Astros Take Game 3 from Aníbal Sánchez and the Nationals 4-1 by Craig Edwards October 26, 2019 In a technical sense, Game 3 wasn’t a must-win for the Astros. In a practical sense, the odds of Houston winning four straight games against the Nationals are under 10%. The Astros needed the win, and they got it with a 4-1 victory. For those purists of the game who enjoy pitchers batting, Game 3 of the World Series highlighted one of the big differences in strategy between the American and National Leagues: pitchers as hitters. Greinke’s Bunt The first potentially important pitcher plate appearance occurred in the top of the second inning. Zack Greinke came to bat with one out and runners on first and third. Greinke’s season wRC+ of 123 doesn’t really represent his true hitting talent, but his career 60 wRC+ also understates his value in this situation. Greinke got down a successful bunt and advanced the runner to second, but the Astros’ win expectancy went down about five percentage points. If Greinke had done nothing, it would have only gone down a single percentage point more. While a double play would have dropped the win expectancy by about 10 percentage points, a sac fly would have moved the Astros up four percentage points, while a single would have moved them up six. Greinke’s career wRC+ indicates he isn’t a particularly good hitter, but it’s mostly due to his inability to walk or hit for power. With a .225 lifetime average, he hits a decent number of singles, which is what the Astros needed in this situation. With a runner already on third, moving a single runner to second doesn’t help much when there are two outs. The expected situation is a Greinke out, which drops win expectancy by six. The bunt is only one percentage point so we’re really dealing with the chances of a double play versus the chances of a single. Given the large bump from a single compared to the expected out, versus the small drop from the bunt to a double play, the double play would have to have been much more likely than the single to make bunting the right choice. That isn’t in the case here, particularly with Aníbal Sánchez giving up a bunch of loud contact in the first few innings. George Springer followed the bunt with a groundball out to keep the game at a one-run deficit for the Nationals. Sánchez Bats In the bottom of the fourth inning, Aníbal Sánchez’s spot in the order came up with the Nationals down 2-1 and Victor Robles on third base after his one-out triple drove in Ryan Zimmerman for Washington’s first run. Sánchez would strike out on a foul bunt; the Nationals win expectancy dropped by 7.5%. In reality, Sánchez getting out didn’t drop the Nationals’ win expectancy by that much. Washington’s chances of winning dropped more than it would have with a pinch hitter the second Sánchez and his career -46 wRC+ stepped into the box. A pinch hitter would have maintained that theoretical 7.5% win expectancy, and even a sac fly would have increased the team’s chances of winning by about 3% and put them up over 50% with a 2-2 tie. A clean fifth inning from Sánchez would only have been worth about 5% in win expectancy. Even with the depth of Washington’s bullpen essentially untested this postseason and likely unreliable, giving up that at-bat in the fourth inning, down a run and with an excellent scoring opportunity, wasn’t worth leaving Sánchez in the game. Compounding the decision, Sánchez would get just four more outs and surrender a run in each of the next two innings on a José Altuve double followed by a Michael Brantley single in the fifth, and a Robinson Chirinos homer in the sixth. A.J. Hinch didn’t face another difficult decision concerning whether Greinke should hit, but in the fifth inning with his starter at 95 pitches, he went to Josh James to escape a two out, runners on second and third jam. The move paid off when Zimmerman struck out on a 3-2 changeup inside that would have been ball four. Neither pitcher was great, and neither pitcher was terrible, though things could have been a lot worse for both starters. Nine of the 20 batted balls against Sánchez had exit velocities of at least 95 mph, and only five of those nine were hits. While Greinke wasn’t quite as fortunate, five of his 12 batted balls were at least 98 mph off the bat and one hard hit ball by Robles with runners on first and second turned into an inning-ending double play. Defense mattered in the first half of the game, with Juan Soto airmailing a throw in the second inning as Carlos Correa scored. He later misplayed a ball hit into the corner (Michael Brantley also had trouble with a ball there on a triple by Robles) that allowed José Altuve to advance to third on what would otherwise have been a double. Altuve then scored on an infield single; cleaner defense might have kept Houston scoreless through three. Better framing from Kurt Suzuki or a slightly more consistent strike zone might have helped Sánchez as well. His pitch chart from Baseball Savant tells the story of the game for the Nats starter. There are not many swings outside the strike zone, and there were no swings and misses. When hitters saw strikes, they swung and did just enough damage. In Sánchez’s gem against the Cardinals, Yan Gomes, who is a better framer than Suzuki, started for the Nationals. But Suzuki has the better bat and started with Sánchez for a majority of his starts during the season, so this is more hindsight than foresight. While pitchers hitting mattered a lot, the other big strategic decision in the Nationals League — lineup construction — didn’t end up playing a huge role in the game’s outcome. Yordan Alvarez and Howie Kendrick were the designated hitters in the first two games of the series, and both rode the bench in Game 3. Jay Jaffe discussed the potential offensive boost Alvarez could have provided a Houston team that hadn’t been able to drum up many runs in the postseason. But Josh Reddick got the start instead and made a solid play on an Asdrúbal Cabrera double that kept Adam Eaton at third base and saved a run in the fifth. He also hit a bloop RBI single in the second inning that put Houston ahead for the first time. (Alvarez ended up popping out in his one pinch hit at-bat.) Meanwhile, the aforementioned Cabrera started at second base ahead of Kendrick and though there was no real defensive impact, Cabrera got two hits, though he did strike out with the bases loaded in the third inning. The managers chose defense over offense and while it made the biggest difference for the Astros, both players selected for their fielding did enough with the bat as well. With the strong starting pitchers in this series, the bulk of both teams’ relievers have been ignored. That wasn’t the case in Game 3; both pens did their jobs by keeping the score as it was. Josh James, Brad Peacock, Will Harris, Joe Smith, and Roberto Osuna (who came in to a chorus of boos from crowd, no doubt responding to Houston’s on-going Brandon Taubman fiasco) kept things steady for the Astros, while Fernando Rodney, Joe Ross and Wander Suero did their part for the Nationals. The Astros desperately needed a win and they got one. They are a great team; the challenge set before them is to win three of the next five games against a very good one. The Nationals have the advantage in Game 4, as Patrick Corbin faces Jose Urquidy and the Houston bullpen. With five relievers going for the Astros in Game 3, Urquidy’s start takes on greater importance. Following Game 4, we’ll get a rematch of the first two games of the series, with potential chaos in Game 7. The series getting back to Houston if the Astros had lost tonight was hardly a guarantee. Now down 2-1, they haven’t pulled themselves out of the series hole they put themselves in, but, at least on the field, they’re no longer digging deeper.