According to one of his former teammates, Greg Maddux once said he started having success against Barry Bonds’ teams when he stopped pitching to Barry Bonds.
Smart pitchers look at the opposition’s lineup and pick the hitters they won’t let beat them. If one of those hitters comes up in a situation that can hurt the pitcher, a smart pitcher works around him.
So if you’re facing the Houston Astros, you’d think Jose Altuve would be on the list.
Who’s hot right now?
This season, Jose Altuve led the American League with a .346 batting average and is one of the leading candidates for league MVP.
That’s pretty impressive, but pitchers want to know who’s hot right now.
An MVP candidate could be in a slump and a bottom-of-the-order guy could be lava hot. In that case, you might want to pitch to the MVP and avoid the guy hitting in the 8-hole. But in the division series against the Red Sox, Altuve hit .533 and slugged 1.133 which would fit anybody’s definition of hot.
The Yankees are working around Altuve whenever he can hurt them
In the first two games of the ALCS the Yankees pitched to Altuve and he got even hotter; in Game 1 and Game 2 he went 5-for-8. But Altuve did not have any RBIs.
In the first two games of the series, Altuve never came to the plate with a runner in scoring position so the Yankees could afford to go after him.
In the third inning of Game 3 the Yankees walked Altuve when he came to the plate with a runner in scoring position, but pitched to him in the fifth with two outs and runners at first and second. The Yankees could afford to, by that point New York was up 8-0 and Altuve couldn’t hurt them.
The Yankees pitched to Altuve again in the ninth with the bases loaded, but the score was 8-1. Once again Altuve couldn’t hurt them and he grounded into a double play to end the game.
In Game 4 the Yankees walked Altuve the only time he came to the plate with a runner in scoring position.
In Game 5 the Yankees pitched to Altuve with a runner in scoring position and a 1-0 lead, but that might have been a mistake pitch; a 1-1 splitter down that wasn’t down far enough. The Yankees got away with it; Altuve hit a groundball to end the inning.
So what happened in Game 6?
If you’re going to work around Jose Altuve you might need an open base to work with.
In the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 6 with the score 0-0, Yankees pitcher Luis Severino made the mistake of walking Alex Bregman, a guy hitting .150 in the ALCS. After getting an out, Severino walked Evan Gattis and Gattis has yet to get a hit in the ALCS.
Brian McCann then hit a ground-rule double, Bregman scored, Gattis moved to third and first base was open, which Severino filled by walking George Springer, currently hitting .091 in the ALCS.
After getting the second out of the inning, Severino had Jose Altuve at the plate and, because he had filled the bases with walks, no place to put him.
By walking the guys he needed to get out, Severino painted himself in a corner and had to pitch to the guy he wanted to avoid. Altuve hit a two-run single, the score was 3-0 and the Astros eventually won the game 7-1.
What to watch for in Game 7
Unless they have a significant lead, the Yankees have shown they want to avoid pitching to Jose Altuve with runners in scoring position.
You can’t pitch around everybody, so if Yankees pitchers want to avoid Altuve they need to get the hitters in front of him. In Game 6 the Yankees didn’t do that and Altuve made them pay the price.
And when the Yankees do pitch to him, Altuve is seeing sliders, splitters, sinkers, cutters and changeups; fastball strikes have been hard to come by.
Pay attention to counts and what Yankees pitchers throw in those counts. If the Yankees throw fastball strikes in fastball counts like 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1, don’t be surprised if Altuve hits one of them very hard.
The Yankees do not want Jose Altuve to beat them so they need to be ahead by enough runs that he can’t hurt them or have an empty to base to work with if he can. And if the Yankees do have to pitch to Altuve when it matters, avoid throwing a hanging slider or a fastball for a strike.
For baseball fans a Game 7 is like Christmas coming early, so enjoy tonight’s game and Happy Holidays.