Fresh off the All-Star break, the Astros took Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Yankees thanks to a dramatic bases-loaded walk-off hit by pinch-hitter J.J. Matijevic in the bottom of the ninth. Good thing as Aaron Judge was due to hit second in the top of the tenth inning with Anthony Rizzo hitting in front of him and the zombie runner possibly lurking nearby. So, yeah, I was nervous during the bottom of the ninth, especially with Ryan Pressly unavailable in this doubleheader due to the birth of his child. The script was set for New York to capitalize in the next inning. Thankfully, the game didn’t reach that point.
While the final result was great, I wasn’t necessarily a fan of how the game got to a certain point in the bottom of the ninth. Namely, the decision to pinch-hit Mauricio Dubón with Yordan Alvarez, with runners on second and third with one out. That decision left somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth, considering how the Yankees smartly walked Houston’s best hitter to load the bases. Yes, while the Astros’ expected run value increased from 1.4 to 1.56 runs, it didn’t meaningfully change the complexion of the situation. A single hit, or sacrifice fly, easily scores Alex Bregman from third base. Game over, and the Astros win. Loading the bases didn’t matter to New York; it was about preventing Alex Bregman from scoring from third base.
Does Dubón give you a higher chance of a hit if you let him hit over Alvarez? No, he probably doesn’t, but the risk of a double play is already lessened. For the Astros, as long as something out of the ordinary didn’t unfold, a ball in play from Dubón possibly has more value than loading the bases with two hitters with a higher propensity to strike out in Chas McCormick and Matijevic. Only Michael Brantley, at 88.5 percent, has a higher contact rate for the Astros than Dubón’s 87.4 percent. Plus, by removing Dubón to send Alvarez to the plate, Dusty Baker was also down a hitter known more for his contact in a situation where the traditional double play wasn’t in effect.
One counterpoint to this thought is if Dubón generates an out, then Baker probably replaces McCormick with Alvarez in a two-out situation in any case. In turn, the Yankees undoubtedly walk the latter and face the same situation with Matijevic. It is also fair to point out that Baker possibly realized this potential conundrum and decided he’d prefer McCormick over Dubón at the plate in a game-winning situation. Speculation on my part, but it is a possibility. However, McCormick’s propensity to strike out (24.7 percent in 2022) hurts more in any two-out situation versus Dubón’s tendency to avoid strikeouts (7.6 percent in 2022) when you need to put the ball in play.
There is a reason why Baker is a Major League manager and why I am sitting on my couch writing a blog post. Perhaps Baker saw some value in forcing Michael King to face a bases-loaded situation when a walk also drives in the winning run. King, in theory, couldn’t afford a sudden lapse of control or command, whereas an open base gives him a bit of breathing room if the at-bat gets away from him. I think this rationale was the primary motivator in pinch-hitting Dubón with Alvarez in the first place to force King into an unenviable position on the mound with the bases loaded. Using Alvarez in that spot essentially forced New York’s hand. Ultimately, Baker’s decision in the bottom of the ninth wasn’t all that outlandish, but it wasn’t optimal, either. It was one of those decisions that led to a positive outcome, but you don’t necessarily agree with how it came about.