The Story So Far
It is the happy ending chidren’s stories are made of. The undersized Jose Altuve, the little engine who could, who had been told he was too small his entire life, stepping to the plate in a tie game, bottom of the ninth, a runner on, and the pennant on the line. 5 feet 5 inches of determination stood 60 feet 6 inches away from Aroldis Chapman, the hardest throwing, most fearsome closer, playing for the New York Yankees, the Evil Empire.
I think I can.
I think I can.
I think I can.
With 3 batting titles, 5 Silver Sluggers, a World Series ring and an AL MVP, we are far enough into Jose Altuve’s career to know: Yes, of course he can.
And he did. The footage and the call of Altuve’s 2-run walk-off home run to win the AL pennant in Game Six of the 2019 ALCS will forever be engraved in Astros and Major League Baseball history.
Yes, he could. But should Yankees manager Aaron Boone even have given Jose Altuve a chance to?
With 2 outs, in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees needed an out any way they could get one. Standing on the on-deck circle was defensive centerfielder Jake Marisnick, not the accomplished hitter Michael Brantley, who had been lifted for Marisnick earlier in the game in a pinch running situation.
Wouldn’t Marisnick be an easier out than Altuve, who was one of the few Astros who had actually been hitting effectively in the ALCS? On a team with a plethora of prolific hitters, Marisnick was no Astros fan’s choice to be at the plate with the game on the line. If the Yankees needed an out, wouldn’t it make more sense to walk the former MVP Altuve and pitch to Marisnick?
If George Springer were standing on second base, then yes. But Springer was at first base.
Pitching to Altuve
A plate appearance by Altuve that doesn’t end in an out would not necessarily end the game. A walk or a hit by pitch would have moved Springer to up to second, but the score would still be tied, and Chapman could still try to get Marisnick out to end the inning.
A hit by Altuve would not necessarily end the game. With Springer on first base, it would take at least a double, triple or home run to bring the winning run across the plate. A single would just advance Springer to second or third base. Again, Chapman could still try to get Marisnick out to end the inning. And like most major league hitters not named Joey Gallo, the majority of Altuve’s hits are singles and not extra base hits.
The chances of ending the game on Altuve’s plate appearance boils down to the chances of him hitting an extra base hit. In 2019, of Altuve’s 149 hits, 61 were extra base hits. With 548 plate appearances, Altuve hits for extra bases about 11.1% of the time. With the Yankees outfield playing extra deep to prevent doubles, the chances were actually even less than that.
On top of that, it is just very hard to hit an extra base hit off of Chapman, in general. Over 69 game this season, he allowed only seven doubles (and doubles would have been much less likely at “no doubles”-depth) and a mere three home runs.
Pitching to Marisnick
So what if New York Yankees manager elected to walk Altuve and try to get the third out with Marisnick?
In that scenario, George Springer would be advanced to second base, with Altuve taking first. With Springer now in scoring position, Marisnick might only need to hit a single to end the game.
The chances of ending the game on a Marisnick plate appearance with Springer on second base boils down to chances of him getting any hit, not just an extra-base hit. With a 2019 batting average of .233, that is 23.3% of the time.
Admittedly, not every single Jake could hit would be sufficient to score George from second base, so the chances of Jake ending the game are less than 23.3%, especially against a pitcher like Chapman, but it would still remain higher than Altuve’s lower than 11.1% chance of getting an extra base hit.
Even if you consider Altuve’s past success against Chapman (He was 3 for 7 against Chapman in his career), it should be noted all 3 of Altuve’s hits were still just singles, and none went for extra bases. Even Altuve’s critical hit against Chapman in the bottom of the ninth in Game Two of the 2017 ALCS was of the singles variety.
Statistically, the odds of Altuve ending the game on his plate appearance were less than the odds of Marisnick ending the game on his plate appearance, if the Yankees were to walk Altuve.
Where Was The Mistake?
The problem was not the decision to pitch to Altuve. The problem was the execution of the pitches to Altuve.
Here is a heat map of Altuve’s zone for hitting extra base hits in 2019, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
His sweet spot is focused up and slightly away in the strike zone.
Here is where Chapman threw his 84 mph slider:
Up and away in Altuve’s strike zone.
Aroldis Chapman lost his battle against Jose Altuve. But it was still a battle that needed to be fought.
The little engine that could did last night, and it will be remembered forever. Everyone is writing about it, and it will be all we remember. Why? Because every time there was a little engine that couldn’t get over the hill, nobody bothered to write a children’s book about it.