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ALCS: Defense is the Difference in the Rays-Astros ALCS

The Astros face elimination in the ALCS, despite out-pitching and out-hitting the Rays. President of Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays opines.

Tampa Bay Rays by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

ALCS: Defense is the Difference in the Rays-Astros ALCS


Estimated Reading Time: 15 Minutes

The Astros have forced a game five in their ALCS match-up with the Tampa Bay Rays, after coming into Wednesday’s action down three games to none. After losses of 2-1, 4-2, and 5-2, the Astros finally sewed up a 4-3 victory in San Diego. However, the performance of many of the component parts of the Houston team seem to warrant better than their current 3-1 fate, still facing elimination with Thursday’s 4:30 ET game.

Some see this discrepancy as a form of baseball karma for the Astros 2017 “banging scheme.” Maybe it’s the force of the rest of the baseball-watching world having joined metaphorical hands, metaphorically sanitized, in resultant hatred of the Astros. But I think there’s another explanation. That’s why I’m writing this article, and not sewing voodoo dolls.

The Astros’ ALCS Bad Pitching Luck

Whether or not you’d like to bring a questionable view of religious retribution to the Astros performance in the ALCS, the fact is, they have not seemed to have luck on their side.

Each of the first three games have featured better performances from the Astros starting pitcher, and yet the Rays have come away with the win. As Justin outlined in his fantastic piece on this ALCS earlier this week, the Houston starters in games one and two were excellent.

Framber Valdez seemed far more in control, pun fully intended, than Blake Snell. Though he only gave up one run, Snell was removed after five innings for his high pitch count, essentially a masterclass in why he never got you a quality start in your fantasy league this year. Lance McCullers, in game two, only had one earned run, a fact to which we will return.

As for game three, the real damage came when Jose Urquidy was removed from the game and replaced by Enoli Paredes. In five innings, Urquidy’s one earned run outdueled Ryan Yarbrough’s two, never mind the latter’s 87 MPH fastball. (Seriously, I love you, Ryan: you keep being you.)

Game Four: A Different Kind of Justice

But speaking of 87 MPH fastballs, baseball justice, if not restorative justice, returned in game four. Zack Greinke and Tyler Glasnow headlined the first AL postseason game in which both starters pitched for at least six innings, and also look like residents of Asgard.

Glasnow was seeking redemption after his start versus the Astros in last year’s ALDS, in which he gave up 4 runs in the first, lasting only 2.2 innings. During that game, he learned that he was tipping his pitches, a problem since addressed. But yesterday, blister issues may have surfaced, potentially contributing to his control issues in the fifth inning. The broadcast sleuths cut to small blood stains on his pants in the most flagrant show of pants since…well, Walker Buehler, two nights ago.

However, Glasnow’s four earned runs, off of Jose Altuve’s obligatory first inning homer, subsequent RBI double, and George Springer’s two-run bomb, fairly earned him the loss. Greinke was excellent, his stat line buoyed by Martin Maldonado’s classic catcher-like advocacy and Dusty Baker’s faith. Baker’s old-school decision to keep Greinke in, even with Randy “Hotter than a Ghost Pepper” Arozarena coming back up to the plate, paid off. Arozarena’s two-run homer in the fourth were the only runs charged against the veteran pitcher.

Astros Bad Hitting Luck, Too?

But with the exception of the Rays’ rookie dreamboat, the Astros have not only out-starting-pitched the Tampa Bay team, they have also outhit them. Of course, Randy “Hotter than Mafic Magma” Arozarena is hitting .438 with an astonishing 1.346 OPS. His whole team, however, has only hit .197 with a .602 OPS for the series, including his own stats. On the surface level, it’s baffling that they’re up 3-1 over a Houston lineup that, though it’s hardly slugged, has hit a more respectable .265 with a .766 OPS in the same games.

Granted, that the Rays accomplished the best regular season record with an offense largely built of Kirkland-brand hitters is one of the things that makes them so lovable. But the two batters who carried them into the postseason, Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames, have not been performing in the way that the series outcome would lead you to expect.

It’s the D, Y’all

But here I posit to you that the real story of the lopsided ALCS showdown between the Rays and the Astros has been: defense. I understand that, as the President of the Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays lobby, I could be accused of bias, and with some justification.

But stay with me, folks. The loudest storylines from this series really do stem from the defense. On the Rays’ side, we have the web gems like spectacular snags made by the pair of former-Padres players, Manny Margot and Hunter Renfroe, returning to their old home field in one of the best strutting-back-into-high-school scenarios imaginable.

But on the other side, for the Houston Bugbears, Jose Altuve’s struggles with throwing to first or second base have cost his team two wins.

Jose Altuve’s Dance with the Yips

Despite homering in the first inning of three of the four games in this series, sending fastballs from Snell, Yarbrough and Glasnow into the cutouts, the 2017 MVP struggled in two games with simple throws to his fellow infielders.

