Judging the Royals

How small ball wins in the postseason, even for slugging Astros and Yankees

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve reacted after stealing second with New York Yankees' Starlin Castro covering during the fourth inning of Game 1 of baseball's American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Houston.
Houston Astros' Jose Altuve reacted after stealing second with New York Yankees' Starlin Castro covering during the fourth inning of Game 1 of baseball's American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Houston. AP

During the 2017 regular season the New York Yankees were first in the American League in home runs and second in runs scored. The Houston Astros were first in runs scored and second in home runs. Both teams can score runs in bunches.

So why would the Yankees or Astros ever play for one run?

Because when you get to the postseason, find yourself in a must-win situation and the opposition pitcher is dealing, homers and runs might be hard to come by. You better know how to push a run across the plate with a minimum number of hits.

And if a team or player ignored those small-ball tactics during the regular season, things might not go well when that team or player tries to execute those tactics in the postseason.

Use it or lose it

The Astros had 6,271 plate appearances and 11 sacrifice bunts during the regular season. Only two teams in the big leagues bunted less often — the Baltimore Orioles with 10 and the Boston Red Sox with nine.

The Astros won 101 regular season games, so the shortage of sacrifice bunts didn’t seem to hold them back.

But last Monday, the Astros were playing the Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALDS and found themselves in a situation where a sacrifice bunt would come in handy. Going into the top of the seventh inning, the Astros were down by one run. George Springer led off the inning with a single and Josh Reddick tried to bunt him into scoring position.

In 143 games played for the Boston Red Sox, Josh Reddick never had a sacrifice bunt. In 596 games played for the Oakland A’s, Reddick put down three bunts and in 47 games played for the Dodgers, Reddick didn’t put down any. On September 19, Reddick put down a sacrifice bunt for the Astros and that was his only sacrifice bunt of the 2017 season.

In a nine-year career that includes 3,474 regular season plate appearances, Reddick has had four successful sacrifice bunts.

You can practice bunting in the afternoon off a pitching machine all you want, but it isn’t the same as trying to bunt a big league fastball in a big league game. If you want to bunt successfully during games, you need to work on that skill during games.

Use it or lose it.

Against the Red Sox, when Reddick tried to bunt a 96 mph fastball thrown by Chris Sale, he couldn’t get it down.

Failing to get the bunt down probably cost the Astros a run in the seventh inning; Carlos Correa singled with two outs and had Springer been on second base, he might have scored. The Astros went on to rally for three runs in the eighth and ninth — including an RBI single by Reddick — so his failure to get a bunt down went ignored.

But had the Astros failed to rally and lost by one run, Reddick’s missed bunt would have been a big deal.

Altuve’s stolen base against the Yankees

On Friday night the Astros and Yankees were playing Game 1 of the AL Championship Series and went into the bottom of the fourth in a scoreless tie.

Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka were on their games and nobody was hitting homers or scoring runs in bunches. Generally speaking, it takes three singles to score a run and Tanaka had yet to give up a hit, so three hits in a single inning didn’t seem likely.

But things changed when Jose Altuve singled with one out; the Astros may not bunt much, but they do steal bases and Altuve is one of the main culprits.

Tanaka’s natural pitching motion has him lifting his front foot almost belt high, but with Altuve on first base, Tanaka couldn’t afford to take that much time to get the ball to home plate. With a runner on, Tanaka was lifting his front foot to mid-calf.

It didn’t help; Altuve stole second base anyway.

With a stolen base threat now in scoring position, Tanaka continued to rush his delivery to home plate. When pitchers speed up their bottom half, the arm sometimes doesn’t catch up and the release point is missed causing pitches to stay up in the zone. Using his version of a slide step, Tanaka hung a slider to Carlos Correa and Correa lined a single to left field, driving in Altuve.

The Astros won the game 2-1, so Altuve’s run was a big deal and the stolen base was a big part of it.

Why the threat of a bunt or steal is important

If a runner will at least attempt a stolen base once in a while, the opposition pitcher has to pitch out of a slide step and throw more fastballs to get the pitch in the catcher’s mitt more quickly. The middle infielders have to stand closer to second base to cover the bag and that opens up holes on the infield.

If a hitter will at least attempt a sacrifice bunt or a bunt for a hit occasionally, the third baseman has to play in.

If a team uses small-ball tactics often enough to make those tactics a threat, the opposition has to react to that threat and that gives the offensive team an advantage.

In the playoffs, you have to play the game you’re in

If a team has the talent, during the regular season that team can afford to ignore small-ball tactics and play their style of baseball come what may; they’re just trying to win enough games to get to the postseason.

Even a great team like the Astros lost 61 games.

But things change in the playoffs. Now a team can’t afford to take the long view; they need to win right now, tonight. It’s why you see guys who haven’t put a bunt down all year try to do it in a playoff game.

So if you hate to see your favorite team give away an out by getting thrown out on a steal attempt or laying down a sacrifice bunt, remember: they may need those tactics in the postseason and those skills need to be worked on.

If you find yourself in a postseason pitcher’s duel — like the Astros and Yankees did on Friday night — the sac bunt or stolen base is a nice club to have in your bag.

And Jose Altuve proved it.

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