Hindsight remains 20/20. The crucial moment of last night’s game came in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Mike Fiers allowed a double to Alex Rios that scored two runs and gave the Royals a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. What other options did the Astros have in that inning?
I’ll start with a basic premise: managers should manage differently in the postseason than they do in the regular season. The win or go home nature of the playoffs demands this. Decisions made during the regular season to manage innings or preserve players for another day don’t come into play when the offseason could be a game away.
Unfortunately for AJ Hinch, the struggles of the Astros bullpen in September and the playoffs hamstrung his ability to deploy his relievers aggressively. Going into game five, the only relatively reliable relievers left were Tony Sipp and Luke Gregerson.
He did state before the game that all of his pitchers outside of Lance McCullers were available. That meant he would at least consider using starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers to bridge the gap to Gregerson.
Collin McHugh began the game looking like he wouldn’t need the bullpen’s help. Double play balls erased two early baserunners, and he only needed sixteen pitches to get through the first two innings. Even in the fourth, when the Royals scored to cut the Astros lead to one, it was on two bloop singles and a slip in center field.
McHugh returned to the mound in the fifth with the Astros clinging to a one run lead. A super-aggressive managing move here would be having relievers ready to go in case McHugh ran into trouble. Keeping the lead at his point in the game was imperative, both because Johnny Cueto was dealing and because the Royals bullpen is so tough.
I can understand the reasons against this though. McHugh had given up only soft contact to this point. Unfortunately he hit Salvador Perez with a pitch, and Alex Gordon followed with a line drive double, probably the hardest ball McHugh allowed over his outing.
In the super-aggressive scenario, once Perez reached base Tony Sipp could have come in to face Gordon. If Sipp managed to extinguish the threat, you could then go to either Kazmir or Keuchel starting an inning and trying to bridge the gap to Gregerson.
The Astros went with another option, and warmed up Mike Fiers in the bullpen. Let’s consider their right-handed bullpen options with two right-handed batters coming up:
- - RHP Will Harris. Had negative splits in 2015 where he did better against left-handed batters and was ineffective in his last outing against KC.
- - RHP Pat Neshek. Usually death to right-handed hitters, they hit .315/.371/.539 against him in the second half of 2015.
- - RHP Josh Fields. Fields also struggled in the second half, but he did have the highest strikeout per nine inning rate in the Astros bullpen.
- - RHP Mike Fiers. He had the highest strikeout per inning rate among Astros starters, but hadn’t pitched in weeks.
Hinch said after the game that they planned to use Fiers in that spot if they needed a right-handed reliever. It’s a bit of a curious decision, with Fiers coming off a long layoff and not used to pitching out of the bullpen. I think the poor performance of all the other options down the stretch led to selecting Fiers.
In my mind there were two other options at that point. The first was to leave McHugh in to face the next two batters. His pitch count was still low, and the Royals hadn’t really hit him hard up to that point. The second was Josh Fields, mainly because of the situation. The Astros really needed a strikeout, and Fields gets them in bunches.
The decision was to go to Fiers, and we know how it went. Fiers needed a strikeout, but his curveball caught too much of the plate and Alex Rios pulled it just fair down the line. The Royals took the lead and the series in that at bat. It looks like the wrong call now because it didn’t work.
AJ Hinch will learn from this playoff experience, just as he did from his first managing job in the big leagues with the Diamondbacks. It’s also likely that he will have some new options after the bullpen became such a glaring problem down the stretch for the Astros.