In the first inning of Monday’s game, Altuve bounced a ball to Yuli Gurriel, pulling Gurriel off the bag and allowing the not-particularly-fleet Ji-Man Choi to reach first. Suddenly, rather than the third out of the inning, Randy “Hotter than the Fusion in a Star’s Core” Arozarena moved to second, and Manny Margot stepped up. Margot’s three-run-bomb was more than the difference in this 4-2 game. This was why Lance McCullers only gave up one earned run but got tagged with the loss.

Two innings later, Altuve miffed the same throw, gifting Brandon Lowe first base. It’s a particularly thoughtful gift, as Lowe has been hitting .071 in this series. This time, Lowe never came around to score, but the trend was visible enough that manager Dusty Baker commented on the two mistakes after the game.

“That was his first throwing error of the season, and he made two today,” Baker said. “You just hope he isn’t getting the yips, because invariably they come in bunches. You have to flush it and move on or else it multiplies.”

“Flushing It” in ALCS Game Three

Tuesday began calmly enough, with Altuve’s standard-issue first-inning homer. Then, in the sixth, he posted a throw past Carlos Correa and into left field, for what could easily have been a double-play. Instead, Randy “Hotter than a New York Radiator” Arozarena advanced to second, Brandon Lowe took first, and it was the start of an all-around Astros meltdown.

If the bases had been empty, it seems less likely that Jose Urquidy, who had notched five no-run innings with four strikeouts, would have been lifted for Enoli Paredes. With Paredes in, all Rays broke loose.

Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle both singled on two strike counts, and Margot popped a sac bunt—the first intentional sac bunt for the Rays in 2020, per the Athletic’s Jayson Stark. Then Kevin Keirmaier and Willy Adames were hit by consecutive pitches, giving Paredes the dubious honor of being the first-ever pitcher to allow a run to score on back-to-back plunks in the postseason. (But also thanks to Stark, two different pitchers once combined for B-2-B HBP, in 1979). To cap it off, Hunter Renfroe came in to pinch-hit and hit a screaming (note: sarcasm) 68.4 MPH double, scoring two, the slowest extra-base hit of the Rays’ season, according to David Adler.

A Small Sidebar on Altuve’s Defensive Record

Yo. Thanks for joining me in this sidebar. The widely trumpeted fact, as Baker stated in the press conference, was that Tuesday marked the first and second throwing errors of Altuve’s entire season. Jayson Stark also points out on the Athletic that he had never before had throwing errors in back-to-back games, and the last time he committed three throwing errors in a month was July of 2013. But here we had three in two games. On the one hand: panic. On the other hand: clearly just an aberration. Back on that first hand: should an aberration cause panic?

However, we’re more sophisticated now as a baseball-watching population than to merely look at throwing errors as a measure of defensive prowess. Or at least the Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays lobby group would like to think so. Interestingly, Statcast’s Outs Above Average finds Altuve to be essentially average for 2020, with 1 OAA and a 2% success rate added. For the larger sample of 2017-20, Altuve has a total of 6 OAA—it’s an aggregated stat—and a 1% success rate added.

The OAA/DRS/UZR Conundrum

Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating tell a different story, however. Altuve’s -3 DRS is 129th of 139 batters who played second base this year, and his career -41 DRS doesn’t suggest this is an outlier. His 2020 UZR of -0.8 isn’t as bad, but a career -36.1 UZR paints a similar picture. And it probably doesn’t paint it very well, with a stiff brush and a palette of dark browns and olive green.

Of course, standard lack of slick fielding is not the same degree of a problem as are the yips. Still, what I’m taking with me from this sidebar is that Altuve is neither as bad of a defender as these issues make him look, nor as good of a defender as his advocates would have it.

Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming: Altuve in ALCS Game Four

Armed with these details, Yips Watch 2020 was in full, anxious effect. To be clear, not only do I not believe any of this is karma because, at the very least, why did God allow the beloved Athletics to be decimated before exacting punishment? But in all seriousness, I personally feel awful for anyone who has the yips. And that includes Altuve, questionable neck tattoo and all. Insofar as I find baseball the best metaphor for acting—and for everything, really—the very existence of the phenomenon fills me with deep psychic dread.

So it was with genuine relief that I watched Altuve make a couple of competent throws in game four, throwing to Yuli Gurriel to put out Yoshi Tsutsugo in the fifth inning, and to Correa in the ninth. But Altuve did hesitate for a moment. And the Astros were not able to complete the double-play, and Joey Wendle, the batter who reached, did eventually come around to score for the Rays’ third run. Had the game been tied at the moment, the storyline here might be different. As it was, the broadcasters merely noted that Altuve watched the replay on the jumbotron after the play, and the Astros live to play another day, and show us whether the Outs Above Average or Defensive Runs Saved on Altuve’s shoulders will prevail.

