In October, Trust Your Depth Guys Too

Leading 2-1 in the series, and 2-1 in game four, A.J. Hinch just summoned Justin Verlander from the bullpen to try and protect the lead and allow the Astros to finish the ALDS without having to go back to Houston for a winner-take-all finale. Given how good Chris Sale has looked for the Red Sox, and how dominant David Price was for Boston yesterday, it’s easy to see the appeal of putting your best arm on the mound and just riding him to victory.

But this decision just felt like an overreaction given the alternatives. Warming up next to Verlander was Will Harris. Will Harris isn’t a big name, but for the last few years, he’s been one of the best relievers in baseball.

wOBA Allowed by RP, 2015-2017
1 Kenley Jansen 189.1 0.165 0.204 0.272 0.207
2 Andrew Miller 198.2 0.151 0.221 0.249 0.212
3 Craig Kimbrel 181.1 0.158 0.248 0.268 0.234
4 Aroldis Chapman 174.2 0.177 0.269 0.251 0.238
5 Chris Devenski 164.1 0.183 0.239 0.311 0.238
6 Zach Britton 170.0 0.207 0.269 0.267 0.239
7 Wade Davis 169.1 0.175 0.262 0.265 0.239
8 Roberto Osuna 207.2 0.196 0.242 0.327 0.244
9 Will Harris 180.1 0.198 0.251 0.309 0.246
10 Pedro Strop 175.2 0.177 0.273 0.288 0.249
Minimum 150 IP

Harris was his usual dominant self this year, allowing a .262 wOBA. He posted the lowest BB% and the highest K% of his career. He doesn’t have Verlander’s velocity, but his cutter/curveball combination has led to consistently dominant results.

But despite being warm, Hinch went with Verlander. I’m not going to pretend that Andrew Benintendi’s home run — hit just 90 mph, and a ball that Statcast gave just a 5% hit probability to — was the obvious outcome here, or that the decision was clearly a mistake because the outcome went badly.

But as much as it is refreshing to question whether managers are too aggressive in using their best pitchers this year, as opposed to watching Zach Britton sit in the bullpen as his team’s season ended a year ago, it feels like this was an example of the tide turning too far in the other direction. It’s great to have a guy like Verlander that you really believe in, but you can’t win a World Series with just a few pitchers. You have to trust your depth guys too.

If we’ve gotten to the point where we’re choosing to put a starter who has never pitched in relief in before a guy like Harris, a legitimately elite reliever, then I think the pendulum has swung too far the other direction. Especially when the Astros didn’t have to win Game 4. The worst case scenario for them in this game was that they head home with a fresh Verlander to take the mound, and Dallas Keuchel to bridge the gap between him and Ken Giles.

Now, they’re down 3-2 in this game, and might still head back to Houston for Game 5, only Keuchel will likely be the starter, and Verlander might be the guy pitching a few innings of relief instead. The Astros may have just unnecessarily reduced their worst-case outcome in Game 4 to an even worse position, because they didn’t trust a really good reliever.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

I was really confused about this too. I didn’t like it so much when they brought Sale in, and I didn’t like bringing in Verlander in response. But the Astros have all kinds of good relievers! Were they not available?