The Astros are World Series champions after a 5-1 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday, and they managed Game 7 in exactly the way we figured they would.
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Starter Lance McCullers didn't go deep, and manager A.J. Hinch largely avoided his regular bullpen the rest of the way, getting 18 combined outs from starters Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton, along with one each from relievers Chris Devenski and Francisco Liriano. It was the plan, and it worked.
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But making a plan and sticking to it are two different things, and it may have been easy to overlook what Hinch really did. He made an unconventional choice that goes against more than a century of baseball tradition, one that would have immediately opened him up to a lifetime of second-guessing had it gone wrong -- and it may have quietly been what won the Astros their first title in the 56-season history of the franchise.
When Hinch lifted McCullers with one out in the third inning, he pulled a starter who was pitching a shutout. He looked past a pitcher who was "dealing" (by the scoreboard) and saw one who was on the brink (in terms of process). In 1,318 previous World Series starts over 659 games dating back to 1903, that's something that had never happened, not like this.
In World Series history, there had only been three starts in which a starter was lifted with a shutout before he'd completed three innings, and each came with a massive caveat. Two were due to injury -- the Yankees' David Wells hurt his back after one inning in 2003's Game 5, and the Dodgers' John Tudor injured his left elbow in the second inning of 1988's Game 3.
The third was due to a scheme well ahead of its time, back in 1924 when Senators righty Curly Ogden was replaced after two hitters by lefty George Mogridge to ruin the opposing platoon advantage. That's it.
In some sense, this speaks to the changing nature of pitcher usage that we've seen all month. Thirty-nine World Series have gone seven games, and this is the first time in which starters recorded just two wins (Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 and McCullers in Game 3). That tells you a lot about the fact that starters just aren't allowed to go as deep into games, not with all we know about their diminishing effectiveness when they do.
In this case, Hinch looked at more than just the zeroes on the board. He looked at the actual process that had gotten the team to that point, and based on what McCullers said afterward, he must have known his starter wasn't working with his full toolset.
"I knew yesterday I didn't have much," McCullers said. "I knew I didn't have much to give other than just trying to gut it out as long as I could. The team knew I was on a short leash."
"As soon as there's some duress, let's go out and get him," Hinch added. "We've got all the reinforcements at the back end. I just didn't love what I was seeing with him spraying his fastball."
They weren't wrong. McCullers faced 13 Dodgers and seven reached base. Four of those were hit by pitches, giving McCullers a new postseason record. Though he snapped off some nasty curveballs in striking out Corey Seager once and Cody Bellinger twice, even the outs were being hit hard.
Looking at McCullers' inning-by-inning outcomes, you can see what Hinch was thinking. Remember, Statcast™ considers any batted ball with an exit velocity above 95 mph to be "hard-hit." There were a lot of those. Combined with their launch angle, we can express how likely that batted ball is to have been a hit.
• Chris Taylor doubles (96.8-mph exit velocity, 37-percent hit probability)
• Seager strikes out
• Justin Turner hit by pitch
• Bellinger strikes out
• Yasiel Puig hit by pitch
• Joc Pederson grounds out (97-mph exit velocity, 65-percent hit probability)
Though the two strikeouts were promising, McCullers allowed a leadoff double and loaded the bases by hitting both Turner and Puig. While he got out of it without a run, it was more an escape than anything, as Pederson's hard-hit grounder goes for a hit more than half the time, and would have scored two if it weren't hit right at second baseman Jose Altuve.
• John Forsythe singles (102-mph exit velocity, 43-percent hit probability)
• Austin Barnes grounds out (94.9-mph exit velocity, 17-percent hit probability)
• Enrique Hernandez hit by pitch
• Taylor lines into a double play (95.7-mph exit velocity, 69-percent hit probability)
Another inning, another hit by pitch, along with two more hard-hit balls and nearly a third. Though Barnes pounded his into the ground, it required a great dive by third baseman Alex Bregman to make the play. Again, McCullers was saved by some good luck, as with two on and one out, Taylor smoked his second liner in two innings. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, it was right to shortstop Carlos Correa, and Forsythe was doubled off.
• Seager singles (105.9-mph exit velocity, .820 expected average)
• Turner hit by pitch
• Bellinger strikes out
All six balls the Dodgers put in play against McCullers were hit at 94.9 mph or harder, and after Turner was hit, it was clear that another pitcher was going to come in, just as soon as McCullers got another chance to strike out Bellinger -- which he did with a series of breaking balls low and inside.
Despite the shutout to that point, it was clear McCullers wasn't "dealing" at all, other than continuing to dominate Bellinger with curveballs. This isn't at all to disrespect the effort McCullers put out; he was very clear in his comments after the game that he was not at full strength. And Hinch, to his credit, deviated from the original plan where necessary when he saw that.
"I didn't plan on pulling McCullers early tonight," Hinch said. "I thought he was going to pitch a little bit deeper in the game, but what we were seeing were just some pitches that weren't being executed. And we felt like we could pass the baton onto the next guy and we would piece it together. We had every pitcher available, basically."
Hinch made the right call for the right reasons, yet it's a call that just about no manager has shown the willingness to make. It still could have backfired on him, because Peacock entered and allowed Puig to drive a ball 352 feet to center, though George Springer easily corralled it, and then Pederson grounded out to end the inning.
If McCullers would've stayed in to finish the inning, or even went on to the next one, just because starters are expected to or because he was throwing a shutout or because they wanted to "get him the win," it would have been based on tradition, not process. It would have been based on the past, not the future. It might not have ended so well for them the next time Taylor or Barnes or Puig hit the ball hard. It might have changed the outcome of the game and the Series.
The plan worked out perfectly when Hinch went to Morton for four innings to close it out, a tactic he's used multiple times. It marked the fourth time a Houston pitcher threw at least 3 2/3 innings to finish a game this October, the most by any team in a single postseason.
Morton's terrific Game 7 outing followed Collin McHugh's four innings in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, McCullers' four innings to close out Game 7 of the ALCS and Peacock's 3 2/3-inning save in Game 3 of the World Series. The previous record for most such games by a team in a postseason was two.
Hinch received a lot of credit from a lot of corners during this Series, and he deserved it. He's now one of the few managers who can call themselves a World Series champion. But don't forget the quiet decision from the third inning, the one just about no skipper ever makes.
It may have been the one that prevented chaos before it happened.