The World Series is over, and with it, the 2019 baseball season. What started as a relatively lackluster series was salvaged by an exciting two games. Here, I'd like to go through some of the pivotal decisions made in Game 7 inning by inning. This will be a bit of a long one, but there's a lot to cover in this game! Starting with…
Bottom of the 2nd
Robinson Chirinos bunts
This was an uncharacteristic decision by the Astros. A successful bunt would have put runners on second and third with one out, and would have decreased the Astros’ win expectancy by 1.75%. Chirinos’ unsuccessful bunt lowered the Astros’ win expectancy by 2.68% in a context-neutral simulation, and 4.6% according to Fangraphs’ situational win expectancy. Hinch later said that the Astros wanted to play for one run there, and a successful bunt would have slightly increased their odds of scoring one run, but with how shaky Scherzer was looking it seems like a curious call.
Bottom of the 5th
Scherzer pitches the entire inning
During this inning, Patrick Corbin appeared in the bullpen, but by the time Scherzer's night was done, the Nationals’ win expectancy was down to 22.1%, and it felt lower with the way Greinke was pitching.
Scherzer threw 7 of the 10-fastest pitches thrown all night, but all of those came in the first two innings. By the fifth inning, his average fastball and slider velocities had both dropped 3 MPH from the second inning. Scherzer was laboring to some extent all, but by the final innings of his start, he was clearly tiring. While his overall average velocity wasn't much different from his previous World Series start, it was down a tick from the Wild Card game.
Martinez could have brought in Corbin, Sanchez, Doolittle or Hudson earlier, or even Rainey if someone was ready to come in after. I understand why he did it, but letting Scherzer struggle for so long without having anyone ready to relieve him seemed irresponsible to me.
Bottom of the 6th
Corbin relieves Scherzer
Martinez went to Corbin after it was clear Scherzer's night was done. Corbin had mixed results this postseason to go along with his mixed role: he made three starts and five relief appearances. Overall, the numbers don't look good (a 5.79 ERA), but they're inflated by an unlucky relief outing against the Dodgers. Outside of that, he looked solid in a relief role and okay as a starter. This was a good decision.
Top of the 7th
The pivotal seventh inning had three key decision points:
Leaving Greinke in
I don't have a problem with this…Greinke was pitching great, and matches up well against Soto.
Taking Greinke out after the Rendon homer and walk to Soto
Again, this seems fine—while Greinke had been cruising, the seventh inning is not too late to take out a starter in an elimination game when you have so many options at your disposal.
Bringing in Will Harris
I still believe this was a good decision. Harris has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the last several years, and had been even better in the postseason until he surrendered a home run to Rendon in Game 6. The only problem I have with Hinch's choice here is that the manager did mention Harris was in need of a day off after Game 5, and he didn't pitch great in Game 6, so it's possible he was tiring and less effective than usual. Still, Howie Kendrick's home run barely got out, and the pitch from Harris wasn't bad.
The main alternative to Harris at this point would have been Osuna or Gerrit Cole. Cole's last relief appearance was in college, so Hinch wanted to bring him in to a clean inning. I haven't seen any studies proving that starters don't fare as well in relief when they're brought into a situation with runners on base, but it does seem to be the conventional wisdom. If we accept that premise, then the main alternative to Harris is Osuna. On the surface level, it would make sense to put Osuna, the Astros’ best reliever, into this high-leverage situation of the game, especially knowing you have Cole and other capable relievers as backup. But Hinch didn't seem to think Osuna was the team's best reliever at the moment, saying “if things start to go south for Zack, I had our best reliever (Harris) this postseason ready to go.” If Hinch believed that, bringing in Harris makes sense.
Top of the 8th
Leaving Osuna in
You can explain this by saying that Osuna is one of the Astros’ best pitchers, and he hadn't pitched much in the series, so he should be available for a long appearance. However, Osuna had pitched more than one inning only three times this season. He ended up throwing 36 pitches in Game 7, 9 more than his season high, and 13 more than any outing in September. After giving up a run and another hit in the 8th, though, he had to be relieved by Ryan Pressly.
