One Play (Astros 2-Yankees 1)

For those who underestimate the relevance of in-game managing and coaching decisions, the final play of last night’s 2-1 Astros’ win over the Yankees offers a lot to talk about. The situation: one out, the marvelous Jose Altuve on first base, game tied 1-1 bottom of the 9th, Aroldis Chapman pitching to Carlos Correa, who had already provided the Astros’ run with a homer, the count 3-2. First decision: do you send Altuve on the pitch? He’s a good basestealer, and Chapman has neither a good pickoff move nor a quick delivery home. On the flip side: Chapman throws 100 mph+, so the ball gets home quickly, Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez has a strong arm, and Chapman gets most of his outs by strikeout. I would have taken a gamble and sent him: worst case, a strikeout-throw-out doubleplay, the inning is over and you go to extras. But if the batter strikes out and Altuve stays at first, you’ve got two outs, a runner on first, Chapman throwing 100 and very little chance of getting two more hits before a third out. But Astros manager A.J.Hinch did not send the runner.
As it happens, Correa lines a shot into the gap between center and rightfield and Altuve takes off. Aaron Judge cuts the ball off and quickly throws to second base, where Correa arrives barely before the throw (two decisions we can also dissect). Third-base coach Gary Pettis, meanwhile, is windmilling Altuve home, even though the ball is approaching the infield before Altuve gets to third. Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius fields Judge’s throw, realizes, perhaps with astonishment, that Altuve is still running, and fires home, where his throw arrives well before Altuve. The throw, however, is in the dirt, Sanchez has the same difficulty handling it he does with pitches in the dirt, Altuve slaps home plate with his left hand and the Astros win.
While Altuve and Correa are the acknowledged stars of this victory, what about the decision by Pettis to send Altuve home, on what could be described as a suicide mission? A decent throw by Gregorius – not that hard from second base – or a deft catch by Sanchez and Altuve would not only be out, but every second-guesser would have been blaming the idiot third-base coach. Why sacrifice a men-on-second-and-third-with-one-out situation for the off-chance that the Yankees would screw up? I would have held Altuve at third. But again, if Altuve had been running with the pitch, he would have scored, probably easily. So, the third-base coach’s daring was making up for the manager’s lack!
This, however, isn’t the end of the discussion, as I learned while watching ESPN this morning. Their baseball commentator Eduardo Perez laid the blame for the Astros’ game-winning play on Judge’s throw to second base – a “fundamental error,” according to Perez. Instead of throwing to second to try to get Correa – whose status as a baserunner was irrelevant – the outfielder should have thrown to the cutoff man who was better positioned to stop Altuve, the only runner who mattered. (Why this is so is not altogether clear but I believe goes like this: a throw to the cutoff man would be more directly lined up toward home, and Judge’s portion of the relay would be shorter: he was throwing slightly off balance as he caught Correa’s hit while running away from home plate. I don’t know how to compare the arm of the cutoff man, Starlin Castro, with Gregorius’s, although the latter is well regarded. Further, the cutoff man would not have been impeded by Correa’s stand-up slide as Gregorious was – a point argued vainly by Yankee manager Joe Girardi, seeking a reversal ruling – but that would not have figured into Judge’s decision.)
Not part of any discussion is the fourth decision, that of Correa to try to reach second base. There would seem to be no advantage to the Astros in his doing so: only Altuve’s run mattered. Yes, he could keep his team out of a double-play situation, but he could just as easily steal second on an ensuing pitch, it being unlikely the Yankees would try to stop him. In either case, the Yankees would be able to intentionally walk a batter to set up the double play. There was little to gain, but much to lose. Were Correa to be thrown out, Altuve would be on third with two outs, instead of one out, and a much, much lower probability of then scoring. Knowing, as he should have, that his run meant nothing, Correa should have stayed as far away from the action as he could. Contrary to this baseball logic, however, Correa beat the throw from the outfield and his slide got in the way, quite legally, of Gregorius’s ability to step toward home when he threw. This undoubtedly contributed to the throw’s ending up in the dirt. There is no way, however, that Correa could have foreseen this result when he rounded first. It’s unlikely he knew that Altuve would try to score, nor would he have known that Judge would throw to second or that his slide might impede Gregorius. I am sure that he was just acting on his baseball instinct: he hit a ball into the gap, which allowed him to try for an extra base.
In short, there were four discrete decisions that influenced the one key play that determined last night’s winner. That, even more than the one matter of faulty execution, is what makes baseball such an endlessly fascinating game.

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