HOUSTON — Septuagenarians: the new market inefficiency.
Here we have the Houston Astros, erstwhile masters of the dark art of misusing technology like some cutting-edge dark web hackers, now going back to the World Series for the first time since their sign-stealing scheme was made known because of the know-how of a 72-year-old manager and 73-year-old pitching coach.
The combined age of Dusty Baker and Brent Strom is older than that of George Burns and Walter Matthau when they filmed The Sunshine Boys, a 1975 flick about the reunion of a vaudeville comedy duo. Baker is so old his first manager in pro ball Hub Kittle was born before pop-up toasters and fortune cookies, in 1917. Strom first pitched for a man, Joe Frazier, who was born 99 years ago, before electric automated traffic lights existed.
Today during a game, we can measure the spin axis of a moving baseball with military-grade precision and map the movements of a pitcher with 3D motion capture technology. Yet what Baker and Strom did was figured out through the power of observation how to flip the American League Championship Series from what was a Red Sox slugfest of a rout, into a dominating three-game mini-sweep by the Astros.
With a 5–0 statement in Game 5 Friday, Houston is returning to the World Series for the third time in five years because over the final 26 innings, it outscored Boston, 22–1. That was after the Red Sox had become the first team in postseason history to run off six straight games with 10 hits or more. A gullywasher became a drought. It … just … stopped.
Asked to explain the whiplash-inducing turn to the series, Boston manager Alex Cora said, “Brent Strom and Martín Maldonado. Two of the smartest people in baseball. They completely changed their strategy against us midway through Game 4.”
Ah, yes. Maldonado. He must not be forgotten when we consider how Houston went all analog on Boston. He is a 35-year-old catcher with a career .212 batting average over more than 2,900 plate appearances. Only three other players in history ever stuck around for that many plate appearances by hitting so poorly: Cy Young and two famously inept hitting catchers, Bill Bergen and Jeff Mathis.
Maldonado is not a septuagenarian, except for his LCS batting average: .071. Yet as noted by Cora, the former Astros bench coach, Maldonado impacted the outcome of the series as much as anyone. He did so by his game-calling and receiving, not to mention arm strength that earned him the nickname Machete because of how he cuts down runners.
Strom, Baker and Maldonado are where you must begin when explaining how the Astros stole this series from Boston. And as Cora knew, it does start in Game 4. Boston led, 2–1, after Zack Greinke, the Houston starter, gave Baker only 1 1/3 innings.
It was to that point the 117th postseason game in which a starter lasted no more than four outs. Their teams were 28–88 in those games. You are not supposed to survive such a disaster, especially not one of the traditional starter (non-opener) variety. And yet Baker wielded his bullpen like a master weaver with skeins of yarn, stitching together five relievers to win the game, 9–2.
It was during that game that Strom, the chief navigator of pitching, decided to tack to the starboard side. The change Cora referenced was a decision by Strom to have his pitchers attack the Red Sox with fastballs.
“Yeah, very much so,” Strom said. “Basically, the Red Sox were spitting on so many non-competitive breaking balls in the first couple of games. We were falling behind [counts]. I basically told the group, ‘If you’re going to get beat, throw your best stuff over the plate, then you can sleep at night. Rather than dancing around the strike zone.’ Young pitchers start dancing, and you can’t do that.”
Framber Valdez heard the message loud and clear. The Houston lefty began Game 4 with 12 straight sinkers. Valdez threw 66% sinkers, his fourth-heaviest usage of the year, and secured 16 outs with them, matching his season high. Valdez had done too much “dancing” in Game 1, but he threw eight shutout innings in Game 5.
“I told my guys, ‘Throw it away,’” Cora says about the weak hitting in Game 5. “’He was flat great—probably the best outing of his career. Don’t get too down on that.’”
But then Luis Garcia followed Valdez in Game 6 with his own Game of His Life. Therein lies another Strom success story.
Garcia lasted only eight batters in Game 2, departing with a sore knee and a 91-mph fastball after getting only three outs. The knee injury forced Strom to study Garcia’s delivery to see if something was causing the pain. The old pitcher whisperer found it and put Garcia on the mound the next day for a bullpen session. He showed Garcia that he was creating stress on his knee by having his right foot (the plant foot by the rubber for the righthander) slightly angled, with the ball of his foot a bit closer to the plate than his heel. That caused his knee to be turned slightly inward as he lifted his front leg in the load phase.
Strom told Garcia to place his right foot directly parallel with the rubber. With a straight plant foot, Garcia would keep his knee (and thus his weight upon leg lift) over the foot.
Voila! Garcia hit 97 mph seven times in the first three innings after throwing one pitch that hard the entire season out of 1,118 four-seamers.
“I was surprised,” Strom said. “The funny thing about it, outside of that injury, if he had not hurt his knee, we might not have made that tweak. So, the tweak was made not to increase velocity but to take stress off his knee. We did it the very next day after he threw one inning and he seemed to like it. And quite frankly we probably should have done it sooner, but he was having a good year and you hate to mess with somebody who’s having a good year. It’s the dicey thing about messing with a good thing. The injury probably helped him.”
So good was Garcia that he could have pitched the game in the lobby of the Red Sox team hotel and not knocked down a lamp. Two full times through the lineup he allowed no hits and only two balls to leave the infield. But with two outs in the sixth, in a 1–0 game, Garcia allowed a ringing triple to Kiké Hernández.
