Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 25, 2022 -- "Playoffs 2022: A Thousand-Word Play"


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From Sunday night:

@joe_sheehan: Oh, I want to do 2,000 words on that play.

The play in question was a double play turned by the Yankees in the ninth inning off a Jeremy Peña bunt. It contained, in ten seconds, as much baseball as entire games in this postseason have had.

The Astros led 6-5 with the top of the order due to bat in the ninth against Clay Holmes. Jose Altuve led off the inning with a soft single to right, giving him his first two-hit game of this postseason.

Jeremy Peña, who had earlier hit a three-run homer to tie the game, saw Josh Donaldson playing on the dirt and put down a bunt to the left side. While it wasn’t a perfect bunt, Peña did well to get his bat on the pitch, a 95-mph two-seamer up and with a ton of armside run, a very difficult pitch to bunt. He was clearly bunting for a hit, with Donaldson back and Holmes, being right-handed, falling off to the right side. Had Peña gotten it just a bit more towards the third-base line, he probably would have succeeded.

“Never bunt” is a great slogan, and one of the triumphs of the stathead revolution is getting teams to all but eliminate the use of the sacrifice bunt. It's usually a play that costs a team more than it helps. Bunting for a hit, though, is often a good play, an underused one. Bunting is harder than it once was, for the same reasons hitting is harder than it once was. But in situations where just reaching base is valuable -- with nobody out, mostly -- it can be a weapon. Bunting for a hit and bunting for a run -- squeeze plays -- are exceptions to the “never bunt” rule.

Holmes made a great read and react, stopping his momentum and getting to the ball with plenty of time to throw out Peña. He had the ball while Peña was less than halfway down the line. Holmes, though, double-clutched, making the play at first a bit closer, but he still threw out Peña by about half a step. For a right-handed pitcher, this was a very good defensive play. To this point, everyone had executed, Holmes a little better than Peña.

It wasn’t a notable play until Jose Altuve took a shot. Seeing that third base was entirely uncovered, Altuve never broke stride going around second and took off for third. Josh Donaldson was over by the mound, having charged the bunt. Shortstop Oswaldo Peraza had jogged towards second to take a possible throw that never came. When Altuve rounded second, there was no one within 40 feet of third base.

I love this aggressiveness. Take an undefended base! More than that, I love the awareness. Altuve, who had the play in front of him, picked up that Donaldson was far from the bag on his way to second and never slowed down.

Donaldson, to his credit, realized there was a problem. In a series, in a month, when his failure to hit has been one of the big reasons the Yankees’ season is over, he still showed up in the field. As Altuve rounded second, and as Holmes’s throw arrived at first, Donaldson began to break back to the bag. Now, it’s a footrace.

Well, it’s not just a footrace, because Donaldson needs the ball. This is where Anthony Rizzo comes in. Rizzo likes to use his arm. One of the images I keep from those great Cubs teams is Rizzo charging a bunt, often ending up a few feet from home plate in an effort to make a play on the lead runner. It’s a wonder no one ever swung away and took his head off with a liner. In his 20s, Rizzo was regularly throwing out 20 guys a year at second base, almost always among the league leaders in doing so. Rizzo threw out just five this year, which is mostly due to the disappearance of sacrifice bunting as he moved to a DH league.

Rizzo’s throw on the Altuve play is a reminder that he still retains the skill, assist totals be damned. Nearly flat-footed, he hit a moving Donaldson on Donaldson’s glove side about six feet from the bag, beating Altuve by...well, Altuve was barely in the frame when Donaldson went to tag him. Although Altuve made his decision to go to third pretty early, he was still running straight to the second-base bag and ended up making a very wide turn. That cost him here, and in trying to get to third he overslid the bag. I can’t tell if Donaldson got Altuve before he arrived, but Altuve never came close to holding the bag and was easily called out.

The term “TOOTBLAN” (Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop) has become a fun part of the lexicon, and I use it a lot myself. Not all baserunning outs are TOOTBLANs, though. Sometimes they’re just plays where everyone executes and the defense wins. That was the case here. With the base undefended, with one out (Altuve turned his head to see if Peña would be out at first), with a fast baserunner, with Yordan Alvarez likely to be walked no matter where Altuve stopped, all of the green lights were on. Altuve, slowed by his path to third, was just beat by a good throw and a nice hustle play by Donaldson.

So much of baseball happens between the mound and home plate now that we forget how it is supposed to be a game that happens everywhere else. In its design, the “pitcher” was just that, someone who pitched the ball to the batter, underhand, to start the action. Nowadays, hurlers all too often end the action. This play -- a bunt, a sharp fielding play, aggressive baserunning, a strong throw -- is a rare play this postseason that has the DNA of baseball as it was meant to be played.