.
So instead of leaving the field with a scoreless tie and the prospect of beginning the third inning with the No. 9 hitter McCormick and Jose Altuve -- who had extended his record hitless streak to 0-for-24 in his leadoff AB -- Cole walked off trailing by two with the Nos. 2-4 hitters awaiting when he returned.
There was still much baseball to play, but that sequence set the tone, sucked the life out of the ticketed 47,569 on hand and sent the Astros on their way to their most dominant win of their thus-undefeated postseason run. Trends typically suggest results, and teams that score first are now 22-9 in these playoffs after McCormick’s homer.
“It's a thought process, No. 1,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of capitalizing on mistakes. “And when you take a walk or an error or whatever it is, that's a break. Even though it may not be, you have to kind of fool yourself [into thinking] that it is a break. And it's amazing -- whatever you think can happen usually does happen. That was a huge part of the ballgame.”
Bader was charged with an error, but Judge also didn’t heed his center fielder’s call-off until it was too late. Cole looked out to Bader and shouted, “I got you,” after the bang-bang play, which Statcast projected had an 85 percent catch probability. But numbers only go so far when the largest human in baseball is running at you full force.
“He's like, nine feet tall," Bader said. "So you don't want to get anybody hurt. That’s a high-pressure, high-emotion situation, so the last thing we're doing is taking our eyes off the baseball.”
Dissecting the sequence further, McCormick’s 335-foot homer, which narrowly hooked the right-field foul pole, would have left only two other ballparks besides this one in the Bronx, per Statcast: San Diego’s Petco Park and the Astros' own home, Minute Maid Park -- underscoring just how adept Houston can be at bouncing the ball, literally and figuratively, its way.
“I think that tells you a lot about the team that we are,” Altuve said. “The mentality is to go out there and not think about anything else but winning. It doesn’t matter if we’re up 3-0. Nothing is done yet.”
Those moments didn’t prove decisive, given that the Astros manufactured three more runs in the sixth after Cole loaded the bases with no outs. A case could be made that Alex Bregman exploited another mistake in that sequence, pummeling a 1-2 slider from Cole that leaked way middle for a double to lead off the inning. But it wasn’t as significant as McCormick’s.
Speaking of McCormick, who platooned in center most of the season but has started all three games this series, it was his second homer of this ALCS. After the first in Game 1, the TBS broadcast zeroed in on Justin Verlander emphatically doing the “Chas Chomp,” taking the gesture that’s been brewing for over a year mainstream beyond Southeast Texas.
It’s a simple act, akin to the one by the Florida Gators, where McCormick's teammates extend both arms out front and smack their palms together up and down, one high and one low, while shouting “Chas!” And this one was by far the biggest yet.
“It fires me up,” McCormick said. “And I said before -- in case I hit a home run -- I'm going to round third base, hit the chomp a couple of times to my teammates. And I got to do that today. It was fun.”