The Astros were one win away from returning to the World Series. It would have marked the club’s third trip to the Fall Classic in four years. The 2020 ALCS will rightly be considered a classic. It was an epic seven-game series that featured a comeback so historic, it had only occurred once before in the history of baseball.
It shouldn’t have been necessary.
The Astros made critical errors throughout the series, and the Rays made them pay for each and every one.
In the bottom of the 1st, Lance McCullers induces a pair of ground balls to get the first two outs. Following a Randy Arozarena single to left field, Ji-Man Choi hits a ball into the shift. Jose Altuve cleanly fields the ball in shallow right field, but makes a poor throw to Yuli Gurriel, who fails to pick it. To make matters worse, Gurriel inexplicably acts casually and without any urgency while picking up the ball — he does this while merely a step away from the bag. As this is happening, Choi is nearing first base, but has yet to reach it. While it can’t be definitively known that Gurriel acting quickly would’ve resulted in an out, Choi is nevertheless able to reach safely.
With two runners on, the next batter, Manuel Margot, takes advantage of a hanging breaking ball from McCullers and sends it out of the ballpark. All three runs are noted as unearned. The Rays would go on to win Game 2 by a score of 4-2.
It’s the top of the 6th. Starting pitcher Jose Urquidy has tossed five scoreless innings. The Astros are up 1-0. Arozarena begins the inning by singling to left. Brandon Lowe is next up. Lowe hits a ground ball to the right side of the infield. Despite fielding the ball cleanly again, Altuve delivers another errant throw, this time to Carlos Correa at second base. Upon watching the play again, it’s likely that if Altuve made an accurate throw to Correa, a double play would have ensued.
Urquidy is then replaced by Enoli Paredes, who only gets one out before Brooks Raley is brought in. The two relievers would combine to allow two singles, two HBPs and a double in the inning. The Rays would ultimately score five runs off Paredes and Raley in the 6th. The Astros would lose 5-2. While only one of the five runs was marked as unearned, it would be reasonable to expect that the outcome of the game probably would have been different were it not for Altuve’s error.
At this point in the series, it’s well-known that the Rays are struggling offensively. They only have one hitter who has produced consistently: Arozarena. This makes things very simple. The Astros cannot, under any circumstances, allow runners to reach base in front of Arozarena. More specifically, the Astros absolutely cannot give Rays batters at the top of the order a free pass. If they hit their way on, so be it.
Naturally, McCullers hits the lead-off man, Margot, with the first pitch of the game. McCullers then strikes out Lowe, but now Arozarena is up with a runner on.
McCullers begins the sequence with a curveball in the zone that Arozarena takes for a strike. After throwing another curve out of the zone, McCullers attacks Arozarena with a fastball in the zone. It’s a dangerous pitch over the heart of the plate. Arozarena immediately shows displeasure, as he knows he should have swung. He then does well to lay off a 1-2 curveball in the dirt. Now, in a 2-2 count, McCullers throws a heater. Arozarena fouls it off. McCullers then comes back with another heater, and this time Arozarena doesn’t miss it, as the ball is deposited beyond the wall in right-center. The Rays would end the series with a 4-2 Game 7 victory.
Using a handful of metrics, here’s how Arozarena fared against fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, sinker) during the regular season and postseason this year:
This is what Arozarena did against non-fastballs, again combining the regular season and postseason:
For further context, here’s Arozarena’s whiff rate against fastballs:
And against non-fastballs:
It’s not unreasonable to question McCullers’ pitch selection here. Not only did he throw a fastball in a 2-strike count, but he did it twice in a row, after already getting away with one over the middle of the plate earlier in the AB.
Having said that, I don’t think it’d be fair to place the blame solely on McCullers. It’s not as if he shook off Martin Maldonado to get back to the heater. Maldonado’s first sign was the fastball, and McCullers threw it. I’m going to assume that Maldonado called for it first because Arozarena was just late on a fastball. While it generally makes some sense to call for another fastball, I don’t think it does in this context.
Arozarena mashed fastballs this year and wasn’t terribly effective against breaking balls and offspeed pitches, as evidenced above. While McCullers may not have had confidence at this point in the game in commanding his curveball and changeup, it’s mystifying that in a 2-2 count against Arozarena with a runner on base, he’d throw Arozarena two consecutive fastballs.
Pitching to Arozarena with more caution would have objectively been the safer and smarter approach. If he does damage against the hook or changeup, tip your cap to him. If he draws a walk, that’s not exactly a bad outcome, as the rest of the Rays’ hitters have mostly been inept. Make them produce.
The Astros inadvertently aided the Rays multiple times, and it subsequently fueled their offense. From my perspective, it’s the biggest reason why the Astros failed to win the series.