The Houston Astros are now runner-ups in the 2019 World Series. But a critical front office mistake likely cost them a shot at such a precious opportunity.
Even as successful as the Houston Astros proved to be in 2019 with MLB’s best regular-season record, did Houston set itself up for a letdown by failing to pitch a left-hander in the 2019 World Series?
The Houston Astros’ top brass appears to have made a critical mistake—notwithstanding just yanking Zack Greinke from Game 3 of the World Series after 95 pitches, or Game 7 after only 80 pitches with a one-run lead in both contests. Rather, Houston Astros‘ manager, AJ Hinch, and company failed to secure even one postseason pitching spot for a left-handed reliever. Though Greinke was successfully acquired at the trade deadline, perhaps the Houston Astros also could have more aggressively targeted a proven left-handed pitcher.
Regardless of southpaw starter Wade Miley’s late-season struggles, Hinch should have accounted for Washington’s talented lineup by employing at least one lefty in the bullpen. After all, what many fans may not realize about the beauty of handedness in baseball is that pitches get released from a body’s extreme left or right upper appendage, causing trajectories that trouble even the best hitters as baseballs travel toward catchers. In baseball—perhaps unlike any other sport—handedness equals competitive advantage as which hand a pitch is released from can make it more difficult for a given batter to reach base successfully by receiving a hit.
Another way to think about this is that baseball is all the more beautiful from a strategic perspective precisely because pitches do not get released from shoulders attached to the middle of pitchers’ bodies, but from shoulders attached at the sides of pitchers’ bodies. Pitches, even the straightest fastballs, do not travel from a player’s chest in a perfectly linear fashion like a bow releases an arrow. Rather, pitched baseballs come in at angles because of the anatomical location of the arm releasing them. This is why most hitters are not equally effective against both right- and left-handed pitching.
In Hinch and Luhnow’s defense for not suiting up a southpaw, the duo is always prepared with analytics, and would certainly know that the Nats’ offense fared significantly better against lefties than righties as a team in the regular season. Washington hit .283 against lefties and only .258 against righties in 162 games—good for a plus .25 point differential in batting average, and a plus .19 increase in on-base percentage. However, bucking that trend in the postseason, Washington fared worse against lefties than righties with inferior team batting average, on-base and slugging percentages.
The Houston Astros’ management strategized to give the Nationals’ offense different challenges at the plate, hoping a lefty-less bullpen would be enough. In lieu of a left-handed option, Houston’s 2019 World Series roster was constructed to offer Devenski’s changeup, Harris’ cutter, Smith’s sidearm delivery, Peacock’s traditional long relief, and a slew of power pitchers offering a steady diet of fastballs offset by sliders. Yet, it would not prove enough as the Astros‘ bullpen accounted for a 4.71 ERA, third to last place out of all ten MLB playoff teams that competed in the 2019 postseason.
Also, in defense of the decision to go without a lefty when creating the 25-man World Series
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roster, the Astros’ top brass knew the organization lacked virtually any depth to choose from when it came to hard-throwing lefties with plus control. Nonetheless, the question remains: shouldn’t that have been addressed at the trade deadline?
In the end, Washington’s 2019 postseason offense provided an inferior showing against left-handed pitching in the categories of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. In other words, Houston offering no left-handed pitching played right into the Nationals’ 2019 post-season strength of facing right-handed pitching.
If Houston featured at least one, if not several top-notch lefties on the 2019 World Series roster, the bullpen bleeding perhaps could have slowed down enough to change the result. Nonetheless, credit goes to the Washington Nationals for proving the better team in this year’s World Series.
Going forward, look for the Houston Astros to pursue a stud left-handed reliever, such as former Astros’ farmhand, Josh Hader, during the offseason. Though the Brewer is not set to reach free agency until 2023, the lefty keeps earning more and more each year in arbitration than Milwaukee might be willing to stomach. Consider the Brewers possibly letting go of Hader for the likes of Chris Devenski, Héctor Rondón, Myles Straw, and cash considerations.
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