With two outs in the ninth inning of World Series Game 4 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, Astros slugger Jose Altuve stepped up against the Dodgers' Kenley Jansen and got more of the ball than most do against baseball's best closer.The potential American League MVP Award winner's drive
With two outs in the ninth inning of World Series Game 4 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, Astros slugger Jose Altuve stepped up against the Dodgers' Kenley Jansen and got more of the ball than most do against baseball's best closer.
The potential American League MVP Award winner's drive to right-center field left the bat at 98.5 mph and at a 27-degree launch angle -- good enough to be considered a barrel, Statcast™'s definition for a ball hit with the perfect combination of velocity and angle. Barreled balls had an .826 batting average in the Majors this year, yet this one landed harmlessly in center fielder Chris Taylor's glove to end the game.
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So it went for baseball's best offense, limited to a mere two hits by Alex Wood and three relievers in the Dodgers' 6-2 win, which evened the Series at two games apiece. Though Wood deserves a great deal of credit for giving Los Angeles badly needed innings after its Game 3 loss, despite clearly not having his best stuff, this also wasn't exactly the traditionally dominating performance you'd expect against a team that managed only two hits.
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After all, the Astros had 10 hard-hit balls, defined as those hit 95 mph or harder, and they struck out only four times. Those are both good things, yet somehow only one of those -- George Springer's sixth-inning home run -- turned into a hit. (Alex Bregman's ninth-inning homer put a run on the board, but didn't qualify, as its 93 mph exit velocity makes it an easy flyout in most parks that don't have the Crawford Boxes in left field.)
That's not just a case of unfortunate outcomes; it's almost unprecedented (seriously). We've been tracking this for three seasons, dating back to 2015, and in that time, there have been 6,040 games (including playoffs) where a team has had 10 hard-hit balls in a game. That's just over 40 percent of the time. When it does happen, success usually follows.
There's a reason we consider 95 mph to be the break point for "hard-hit," because the Majors hit .558 on balls above 95 mph this year, and just .224 on balls below that. It's good, obviously, to hit the ball hard, and more than half the time those hard-hit balls become hits. Of those 6,040 games with at least 10 hard hits, only 17 of them had one or fewer of those balls turn into hits, which is a fraction of 1 percent of the time. It's about as close as you can get to saying this never, ever happens.
You can make it 18, now. Just look at what little success the Astros had on their 10 hard-hit balls in Game 4.
The Astros had 10 hard-hit batted balls in a game 90 previous times this season, and only 17 times did fewer than half turn into hits. Not once all season did Houston get at least 10 hard-hit batted balls, but just one hit, as they did Saturday. There was only one other time all season when the Astros didn't get at least three hits, and that was Game 5 of the AL Championship Series vs. the Yankees.
Now, that's not all bad luck. You'll notice that four of those batted balls had negative launch angles, and that's a credit to Wood, who kept the ball down and forced Houston to put the ball on the ground, just as he did all season. (Among pitchers who threw 150 innings, only seven had a higher ground-ball rate than his 53 percent.) There's a reason that "elevate and celebrate" has become a well-known term, and Wood mostly didn't allow the Astros to.
But still, if you're hitting the ball this hard and not getting any production from it, there's got to be something else going on, and there was. In a few cases, namely Altuve's groundout in the first inning (102.7 mph) and Evan Gattis's in the eighth (108.4 mph), the credit goes to the Dodgers positioning, as second baseman John Forsythe was shaded right up the middle, exactly where the balls were hit.
In the second inning, when Josh Reddick hit one 105.5 mph (50 percent Hit Probability), it was because Forsythe simply made a nice diving stop.
In the third, when Springer smashed one at 109.8 mph (the hardest-hit ball of anyone on either team, a 66 percent Hit Probability), it just so happened to be directly at shortstop Corey Seager.
And in the sixth, Marwin Gonzalez hit a ball hard enough to third (98.6 mph) that it hit Justin Turner in the leg, forcing him out of the game two innings later, yet also allowed the Dodgers third baseman enough time to recover to make the play.
So can the Astros take anything away from this? There's good news and bad news. The good news is that we've seen this before, back in the ALCS, when we wrote that Statcast™ showed their process was far better than their results, and that Houston -- then down 3-2 to the Yankees -- could expect better results to follow. They did, of course. They're hitting the ball hard, and making plenty of contact. These are all good signs.
The bad news, however, is that Clayton Kershaw awaits in Game 5, after shaking off any lingering narrative about his lack of postseason success with a masterful Game 1 in this World Series. Kershaw had the lowest hard-hit rate allowed of any regular starting pitcher this year. If the Astros can't do a better job of elevating the ball off the ground, it might not matter how much hard contact they make -- as Game 4 showed.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.