And Now, We Reward Ourselves By Looking at Beautiful Defense

But whether or not Altuve continues to have a mental throwing issue, we can’t avoid that those errors cost his team two wins. It’s descriptive, if not predictive. And on the flip side, the Rays have executed seven beautiful double plays in this four game series.

Essentially, not only have the Astros pitchers been felled in a couple of games by poor defense, I argue that a lot of the ‘bad luck’ that Astros hitters have run into isn’t luck at all. It’s excellent defense and skillful analytical positioning by the Rays’ organization.

The Five Star Catches

And only some of the Rays making-their-own-luck are the flashy plays. But these will be the things I remember about this series, more than the home runs. Manny Margot’s feet, vertically upturned on the other side of the right field wall, should be—well, I would say the face of baseball, but they’re feet. But I’d be all for it being the alternate MLB logo, for its dedication to the craft of getting an out on a foul ball, even at risk of extreme personal injury.

Let’s recall that in game three, Hunter Renfroe not only hit the 2-RBI double (68.4 MPH, folks) that would put the Rays comfortably ahead, but he saved them several runs with his glove. He made a spectacular five-star diving catch to end the seventh (above), and then, an inning later, he snared a Kyle Tucker liner for the second out with the bases full of Astros.

And this is without even mentioning Platinum Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier, who has also made the difference in these games. Kiermaier sat out game four with an injured wrist (the B-2-B HBP), but before he was pulled from the game, he basically showed Renfroe how it was done:

Sneaky Good

But Kiermaier, of course, had already robbed Bregman in the first inning of game three with a leaping grab against the center field wall—another eye-catching play. Less obvious individual plays in the previous game led to Bregman going 0 for 5, despite hammering every single ball. An expected batting average of .428 was limited to .000 by a combination of Rays’ fielders, even if they weren’t all gems we saw replayed on the postgame show.

And as the clip above demonstrates, Tampa Bay’s team is replete with glorious defense: just feast your eyes on the stocky Ji-Man Choi doing the splits like he’s Simone Biles. On the subject of utility man Joey Wendle, opposing manager Dusty Baker said that he “has looked like Brooks Robinson or Graig Nettles over there in the World Series.” Meanwhile, Mike Zunino has made some excellent stops on wayward pitches, and Willy Adames has kept the Rays ahead on several occasions, robbing Altuve of a hit in game two.

But my favorite example came in game one, when a perfectly-positioned Adames snagged a ball off of Tucker’s bat in time to also tag out Bregman as he was trailing towards third base. With Correa still on first, Gurriel walked and Aledmys Diaz singled. If Adames hadn’t made not only the play but the double-play, one or more runs would have scored, which would have won the game for the Astros.

Hit ‘Em Where They Really, Really Ain’t

In fact, it seems like the only way to beat the Rays’ excellent defense is to hit the ball over every fielder’s head. Of course, home runs have been crucial to any teams’ successes in this postseason, as has been widely discussed.

But of the Astros nine runs in this series, only two of them were not scored on a home run. The first came in Monday’s ninth inning, when Nick Anderson had what was a complete meltdown by Anderson’s standards (but would have been an excellent outing for a Phillies reliever). The second non-home-run was Altuve’s game four RBI double. Every other run was a homer, frequently a solo shot.

Perhaps there’s no better way to end a discussion on defense than to return to the vagaries of defensive metrics. As airtight as the Rays’ defense has looked, it was only the fifth best during the regular season according to Defensive Runs Saved, after the Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians and, as everyone knows, the Pirates. But according to Ultimate Zone Rating, scaled to 150 games, the Rays’ 10.6 mark lapped their closest competitors, the Cubs and Athletics, at 5.6 and 5.3. That’s the team we’ve been watching.

Thursday’s ALCS Game Five

Game five currently looks to be a mystery box, as neither team has named a starter. In the press conference (below), Baker said that it would not be Framber Valdez or Lance McCullers. Christian Javier, who started during the regular season, was used in three innings in Wednesday’s game, though he only faced one batter in the ninth. Whoever gets the nominal starting nod for Houston, it will be, functionally, a bullpen game.

As for Kevin Cash, when asked what if he had plans for pitching in game five, he merely replied, “Not quite yet. We’ll sit and we’ll talk about it and we’ll come up with the best decision.”

The most probable starter for the Rays, even if it’s a bullpen game, is Josh Fleming, who has not been used in this series. Fleming started five times this season in addition to working out of the bullpen, with a 2.78 ERA in 32.1 innings.

Whether Fleming has a lengthy start or game five is a battle of the bullpens, the advantage will certainly go to the Rays, who had the best bullpen this year by fWAR. The Astros are likely be battling from behind in both the series, and the game. If they can push on to game six, however, the pressure will be on the Rays, with the rotations resetting. But no matter what happens, keep an eye on that defense!

And, of course, on Randy “Hotter than Molten Pizza Cheese” Arozarena.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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