The Early At-Bat That Changed the Whole Game

The biggest at-bat of Game 6 was when Chris Taylor doubled. Whether it was a good pitch or not, whether it was a good swing or not, Taylor made contact and the ball found the grass, and the Dodgers evened the score. Just as importantly, they moved runners to second and third with nobody out, and, that quickly, the home team became the obvious favorite. The Dodgers’ chance of winning increased about 24 percentage points. Corey Seager followed with a sacrifice fly, and the lead was never surrendered. The game flipped in the sixth. That fast, the Astros were forced to prepare for Game 7.

At the end of the day, you need to score to win. Justin Verlander blanked the Dodgers through five, and, for a time, it looked like it might not even matter if the Astros added on. Perhaps George Springer’s home run would be enough. But, to me, there was a turning point, before the major turning point. Going into the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers were still down 1-0. Yet it could’ve been an awful lot worse. But for the sequence in the top of the fifth.

As Rich Hill started the inning, Brian McCann ripped a single, and Marwin Gonzalez ripped a double. Josh Reddick dug in with two runners to score, and there were all of the outs to play with. Reddick was in position to provide some insurance. Then Hill started him off with three balls.

It’s not as if Hill was terribly wild. His first pitch, a curve, didn’t miss by that much.

The next pitch, a fastball, didn’t miss by that much.

The next pitch, another fastball, didn’t miss by that much.

Hill’s three pitches were close to the zone. It took some restraint for Reddick to watch. But Reddick stood still, and Hill fell all the way behind. There are very few counts worse than a 3-and-0 count. They are any four-ball counts, when the batter has walked. Already, the Dodgers’ win expectancy had reached its low point. But our win-expectancy calculations don’t take the count into consideration. When Reddick got ahead, the Astros’ chances looked only better.

There was one important, additional factor. Reddick wasn’t up there in isolation. He was up there with Verlander standing on deck. It was way too early for A.J. Hinch to think about going to his bench, at least in his own mind, but, Justin Verlander can’t hit. Not even by pitcher standards. Hill knew if he could just get through Reddick, he might find a way mostly out of the inning. If Reddick were to score a run, that would be bad. If Reddick were to get on base, that would be bad. If Reddick could be retired, then, presumably, Verlander could be retired. Then it would be a matter of facing Springer or Alex Bregman. Nothing easy, to be sure, but better to get there with two outs than one. With two outs, the pitcher’s always the favorite.

Hill needed to focus on getting rid of Reddick. That was going to be his way out. That was going to keep the Dodgers alive. A second run would be crushing. A third run would be a debacle. Ball one. Then ball two. Then ball three.

In theory, Hill began with an advantage. Hill is very good, and he’s a left-handed pitcher. Reddick is fine, but he’s a left-handed hitter. Therefore, Hill had the platoon on his side. Yet, this season, Reddick was unusually productive against other lefties. And Hill was most certainly not. He had nearly as many walks and hit batters as strikeouts. By wOBA allowed, only four other southpaws were worse. Lefties have pushed Hill out of his comfort zone. This wasn’t your ordinary left-on-left showdown.

And then the three balls. The three half-decent balls, but still, balls, the lot of them. Do you know what happens after 3-and-0 counts? Let me tell you what happens after 0-and-0 counts. Batters walked 9% of the time. They struck out 22% of the time. They managed a .321 wOBA. And, after 3-and-0? Batters walked 60% of the time. They struck out 7% of the time. They managed a .544 wOBA. Reddick this season went through 31 3-and-0 counts, and he struck out just twice. Hill went through 19 3-and-0 counts, and he registered two strikeouts. At 3-and-0, Reddick was likely to reach. Which meant, even if Verlander made an easy out, the top of the Astros’ order would come up with one down. That was going to spell trouble.

Hill’s margin of error had been reduced right down to nothing. If he walked Reddick, the game wouldn’t be over, but the Dodgers would be in dire straits. Hill didn’t want to concede. He just had to be perfect. He had to be perfect, beginning with pitch number four.

Reddick was taking all the way, which was probably the right thing to do. He was taking all the way, and he took a borderline pitch. He tried to mosey his way down to first, but it wasn’t going to happen. Hill’s pitch just nicked the prism.

You could say that Hill should’ve just gone down the middle. If Reddick wasn’t going to swing, why not just groove it? It’s because, of course, you can’t know if Reddick is going to swing. This season he swung at one 3-and-0 pitch. For his career he’s swung at nine 3-and-0 pitches. That’s not very many, but you can’t take a chance. Not with looming elimination. So Hill looked for an edge. There’s safety in the edges. He was granted his call.

