Astros Solve Lynn to Open ALDS

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.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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miltonfriedman
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miltonfriedman

Sorry, White Sox. You don’t get to beat up on horrible Al Central teams anymore. Outside of Seattle, you are the worst team that was in playoff contention or made the playoffs

BaconSlayer09
Member

This is such a lazy excuse for why the White Sox aren’t good.

They went 44-32 against the AL Central.
They went 49-37 against everyone else. Math says those are pretty similar win%.

BTW, they were also 2nd in WAR in baseball this year. Kind of ridiculous to say they’re on the same level as a team that had half the WAR (Mariners). It’s pretty hard to rationalize that no matter how bad you think the AL Central is.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

If this team was 2nd in WAR in baseball this year, it looks like there’s something seriously wrong with how WAR is calculated.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Downvote all you want but the ‘second best team in baseball’ hasn’t gotten within 5 runs of the Astros in the first two games. They’re just getting stomped. The White Sox’ stats are based on getting meaningless runs in games which are already decided. 24 wins by 6 runs or more, more than 25% of their wins. No one else is even close. Fangraphs’ WAR counts garbage time runs just as much as others.

BenZobrist4MVP
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BenZobrist4MVP

Even if you think the White Sox had an easier schedule, it’s hard to argue that the Cardinals (+34 run differential) and Yankees (+42) were both better teams than the White Sox (+160).

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

The White Sox’ stats are based on getting meaningless runs in games which are already decided. 24 wins by 6 runs or more, more than 25% of their wins. No one else is even close.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think the more compelling explanation is that the Astros lineup will score on almost anyone and that they’re quite a bit better than most people gave them credit for.

MikeS
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MikeS

I recently made the argument that there aren’t a lot of easy outs in the White Sox lineup, but the outs are even harder against the Astros. It isn’t just that they are good hitters, they are good contact hitters with plenty of power to boot. Their swinging strike rate is 8.8%, which is 1.3 percentage points better than the second place Padres. Those 1.3 points are the same as the difference between the Padres and the White Sox, who are tied for 16th best.

They take more strikes than any team in baseball, but they can afford to with that swinging strike rate and that just lets them see more pitches and run up pitch counts while still striking out less than any other team. The White Sox staff relies on strikeouts, especially with their mediocre defense, so this is probably not the best matchup for them, although a very interesting one.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The Astros lineup is exceptionally disciplined. One of the interesting things about watching the Dodgers last year in the playoffs was seeing how they exposed pitchers who were getting by messing with less disciplined hitters. To beat the Dodgers hitters you needed power breaking stuff, preferably from the left side. So Max Fried did pretty well against them; so did Blake Snell. But guys who didn’t have the breaking stuff to fool disciplined hitters really struggled getting outs.

Similarly, in this game, a guy who throws fastballs 63% of the time for multiple innings is going to not have an easy time. So Ben is right that we should have seen this coming a mile away and this was always going to be a tough matchup. To me it seems like Giolito (who uses his changeup a lot) and Cease (who throws two different breaking balls, for about 45% of the time) would be stronger candidates against the Astros. But I guess we’ll find out whether their stuff is better at fooling opposing hitters or not.

The other thing is that the Astros pitching isn’t that deep. Garcia and Valdez are pretty good too but Garcia’s stuff isn’t as awesome as McCullers and Valdez is a left-hander which plays to the White Sox’s strengths a bit better. So there are some reasons to hope they’ll do better against them (although it’s obviously not guaranteed).

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Are there that many people who underrated the Astros? They were first in the MLB in wRC+, 1st in MLB in offensive WAR, 2nd best record in the AL, 2nd best run differential in the AL.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Not necessarily. I think there were that many people who overrated the White Sox. Shows what you can do if you run up the scores in games you’ve already won (more than 25% of White Sox wins were by more than 5 runs) and the Fangraphs model treats garbage runs just like other runs. The White Sox are the best team in the majors at scoring meaningless runs and Fangraphs loves teams like that.