Baker smartly had a pitcher ready, even as dominating as Garcia had been. He walked to the mound in a scene that recalled another Game 6: the 2002 World Series, when he took the ball from Giants starter Russ Ortiz with one out in the seventh after he threw 98 pitches and allowed two one-out singles with a 5–0 lead. Baker famously told Ortiz to keep the ball as a souvenir. The Giants would lose, 6–5.
Baker has evolved and adapted, which is why this time he quickly yanked Garcia, who is notoriously shaky the third time around, for Phil Maton.
“It’s a combination of observing other games, knowing yourself and trying to stay modern on how the game is played and how the players expect the game to be played,” Baker said before ALCS Game 6 when explaining how he has evolved with pitcher use. “You know, when I took Russ Ortiz out in that game, today that would have been the move to make. But then it was, ‘Why’d you take him out so early?’ So who knows? Maybe I was ahead of my time.”
The choice of Maton, a righthander, was an inspired one that also spoke to the deft ways of Strom and Baker. The batter due up with the tying run on third was Rafael Devers, whose .978 OPS against righthanders was 227 points higher than against lefties. So why Maton?
Maton, 28, was not drafted out of high school or after his junior year at Louisiana Tech. After his senior year, he was a 20th-round pick in 2015 by San Diego.
In high school and college, Maton always was taught to keep his fastball down. After being drafted, he reported to the short season Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Wash., where he first heard about spin rate and first had his pitches measured by TrackMan technology. It showed he had elite major league spin. It opened a new baseball world for Maton.
The pitching coach there, Nelson Cruz, encouraged him to throw his fastball high in the zone. Maton immediately began rocketing through the Padres’ system. In 2016, he started at low-A and finished in Triple-A. In 2017, he was in the big leagues.
In July 2019, the Padres traded him to Cleveland for international slot money. At the deadline this year, when the Astros were re-making their bullpen (Yimi Garcia, Kendall Graveman, Ryne Stanek), he was traded for Miles Straw, the Houston starting centerfielder for the first four months. Maton is a big leaguer entirely because of technology as an evaluative tool, something he acknowledged with the nickname he chose for the back of his Players Weekend jersey: “Spin Rate.”
“Great pickup by [GM] James Click,” Strom said. “Maton, 4.75 ERA in Cleveland? But we recognize things. Much like we did with [Collin] McHugh in the past, with Will Harris. This organization does a great job of identifying peripherals, and not just the ERAs and strikeouts. The peripherals are huge.”
The Astros knew about the life on Maton’s fastball. Though Maton averages only 91.5 mph, he throws with such a long stride (7.1 feet) and with such high spin (2,487) that his fastball stays above the barrel of hitters as they try to hit it. With below average velocity, Maton had the third best swing-and-miss fastball rate (min. 100 PA), behind only Josh Hader and Alex Vesia.
There was but one reason Maton was in the game: to throw his sneaky high fastball to Devers. Strom and Baker knew they wanted this matchup before the series began. When Maton threw his fastball, it was the 179th fastball of the 194 pitches Houston threw to Devers this year. The 92% diet of fastballs to one of the game’s greatest sluggers against breaking pitches was another Strom concoction.
Of course, it worked. Devers got under the Maton fastball and popped it up.
“Maton, one pitch,” Strom said. “Elevated heater, which we worked on all year.”
Was the work just usage?
“Yes, just like we told [Gerrit] Cole: throw it more often,” Strom said. “Maton was the right man in that choice. If you go lefty, Brooks Raley, had he lost Devers then he’d have had [righthanders Xander] Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.”
The Astros needed one more bit of veteran magic, and that was where Maldonado and his arm ended Boston’s last breath of hope. Down 2–0, the Red Sox had runners on first and third with one out. Graveman fell behind, 3-and-1, to Travis Shaw.
Graveman is a power sinker specialist. He rarely throws a changeup—only 7% of the time. He had never thrown a 3-and-1 changeup this year. But that’s what Maldonado called. And it was a beauty for a called second strike.
“Where in the world did that come from?” Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said.
Now it was 3-and-2 and Maldonado and Cora had decisions. Maldonado needed to decide on a pitch. Cora had to decide whether to start Alex Verdugo, the potential tying run, at first base. Cora knows Graveman’s best pitch is the sinker. If Shaw pounded it into the ground and Verdugo was not running on the pitch, Graveman could end the inning with a double play.
Did Maldonado think Cora would send Verdugo?
“I wasn’t sure,” Maldonado said, “but I know Alex likes to move runners.”
Cora put on the sign to have Verdugo run on the pitch. It is not a straight steal, so a big lead and quick start are not paramount. The runner must make sure the pitcher goes home. (Graveman had just thrown a pickoff.) The manager is counting on contact.
But Maldonado did not call for the sinker, Graveman’s best ground ball pitch. He called for the four-seamer, which is more of a strikeout and fly ball pitch. Why?
“Travis Shaw doesn’t chase much,” Maldonado explained. Graveman’s sinker has so much movement it often rides out of the zone. Maldonado wanted a pitch Graveman could better throw for a strike.
Graveman threw a four-seamer. Shaw missed. Machete threw a strike to second base, where shortstop Carlos Correa made a beautiful no-look, Javy Báez patented tag, and Verdugo was cut down. Double play. That is where the Red Sox’s season pretty much died.
The Astros’ organization will never shed the stain of stealing signs in 2017. They are to a garbage can what the 1951 Giants are to a telescope. These Astros are not cleansing that stain, though Jose Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel all were there.
Instead, this group is writing its own history. It is not linked to 2017 but gloriously apart from it. This pennant is about moving forward, not back. It is about playing smart baseball, not duplicitous baseball. It is about Baker, Strom and Maldonado. And it is about the eternal wisdom of experience.
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