The Washington Nationals have won the World Series, and Houston is now forced to go home, asking questions. Where did they go wrong? What could the have done better?
How would Kevin Cash have managed the top of the seventh inning?
To review, starter Zack Greinke had pitched six innings of one-hit baseball, striking out three and walking one along the way. He wasn’t overpowering (he rarely is these days), but he was in control, moving the ball, hitting his spots, and changing speeds. He’s a good pitcher, and he looked good.
On the other hand, the Nationals had their two, three, and four hitters due up, facing Greinke for the third time, and Rays fans are by now very familiar with the idea that hitters get better the more they face the same pitcher, and that there’s a significant shift in the hitter’s favor from the second time through the order to the third time through the order.
There’s a corollary concept which is more difficult for many to accept: Success in the first part of a game is not a good predictor of success in the latter part. Put another way, just because Greinke was dealing doesn’t mean that he was immune to the times through the the order penalty.
Astros Manager AJ Hinch had Gerrit Cole, the best starter in baseball, available out of the bullpen for an inning or so, and he’d actually had Cole up and warming earlier, but he sent Greinke back out to start the seventh. After getting the first out, Greinke hung a changeup and gave up a home run to Anthony Rendon, and then walked the dangerous Juan Soto. That caused Hinch to bring in Will Harris, an experienced fireman. Harris promptly gave up the go-ahead home run.
I have no qualms with the decision to go with Harris over Cole once Greinke got into trouble. Warming up quickly, coming into the middle of an inning—those are reliever skills, and Harris is a good one. Rather, the questionable call is about sending Greinke back out there to start the seventh inning at all.
All season long, on the way to the third best ERA- in baseball and the best overall FIP-, Kevin Cash has counted innings. He’s had to balance two competing directives of “limit the starters exposure to the times through the order penalty” and “avoid overworking the bullpen.” That meant that he pulled some starters earlier than fans expected, when those starters appeared to be pitching well, while also occasionally asking struggling starters to pitch longer than many fans may have wanted.
For Cash, the question became, “How early can I pull my starter while making sure I have enough rested, quality arms to finish the game (and the one after that, and the one after that)?”
Well, it was game seven of the World Series, and there were three innings left. There was no next game. Hinch had Cole, likely good for one or two innings, he had Harris, likely good for one, he had Roberto Osuna, likely good for one. All three of those are likely better options than Greinke on his third time though the order.
And Hinch had Ryan Pressly and Joe Smith if anything went wrong with those first three and he needed them. Simply put, he had the ability to easily cover three to four innings, and to reasonably cover six.
If Kevin Cash was willing to pull Ryan Yarbrough one out away from a complete game, I’m confident he’d have been willing to make the smart, aggressive move and pull Greinke here after six.
The Astros do a lot of things right when it comes to pitching, including but not limited to helping Gerrit Cole become this best version of himself, but they got this one wrong. The Nationals won the deciding game of the World Series 6-2, and Cole, the best pitcher in baseball, never pitched.
If he were on the Rays, managed by Kevin Cash, he would have.