How MLB old school beat new: Inside the Astros’ big inning that won Game 6

  • Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
  • Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
  • Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
  • Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

A few months before Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash was born, his 2020 American League Championship Series counterpart, Dusty Baker, supposedly co-invented the high five with his late Dodgers teammate, Glenn Burke. Cash was born on Dec. 6, 1977, and Baker had been a major leaguer for a nearly a decade. The momentous hand slap happened in the 1977 National League Championship Series, after Baker hit a grand slam.

Baker had broken into Major League Baseball as a teammate of Hank Aaron with the Atlanta Braves in the last season before divisional play, in 1968, back when you had to finish with the best record in your league to make the MLB playoffs which, at the time, was simply known as the World Series. A few years later, he was waiting on deck when Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s hallowed record.

A few months before Kevin Cash became old enough to get his driver’s license, Baker had finished his first season as a big league manager. He led the 1993 San Francisco Giants to 103 wins, still the most of any team he has managed over 23 seasons in the dugout. Those Giants did not make the playoffs. They had finished a game behind Baker’s old team, the Braves, and it was the last season before baseball expanded its playoff format again.

When Baker and Cash ended up against each other in this year’s ALCS, it was an unlikely pairing of managers in many ways. Baker, 71, seemed to be done with the annoyances of skippering, until the Astros ran smack into scandal and they needed someone of his integrity to help restore faith in the franchise. Cash, 42, had guided the Rays to the AL’s best record and, after six years in the Tampa Bay dugout, had fashioned a reputation as perhaps the best of baseball’s new generation of analytics-minded managers.

The other thing that made the meeting so unlikely is that 2020 is the only one in all of baseball history in which it could have happened. The Rays’ league-best record (40-20, .667) would have staked a playoff slot in any format in place through the annals of the American League. The Astros’ 29-31 mark required this year’s expansion to a 16-team format to allow the club to play on. Thus, Baker has managed a 103-win team that did not make the playoffs and a team that was on a 78-win pace (over 162 games) that did.

Perhaps it’s overstating it, but all of that incongruous history seemed to collide in one dramatic inning during Friday’s Game 6 of the ALCS. And because things fell Baker’s way, he and Cash together joined an exclusive managerial club: Only four managers have ever reached a Game 7 in a series in which one team lost the first three games of the set. Only the 2004 Red Sox had ever forced a seventh game after falling into a 3-0 hole, doing so in the ALCS that year against the New York Yankees.

The inning in question was the top of the fifth, which Tampa Bay entered with a 1-0 lead. If the Astros go on to finish their epic comeback on Saturday — and we don’t know what dramatics lie in store for us then — fans of both teams might point to this inning for when things finally tilted toward Houston.

When the inning began, Blake Snell had put up all zeros but — as has been his Achilles heel all season — he had not done so efficiently, walking three Houston batters and burning through 71 pitches. Snell, the AL Cy Young winner in 2018, had not completed six innings in any of his 14 previous starts this season, including the playoffs. He threw 105 pitches over five innings but earned the win in Game 1 of the ALCS. On the other side, precocious Houston lefty Framber Valdez was dealing despite allowing an early run.

Let’s go at-bat by at-bat from here:

1. Yuli Gurriel (Leverage index: 1.27; Plate appearance LI rank: 12th)

Snell’s control issues continued. He started Gurriel with a strike on a changeup, but missed with three subsequent changeups. He tried to recover with a fastball and missed. None of the pitches were close enough for him to grouse about. The five-pitch walk pushed Snell’s pitch count to 76. His season average was 82 pitches.

2. Aledmys Diaz (LI: 2.08; PA rank: 3rd)

With the leadoff man on base representing the tying run, the leverage index shot up over 2.0, which made this the statistical definition of a high-leverage at-bat. Cash would have known this, and he does a better job of matching the right pitcher with the right hitter with the right leverage moment than any manager in the sport.

Diego Castillo was getting loose in the Rays bullpen. He and fellow righty Nick Anderson had the highest average leverage index upon entering games among the relievers on the Rays’ ALCS roster. Both have closed games at times, but in 2020, no one bats an eye when Castillo is up in the fifth inning of a 1-0 game.

