Astros Solve Lynn to Open ALDS by Ben Clemens October 7, 2021 Coming into the American League Division Series, the Chicago White Sox faced a tough task: controlling the tireless Houston Astros offense, which paced the majors in scoring. They’re a nightmarish matchup; high on-base hitters up top, power in the middle, and enough firepower that Carlos Correa (134 wRC+) bats sixth and Kyle Tucker (147 wRC+) seventh. Chicago’s plan? Fastballs. That’s less by design and more because Lance Lynn, their Game 1 starter, throws more of them than anyone else in baseball. Is that a smart plan against the Astros? No, it is not — they were the third-best fastball-hitting team in baseball this year by run value. On the other hand, they were also the third-best team against breaking pitches and the second-best against offspeed offerings, so it’s not as though there were easy choices. But fastballs? In this economy? It felt like it might be a long afternoon. For an inning, Lynn managed it. He mixed four-seamers and cutters, keeping Houston hitters off-balance. His cutter could almost be called a slider, and it’s key to keeping opponents uneasy; it’s the only pitch he throws with glove-side movement. He set the side down in order — but even then, Alex Bregman smashed a line drive directly at Leury García for the third out. The cutters weren’t doing enough to keep Astros hitters from sitting on other fastballs. It didn’t last long. If facing the Astros with fastballs is difficult, facing Yordan Alvarez with fastballs is close to impossible. Alvarez put on a clinic: Lynn threw him two strikes, both of which he fouled off. Lynn threw him four pitches out of the strike zone, all of which he took. By the time the inning ended, the Astros had added two baserunners and a run, both singles on fastballs in the upper third of the zone. Lynn’s inability to fool the Astros didn’t end there. Jose Altuve drew a walk (you guessed it, eight straight fastballs, four of them cutters). A bunt and a wild pitch moved him to third, where he scored on a Bregman grounder that resulted in a play at the plate. And then came terror again: Alvarez took a fastball high, then a fastball low. Lynn obliged him by coming into the zone — and Alvarez golfed one 400 feet to left center, off the wall for a run-scoring double. “Don’t let Yordan Alvarez beat you” seems like a good plan if you’re relying on a heavy diet of four-seamers and cutters, but even if Lynn had managed that, the rest of the Astros gave him fits. The fourth featured two more runs, and ended Lynn’s night. It was exactly what you’d expect when you throw a disciplined and powerful team a steady diet of straight pitches: 100 mph lineout, 107 mph single, 103 mph fly out, 105 mph double, 101 mph single, hit the showers. To that point in the game, the Astros had produced the eight hardest-hit balls, Lynn’s pitch mix serving mainly as batting practice. In the end, he threw 76 pitches — 74 fastballs, a curveball, and a changeup. The curveball was a wild pitch, the changeup was a mile outside, and that just isn’t going to do it against such a potent offense. To some extent, it’s a bad fit; you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and you shouldn’t bring fastballs to an Astros game. Lynn has allowed more than a run an inning in his last six starts against them. But just as much as a bad fit, Lynn didn’t have it tonight. Take a look at a chart of his pitch locations: That’s not gonna do it. No one chases fastballs wide; to get swinging strikes, you need to either go above the zone or start a cutter on the plate and let it break away. Take a look at what a good location game looks like for Lynn — his August 23 start against the Blue Jays: A cutter on the gloveside edge is a great pitch, and one that Lynn generally executes. So is an early-count sinker down, or a four-seamer in the upper third of the strike zone. Those pitches simply weren’t there today. The four-seamers sailed or tailed, the sinkers mostly missed wide or stayed high, and he left his cutter much higher in the zone than he normally does. Sure, his arsenal of mainly straight pitches (his cutter has three inches of gloveside break) was a bad fit, but his lack of command meant it probably didn’t matter who he was facing. His counterpart, Lance McCullers Jr., had no such problems. McCullers was sharp right from the start, sticking with the plan that has served him so well this year: pepper the zone with sinkers, snap off sliders with more than a foot of horizontal break that swerves them from the heart of the plate into the lefty batting box, and top it all off with his signature knuckle curve, a two-plane rainbow that looks similar to the slider out of his hand but drops 17 more inches on its path to the plate. McCullers had one clear problem in 2021: command. He walked 11.1% of the batters he faced, a bottom-five mark among pitchers with 125 innings pitched. Today, he didn’t walk anyone, though he danced around it; he only threw 13 out of 24 first pitches for a strike, and reached three-ball counts seven times. He simply refused to give up a walk in those situations: he threw a grand total of 12 pitches in three-ball counts. Eight were sinkers. All 12 were in the strike zone. You want it? Come and hit it. The White Sox, it should be said, started to figure McCullers out. In the seventh inning, with the score 6-0, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez hit back-to-back screaming line drive singles. That was all for McCullers, but did you see the 6-0 part? It was more or less all for Chicago, too, particularly when Phil Maton induced a weak Gavin Sheets grounder to end the threat. There wasn’t much drama in this one, but the Astros still brought out their best bullpen arms to close it out. Kendall Graveman and Ryan Pressly have drawn the toughest assignments down the stretch, and they were out there protecting a big lead today. The White Sox, meanwhile, have their best relief arms fresh. It might not matter if Houston keeps hitting like this, but in a day that was light on hope for White Sox fans, that’s a welcome sight. The teams will be back at it tomorrow, with a thrilling pitching matchup of Lucas Giolito against Framber Valdez, and Chicago will have to hope they do a better job of both stifling Houston’s offense and finding a way to score against a tough groundball pitcher.