The Astros Edge Toward the World Series

The Astros beat the Yankees 8-3 last night, moving within a win of their second World Series berth in three years, but the night didn’t have to turn out that way. The victory was comprehensive — Houston out-homered the Yankees, had more non-homer hits, struck out less than half as often, and committed three fewer errors. Five runs is an odd lead, but it’s also the first truly safe lead in baseball. The Astros could have spotted the Yankees a grand slam before the game and still come out ahead.

But baseball doesn’t really work that way. If the Yankees had started the game ahead 4-0, things would have gone differently. Batters wouldn’t have gotten the same pitches, different Yankees relievers would have thrown, A.J. Hinch would have been forced to manage differently; the things that happened last night weren’t deterministic, destined to play out in the same order regardless of circumstance.

So with that in mind, let’s look at a few places where the Yankees could have changed history. They might have lost anyway, and they might have won — but they had their chances to do something, and simply didn’t make the most of them.

Gary Sánchez Bats in the First
Gary Sánchez bats seventh for the Yankees, so when he appears in the first inning, something has gone very right. Not only that, but he came up with the bases loaded; Zack Greinke looked shaky, with three walks on the night already, and Sánchez had a chance to deliver a decisive blow early.

Per our odds, the Yankees had a 66.1% chance of winning the game when Sánchez stepped to the plate. A home run here would be a lot to ask for, but it would have ballooned their odds to 88.6%. Even a walk would get them to 74% — scoring more runs while keeping the bases loaded is a valuable outcome.

But Sánchez struck out, and he didn’t look good doing it. Greinke got him on three straight pitches, the last a slider in the dirt. The Astros survived a tight spot. Sánchez, naturally, hit a home run later in the game, when his team was down five runs and the bases weren’t loaded.

Springer Tames Tanaka
Masahiro Tanaka was clinical in his Game 1 victory. He faced 18 batters and got 18 outs, baffling the Astros with his sharp slider. Springer, in particular, looked lost: Tanaka got him twice, including a strikeout on a slider below the zone. In the first inning last night, Springer had smashed a line drive — straight to Didi Gregorius. The pitch he hit? A slider in the strike zone, the same pitch Tanaka had terrorized the Astros with.

When Springer came to the plate in the third inning, Tanaka was already struggling. Robinson Chirinos and Josh Reddick both reached to start the frame. There was light at the end of the tunnel — Springer has had a tough postseason, and a strikeout would have changed the whole tenor of the inning. Instead, he golfed the second pitch he saw, a splitter at the bottom of the zone, into left center. 3-1 Astros, just like that.

Naturally, Springer’s at-bat was the most important one for the Astros all night in hindsight. Even without knowing the outcome, though, it was the biggest spot the Astros faced. By leverage index, it was 2.16 times as important as the average plate appearance. This wasn’t a solo shot, or a home run when the team is already up seven runs and cruising. It was literally the most important at-bat of the game for Houston

Springer finished the game 1-5 with two strikeouts. He’s still slumping. He’s batting .132 in the playoffs, and while batting average isn’t a great statistic — I mean, .132. That’s not good. He also changed the game by more, in a single play, than anyone else.

Gleyber Torres Comes Up Empty
Tanaka escaped the third without any further damage. He regrouped and moved on, keeping the Yankees in it. When DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge strung together a single and a walk with one out in the fifth, it looked like the tables might be turning.

Judge’s walk chased Greinke, and Ryan Pressly didn’t look sharp in walking Aaron Hicks, missing below the zone on five of the six pitches he threw. What higher drama could there be than having Gleyber Torres come to the plate next? Gleyber tormented the Astros in the Yankees’ Game 1 win, notching five RBIs and generally coming up big whenever the Yankees needed him.

You think Springer’s at-bat was pivotal? Torres’s came with a leverage index of 3.72; it was the second-most-important plate appearance of the game. A single here would have tied it and made the Yankees favorites. Extra bases would have given the Yankees the lead. What better time for your most clutch hitter, the guy who has been everywhere and everything, to appear?

Bad news for the Yankees — clutch doesn’t really exist, not in a measurable and predictive way. Pressly had looked shaky, and Gleyber had delivered in every big spot, and Pressly struck him out. He got him on a slider in the dirt, the kind of pitch Vladimir Guerrero himself couldn’t hit even if he used a rake for a bat.

It’s the kind of at-bat that happens frequently in baseball — pitchers are great, relief pitchers are particularly good at striking guys out, and Gleyber isn’t some paragon of plate discipline; he struck out more than a fifth of the time this year. But in this spot, in this series, how could Gleyber fail?

Baseball can be random, that’s why. When the Astros put some runners on base, their hitter who had performed incredibly poorly all postseason came up and hit a three-run bomb. When the Yankees loaded the bases, their ultra-hot talisman came to the plate and struck out.

Oh, the biggest spot of the night? Edwin Encarnación came up after Torres, also with the bases loaded and also with the chance to tie the game or take the lead with a single swing. Pressly overmatched him, too — he struck him out swinging on a pristinely located fastball to end the inning. Crisis averted.

Maybe none of this mattered. Maybe the Astros were always going to pounce on Chad Green. Maybe DJ LeMahieu, a Gold Glover at more difficult second base, was always going to boot two grounders at first, both of which led to runs. Maybe Torres was always going to make two errors of his own. Maybe the Yankees were only ever going to score three anyway, and you could take away the Springer bomb without changing the outcome.

But in real time, none of this was preordained. These three situations felt like inflection points, times when the game was going to head one way or another. Want to describe this game? In the most important at-bat the Astros had all night, their guy homered. In the most important at-bat the Yankees had all night, their guy struck out. What more do you need to know?

We hoped you liked reading The Astros Edge Toward the World Series by Ben Clemens!

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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psweeting
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psweeting

All of those were really rough, and the most impactful on the outcome. But by far the most heartbreaking part of this game was watching CC walk off the mound, almost certainly for the last time in his career.

baubo
Member
baubo

I was surprised they even let him stay out that long. I’m not familiar with his injury situation coming in but I thought he was gonna be used as a loogy. Him staying after the Alvarez at bat was a bit baffling.

JJWattsArmBrace
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JJWattsArmBrace

All of those were really awesome. The CC stuff was sad, but the rest was inspirational and a pure joy to watch. Go Astros!

stever20
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Member
stever20

It’s official, it was the last time. Yanks just removed him from their roster.

Ivan_Grushenko
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Member
Ivan_Grushenko

With someone named Ben Heller. If Ben Heller ever has to pitch it probably means the Astros have won the pennant.

stever20
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Member
stever20

well Ben Heller had a 1.23 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 7.1 September innings.

awe hell, I can’t type that with a straight face.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Ben Heller came over from the Indians in the Andrew Miller trade. And according to Baseball-Reference WAR, he has more career WAR than anyone else the Yankees acquired in that trade.