But Diaz, despite hitting from the right side, has a career OPS against lefties (.692) considerably lower than his mark against righties (.821). Against “soft” pitches like the curveball and changeup that Snell excels at, Diaz’s career OPS is .787, but just .610 on soft pitches from southpaws. Cash stuck with his ace.

It took six pitches — none of them fastballs — but Snell finally left a slider up and Diaz bounced it through the 5-6 hole on the left side for a single. At 95.5 mph in exit velocity, it was a hard-hit single against a shifted defense. Against a traditional alignment, it probably would have been a tough backhand play for Rays shortstop Willy Adames, but since he was shaded towards second base in the shifted alignment we’ll never know.

So now the leverage index ratchets up even more, with two on, nobody out, and the Rays clinging to that one-run edge. Castillo is getting hot in a hurry in the bullpen. Snell hasn’t allowed a run but he’s in a jam and his pitch count is up to 82, his season average. Next up is light-hitting Houston catcher Martin Maldonado, a clear double-play candidate.

“It was fairly clear,” Cash said afterwards. “I thought the way that Valdez was throwing, there wasn’t going to be a ton of scoring opportunities for us, and wanted to get the ball in to Diego’s hand.”

Cash came out to get Snell, of course. And it’s the kind of thing where you really would like to know what was going through Baker’s mind at that moment. Over a 52-year career, how many times had he seen a manager (or been a manager) pull his ace during the fifth inning of a key game with a shutout working?

We don’t know what was going through Baker’s mind, but we have a pretty good what was going through Snell’s noggin. Skilled lip readers would have noticed he was less than pleased as he stomped off the mound.

“I was just frustrated,” Snell said, before adding, “Most of the time I am aware of it and I understand that Cash is really good at his job and is good at what he does. I’m gonna disagree with him, it’s going to happen. Especially because I am a guy that wants to be out there and go deep as possible.”

3. Martin Maldonado (LI: 2.7; PA rank: first)

By leverage index, this was the most intense moment of the game. Castillo has a vicious sinker/slider combo that allowed him to strike out 28 percent of the righties he faced this season. Maldonado struck out 33 percent of the time against righties.

For nearly all of baseball history and certainly for most of Baker’s long career in baseball, this is a classic bunt situation. Maybe not for the Rays, as Cash’s players didn’t attempt a single sacrifice during the regular season. When Manny Margot laid one down in Game 3 of the ALCS, the postgame reaction in the Zoom sessions was like someone had reinvented the sport.

And indeed, Maldonado squared around to bunt. He’s laid down 26 over them successfully during his regular-season career and executed about 65 percent of his attempts, per baseball-reference.com. That’s about nine percent better than the average bunt attempt in a typical season. Maldonado took a slider, then on another slider, he dropped a textbook bunt up the third base line. The Rays had pulled their corners in but it the bunt was too precise, and Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino pounced on it and threw out Maldonado as the runners advanced.

“Actually I was lucky enough to get two sliders to bunt,” Maldonado said postgame. “(Last year) I tried to bunt with Diaz on second base and I bunt it back to (Castillo against) 98 (mph). So I go in there, ‘Oh God, now I got to bunt in there against this guy’ so I was lucky I got two sliders to bunt.”

This all seems like the straightforward brand of baseball we’ve been watching all of our lives. But what if the respective managers were in opposite dugouts? Would Baker have pulled Snell? Would Cash have called for a bunt?

Anyway, according to FanGraphs.com, after the bunt, the Astros’ win probability dropped from 49.2 percent to 48.5. So if you think that it was obvious that Cash would have made the same call as Baker, it’s not. Maybe, maybe not. The numbers did not like the bunt.

4. George Springer (LI: 2.19, PA rank: second)

Our third straight high-leverage at-bat. Springer had struck out in both of his at-bats against Snell. For his career, he has a .760 OPS against him over 19 plate appearances but since 2018, when Snell ascended to ace status, Springer was 3-for-14, postseason included.

