Houston's 2-1 win in Saturday's Game 2 of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World was largely fueled by Justin Verlander's complete-game effort, but it also came down to execution. The Astros executed a relay throw perfectly to get Brett Gardner on the bases in the third inning; the Yankees couldn't do the same when trying to get Jose Altuve dashing for home in the ninth. Instead, Altuve slid past Gary Sanchez with the winning run, and Houston heads to New York up 2-0.
The entire play took just 10.6 seconds from the time Albertin Chapman unleashed his 99.3-mph fastball to the time that Altuve touched the plate. In barely more than 10 seconds -- basically the time it will take you to read this sentence -- multiple decisions were made on both sides of the ball that directly impacted the outcome of the game and, by extension, the series.
There's a lot to unpack here. Let's use Statcast™ to focus on three very important questions, in chronological order.
1. Did Aaron Judge make the right play?
Watching the play live, it originally seemed like Judge overthrew his cutoff man, bypassing second baseman Starlin Castro in short right field, instead hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius near second base. At the moment Judge released his throw, Castro was 183 feet from home plate (and, of course, closer to Judge), while Gregorius was 137 feet from home. It seemed, perhaps, that Judge had made a crucial mistake, trying to get Carlos Correa advancing to second despite there only being one out and the winning run headed home.
But Judge made it clear following the game that he knew exactly what he was doing.
"I just tried to get it in to Didi, because I thought if I got to him, I'd have a shot at the plate," Judge said, adding that "any time I can get it to Didi, with his arm, I feel like we have a shot at the plate."
Manager Joe Girardi echoed the same thought.
"I think he did the right thing, he got it to Didi," Girardi said. "That's the bottom line. He got it to the guy on the field with the best arm."
The data backs that up. Over the three years of Statcast™, Castro has had only two throws measured harder than 88 mph, both at 90 mph back in 2015. Gregorius, meanwhile, has 28 such throws, topping out at 96.1 mph. This year, he was one of just 10 shortstops to hit 90 mph. The fraction of a second extra it took to get to the fielder with the stronger arm who was closer to home didn't negatively impact the Yanks. (Nor should Judge, who was 343 feet from home, have attempted to airmail it there himself.)
Plus, it doesn't seem that the choice of cutoff man affected Altuve's decision to go. As you can see, at the time Judge threw the ball, third-base coach Gary Pettis was clearly waving Altuve home. At that point, it didn't matter to the Astros whether Castro or Gregorius received the throw. Altuve was all-in. (In fact, Pettis told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart that he decided to send Altuve as soon as the ball was hit.)
One subtle benefit Houston got on the play came as a result of a (perfectly legal) pop-up slide from Correa at second, which may have affected Gregorius' ability to get off a clean throw. Asked if he thought there was interference on the play, Gregorius said: "I can't call that. I did touch him, but I'm not trying to make any excuses."
To his credit, Gregorius got off an on-target throw ahead of the runner, but he made it a little harder on his catcher by bouncing it. Which brings us to our next question.
2. By how much was Altuve going to be out?
A lot. You saw this in real time, but let's make it clear with the numbers -- Gregorius may have one-hopped his throw, but it still got home in plenty of time. When Gregorius threw the ball, Altuve was still 56 feet from home. When the ball first contacted Sanchez, Altuve was still 25 feet away. Between the ball's arrival to Sanchez and Altuve's arrival at home plate, .96 seconds had elapsed, so the ball was there by nearly one second.
That may not sound like much, but remember, the entire play, from Chapman's pitch to Altuve's run, took barely over 10 seconds. Every fraction of a second matters.
That huge gap at the plate came despite the fact that Altuve was flying. Despite his reputation as a speedster, he's usually more "very good" than truly elite. Using the Statcast™ metric "Sprint Speed," which measures a runner's top speed in terms of "feet per second [in a runner's fastest one second window]," Altuve's 2017 average was 28 feet per second. That's better than the Major League Average of 27 feet per second, and well better than the 23 feet per second the slowest catchers rate at, but it's not quite the 30.2 feet per second that you'll see from Byron Buxton, or the 30.1 feet per second from Billy Hamilton.
Yet on this play, Altuve's Sprint Speed was 29.5 feet per second, which is very strong and considerably above his average. Altuve made it from first to home in 10.27 seconds, his fastest time since 2015. Not only that, he picked up speed along the way. It took Altuve 3.62 seconds to get from first to second, despite being 10.7 feet off the base when Chapman threw the pitch, then just 3.33 from second to third and 3.32 from third to home. In other words, he had two trips of 90 feet that were faster than a trip of 79 feet.
That 10.7-foot lead, by the way, is shorter than average, which is 14.2 against lefty pitchers. So a larger lead would have helped shorten the gap, but it wouldn't have closed it entirely. After all, Altuve was beat by 25 feet. Until Sanchez was unable to bring it in, the Yankees did their job.
3. Was it the right call anyway?
In terms of outcome, sure. The Astros won the game. It'll be a very happy flight to New York in advance of Monday's Game 3. But in terms of process, it's more complicated. If Sanchez catches the ball, Altuve is out by a mile. Does that make it a mistake?
"We joke in our clubhouse about Gary Pettis being the most aggressive third-base coach in the league," said Houston manager A.J. Hinch, "and I think he still lives as the most aggressive third-base coach in the league, because he wants to put pressure on the opponent."
There's no doubt it was an aggressive send, but Altuve got to something a little more specific. If he stopped at third and Correa was safe at second, it's a good situation, yet it's hardly a guaranteed win. You still, after all, have to deal with Chapman.
"Pettis sent me, because against Chapman, you're not going to get a lot of hits," said Altuve. "You might get one or two per inning, so you have to take the chance."
Chapman, entering the game, had been nearly perfect in this postseason, striking out 13 of 27 hitters while not allowing any runs, plus he whiffed Josh Reddick to start the inning. The next Astros hitters were Marwin Gonzalez and Yuli Gurriel, both talented, yet neither certain to drive in the run. Pettis saw Altuve flying, thought about how difficult it can be to perfectly make two long relays, and gave his star the green light.
Still, there was risk. Looking at the win expectancy per various inning, score and base/out situations based on real-world recent outcomes, Houston had a 84 percent chance of winning if Altuve had stopped at third, but only a 60 percent chance of winning if he'd been thrown out. It's an enormous difference.
Of course, Altuve wasn't thrown out. This really all comes down to Sanchez, and he knew it.
"Bottom line is, if I catch that ball, he's going to be out," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "I dropped the ball."
For all the numbers, all the data, all the risk and all the decisions, it comes down to that. The ball beat the runner by a full second and 25 feet. The catcher didn't hang on. The game was lost, and the series was tilted.
Perhaps, though, Sanchez is being too critical of himself in hindsight. Remember, part of the perfect storm on the play was that the ball thrown his way was short-hopped and not exactly routine.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.