And here it becomes clear Reddick didn’t just throw this at-bat away. Ultimately, Reddick failed, but he made the right decision at 3-and-0. That wasn’t a pitch worth chasing. And, beyond that, the pitch barely caught the plate, if it caught it at all. In an 0-and-0 count, or an 0-and-2 count, that pitch is very possibly called a ball. At 3-and-0, the zone tends to be bigger. Hill got to 3-and-1. He got there by the slimmest of margins.

Perfect. Hill still had to be perfect. He went in search of the same edge again.

He found the edge he wanted. Reddick’s swing did anything but intimidate.

Reddick didn’t go with the powerful swing you usually see at 3-and-1. Often, hitters are looking for something to drive to the pull side. Reddick didn’t get a pullable pitch, so maybe you could say he should’ve again left the bat on his shoulder, but he went with what he was given. His swing was oriented to hit the ball to left, and hit the ball to left he did. He hit it in the air, and he hit it fairly deep. As Joc Pederson closed, the idea occurred: Should he catch it, or let it drop? Brian McCann is incredibly slow. Could Pederson possibly keep him from scoring?

I don’t know what might’ve happened, had the ball stayed over the grass. If Pederson had to make a catch by the boundary, McCann was likely to score, especially if Pederson fell into the stands. It’s always a fascinating case to play out, as players make mental calculations on the run, but Pederson’s brain was given a break. He didn’t have to make any decision, because the ball fell into the seats.

Reddick was feet away from a potential sac fly. At least, he was feet away from blame being shifted to McCann’s old tired legs. Hard to fault the hitter when the runner’s simply too slow. Yet Reddick wound up with a regular strike. He had lost most of the advantage he had.

Still, Hill couldn’t make a mistake. Reddick could spot a mistake. Reddick can get the bat on the ball, and he’s also familiar with walking. Hill had to be perfect. He’d already forced himself into a corner.

With the 3-and-0 pitch, Reddick saw a chance to walk, and so he nearly walked. With the 3-and-1 pitch, Reddick saw a chance for a sac fly, and so he nearly hit a sac fly. With the 3-and-2 pitch, there was nothing for Reddick to do. Sure, by some miracle, he might’ve been able to stick the bat out and hit a fair ball. But Hill threw the breaking ball that’s the whole reason LOOGYs exist. As a left-on-left curveball, that pitch was lethal, and Reddick was out the instant the ball spun off of Hill’s fingers. Not a lefty in the game would’ve done better. We usually talk about at-bats as being a battle between the guy on the mound and the guy at the plate. Hill’s 3-and-2 pitch was a cheat code. Reddick might as well have been holding a bread loaf. The outcome was taken clear out of his hands.

When you look at the Gameday readout, you can see how effectively Hill stayed on the edge. For three pitches in a row, he was right where he wanted.

And on top of that, you can get some kind of idea of how hard Hill can be to face. In this GIF, you see Hill’s six approximate release points.

Four of them are pretty similar. Hill’s first curveball came out a little lower. The second curveball came out lower still. Hill didn’t drop all the way down to sidearm, but he did still show Reddick a wrinkle. A pitcher who can manipulate his release point is a pitcher who can manipulate his pitch movements, and that makes a pitcher who’s tough to square up.

For the Astros, the inning spiraled out of control. Reddick struck out, and Verlander struck out. After Springer was intentionally walked, Bregman hit a bases-loaded grounder to short. They emerged still clinging to a 1-0 lead, but it could’ve been more than that. It should’ve been more than that. They’d had Reddick up with second and third, and he’d worked his way to a 3-and-0 count. There was going to be some insurance. And the Dodgers were starting to run out of time.

Reddick failed. Two more Astros failed, but Reddick failed first. He failed not even through so much fault of his own — he failed because, with a 3-and-0 count, Rich Hill suddenly threw three perfect pitches. They’d be three of the last pitches of Hill’s abbreviated outing, but he did enough to keep it close enough. Close enough that an other-way two-strike double could swing the odds of Game 6, and of the entire World Series.

We hoped you liked reading The Early At-Bat That Changed the Whole Game by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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jtrichey
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jtrichey

Beautiful article. You don’t get analysis like that on Fox Sports.

medler312
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Member
medler312

You DO get David Ortiz in a Fox mask…saying “I’m a fox!”

No…seriously. That is what you get.

Thanks Jeff for this amazingly indepth article with some quality vids. Great morning read.

acastle_10
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acastle_10

Yeah… I’ve been dissapointed with Papi’s broadcast talents in general. I hate to say it, but he just doesn’t add that much.

AJ pro-Preller
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AJ pro-Preller

Well he literally cannot speak English so…when someone says “predicate” he hears “pretty cat”

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

It’d be super-cool not to see racist crap like this here. (Besides, “predicate” has a perfect cognate in Spanish, no sea b├írbaro monoling├╝e.)

AJ pro-Preller
Member
AJ pro-Preller

there was not much to say… McCann was at third base, explain how in hell he makes it home?