Meanwhile, Springer’s OPS against Castillo (including the postseason) is a robust 1.125, though it’s over just eight plate appearances. Given that Cash had to anticipate Baker’s decision to call for a bunt to Maldonado, this was the matchup he’d chosen: Castillo versus Springer, rather than Snell versus Springer.

The thing is: Those individual matchup numbers that you just read likely did not enter into Cash’s thinking at all. And they shouldn’t. Managers used to make the mistake of reading too much into small matchup samples far more often than they do now. But become less common as knowledge has increased, and it’s not something that Cash is going to be guilty of very often.

What he is aware of, and has been more a practitioner of, is limiting how often opposing hitters see any one of his pitchers within a game. It didn’t matter that Snell had struck out Springer twice, or that Springer has better numbers against Castillo than Snell. It only mattered that Snell’s control was wavering at a pitch count that has been his typical threshold, and that Springer had seen him twice.

Even more interesting than the matchup was Cash’s defensive alignment. As we know, the Rays are hyper-aggressive at shifting their defense. In this instance, Cash didn’t just put his infield into a pull-side shift against Springer, but he pulled his infield in to try to cut down the tying run at the plate. Three infielders were playing on the grass between second and third base, while first baseman Yandy Diaz was also on the edge of green, halfway between first and second.

Castillo started with an inside slider that handcuffed Zunino and kicked away from him, but he ran it down with cat-like quickness while Castillo raced in from the mound to cover the plate, so Diaz remained perched on third base. On the next pitch, with the Rays infield in same alignment, Castillo put a 96 mph sinker on the outer edge of the plate, though Zunino appeared to be set up for an inside offering. Keep this in mind: Springer rarely hits a ground ball to the right side of the infield.

Springer shortened his swing and poked the on-the-outside-edge fastball through the wide-open right side of the infield. Both runners scored. The Astros’ win probability leaped from the aforementioned 48.5 percent to 64 percent.

“I’m sure (coach) Gary (Pettis) was very happy, because every day in BP, he stands at second base and dares George to try and hit him,” Baker said. “George hasn’t hit him yet, so George would’ve hit him today. I am sure Gary Pettis was very, very happy, and we were even happier than Gary was.”

Pettis, who was diagnosed with cancer in late September, has been in attendance at Petco Park for the last two games and has served as an inspirational figure for Baker and his players.

Here we’re going to switch back into summary mode. The Astros had just grabbed the lead through a sequence of a leadoff walk, followed by the three highest-leverage plays of the game. The Rays pulled their ace starter who was working on a shutout, bringing in one of their relief aces in the fifth inning, played the infield in and shifted at the same time, played the corners in, did everything by the percentages. The Astros bunted and singled through two shifts to grab the advantage.

Was this old school Dusty getting over on new school Cash? Nah, that’s a stretch. Every move Cash made was logical and defensible, while Dusty’s charges simply had better execution. However, it was a beautiful contrast of what baseball is now, and what it has always been.

It also set the wheels in motion. Jose Altuve doubled in Springer and went to third on a passed ball. Michael Brantley walked. Carlos Correa singled in Altuve. Finally, Castillo got Alex Bregman to bounce into an inning-ending double play. But the Astros led 4-1.

The frame began with an Astros win expectancy of 36.2 percent. It ended at 80.9 percent. There was plenty of game left and both teams scored three more times before it was over. But that inning — the top of the fifth — was the tipping point, when Houston’s Hail Mary comeback from hopelessness in the series felt complete. Now the two teams are even.

“We are all frustrated,” Cash said. “I don’t think (the players) are tensing up. I think they are recognizing that we got an opportunity for the fourth time now to do something special.”

With one more game to go, we know in Game 7, Dusty is going to do Dusty, and Cash is going to do Cash. And, honestly, whether you prefer old school, new school or a blend of all the above, would you want it any other way?

“Getting close isn’t good enough,” Baker said. “I’ll show more emotion after we win tomorrow then onto the next challenge. This whole thing has been a challenge and it has been more of a challenge of positive thinking and faith than it has been a challenge of physically on the field.”

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