If Hinch had taken out Osuna to start the inning to give Cole a clean inning, he ran the risk of taking out a pitcher possibly better than Cole, as well as Cole not having it and forcing Hinch to go to a lesser pitcher (though he had to do that anyway when Osuna struggled).
According to Hinch,
The two scenarios were Gerrit goes out (in the eighth) and Osuna protects him in case he's not at his best or Osuna goes out and then I read Osuna's inning to see if it's a two-inning save or do I go to Gerrit Cole in the ninth? Those were the scenarios.
The first scenario was eliminated by Osuna pitching in the seventh. Still, you could definitely make an argument for taking Osuna out of the game after he escaped the seventh inning. Osuna hadn't been particularly sharp all postseason, and it didn't seem like him pitching two innings would necessarily be an advantage. Then, Hinch would have been able to push Gerrit Cole as far as you can starting in the eighth, with Joe Smith ready to back him up if necessary. Still, if we assume that Osuna is a better reliever than Cole on two days rest, the decision to leave him in makes sense.
Top of the 9th
Bringing in Joe Smith and Jose Urquidy instead of Gerrit Cole
This is where it gets confusing for me. The odds of the Astros coming back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth were remote (7.6%), but those odds were much better than they were after the Nationals were done hitting (1.9%). Even here, putting in Smith instead of Cole seems reasonable, since Smith is tough on righties.
Each individual point when Hinch didn't bring Cole in from the bullpen is perfectly defensible. But when you zoom out, it comes down to the fact that the Astros had the current best pitcher in baseball on their roster, and, despite being available, he didn't pitch in the most important game of the season.
The only reason I can find to fault Hinch's decision making regarding Cole is that he seemed reluctant to bring him in when the Astros were trailing, a very un-Astros-like stance. While postgame reports were initially that Cole was only available to pitch in the ninth with an Astros lead, that condition soon got expanded to Cole only being available to pitch with the lead. In Hinch's interview with The Athletic‘s Jake Kaplan, Hinch seems to have reservations about pitching Cole in a “down game,” which doesn't really make sense to me except from a sentimental point of view. If Hinch thought that Cole was good enough to pitch in the late innings with an Astros lead, then he should have been good enough to pitch in the late innings even though they trailed. If Hinch thinks the combination of Joe Smith and Jose Urquidy are better-suited to face the top of the Nationals’ order than Gerrit Cole, then Cole shouldn't have been an option with a lead either.
The situation becomes clouded more when you consider that Cole is soon to be a free agent. Cole didn't seem particularly pleased with the way the game played out, distancing himself from the team immediately after the game and giving his postgame interview in a Boras Corp hat. Something here doesn't make sense: either Cole asked to only be used when the Astros were ahead (but that makes his disappointment after the game curious), or Hinch wanted to save his possible best pitcher for when his team was ahead, regardless of leverage (which is an uncharacteristic decision). Either situation is confusing, and I suspect we'll never hear the full story.
If I were to guess, however, I think it comes down to a disconnect between how we see Cole and how Hinch saw him. We see Hinch being unable to pull the trigger and put his best pitcher into the most important game, but Hinch doesn't seem to think Cole would have been his best pitcher (emphasis added):
…I wanted to make sure that I could utilize our other guys and have Gerrit as a backup plan rather than have Gerrit as the primary reason…Will Harris, Joe Smith, Roberto Osuna were most likely always going to pitch in front of Gerrit on two days’ rest. And I felt like they had earned that based on how they had pitched during the World Series.
I believe we have to take Hinch at his word. If he truly thought that Cole was his fourth-best relief option, then he managed the game well. It just didn't work out.
Bottom of the 9th
Daniel Hudson over leaving Corbin in or bringing in Doolittle
Doolittle has been much better against lefties than righties in his career and in 2019, whereas Hudson has had a nearly neutral platoon split, so it makes sense to bring in Hudson to face Springer and Altuve, both righties. Despite Doolittle being the Nationals’ closer for much of the season, Martinez played the matchups here and it secured the Nationals’ first title.
Dave Martinez gambled on Scherzer and won. He managed to get the Nationals all the way through the postseason, despite their bullpen deficiencies. A.J. Hinch made a couple of uncharacteristic decisions and lost, despite his team being one of the best we've seen. That's baseball, and that's why we like it.