Thursday, November 3, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, November 3, 2022 -- No(hit)vember


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 108
November 3, 2022

So, yeah, Cristian Javier is pretty good.

Once again leaning on that four-seamer that hitters can’t seem to find, Javier threw six no-hit innings as part of a combined no-hitter that tied the World Series up at two games apiece. Javier struck out nine batters, and of the nine who put balls in play, none came close to a hit. Per Baseball Savant, none of the Phillies’ batted balls had even a .330 expected batting average, and six of the nine came in under .100. Javier didn’t pitch past the sixth, but this is what a dominant postseason pitching performance looks like in 2022.

(Editor Scott points out that this is also what no-hitters look like in 2022. Six of the last seven no-hitters have been combined efforts.)

It was the second time this year Javier contributed to a combined no-hitter, the first coming against the Yankees in June. In 12 1/3 innings in these playoffs, Javier has allowed just one run on two hits, and he’s struck out 36% of the batters he’s faced. In his three-year career, he now has a 2.20 postseason ERA, with 48 strikeouts against just 14 hits allowed. No, that’s not a typo.

It’s fair to hold combined no-hitters apart a bit, as no-hitters are more individual accomplishments than team ones. When that combined no-hitter happens with a team down 2-1 in the World Series, though, it’s possible to be too jaded. It was a no-hitter in the World Series! That’s happened exactly once, 66 years ago. It was a no-hitter in the postseason! That’s happened one other time, 12 years ago. I don’t care if the Astros used all 38 pitchers they’re carrying and the Phillies went up there with souvenir bats, that’s a big moment, that’s an incredible accomplishment.

Last night I got a text message from a friend who more or less told me to do more bat flips, so from October 11...

One Big Question: Will we see the third postseason no-hitter this year? Justin Verlander left the game with a no-hitter intact three times in his last six starts. The Dodgers (1114) and Astros (1121) allowed the second- and third-fewest hits of any team since 1968, and two of the bottom-15 totals of all time.

To turn a no-hitter into a win, however, the Astros needed to score, something that has been a problem for them this postseason, and was one for four innings last night. The Astros strung together three singles to start the fifth, though. With Yordan Alvarez coming up, Rob Thomson hooked Nola and went to his best left-handed reliever, just as he did in Game One. It was another aggressive call from Thomson, who just seems to understand postseason baseball. Unfortunately for him, the other guys get paid, too. Alvarado drilled Alvarez with his first pitch, forcing in the first run of the game. He then got too much of the plate with an 0-2 sinker -- at 101, mind you -- to Alex Bregman, who was able to go the other way for a two-run double. By the time the inning was over, the Astros were up 5-0 and the Phillies bullpen’s scoreless streak was over.

The Astros’ five-run fifth was the latest crooked number in a World Series defined by them. There have been 30 runs scored in the Series, 15 by each team. Of those 30, 27 have come in innings of two runs or more. There have been just three single-run innings in four games. Of the 72 “ups” in the World Series, runs have been scored in just 13 of them. It’s big-inning baseball, and both teams have been up for it.

That the Phillies are tied 2-2 in this Series is remarkable when you consider that everyone figured their path to a victory was through the right arms of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Through four games, the two of them have allowed 13 of the 15 runs the Phillies have conceded, they have an 8.10 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, and neither has seen the sixth inning. Wheeler isn’t even starting today’s critical Game Five on four days’ rest, Thomson electing to hold him back over concerns about his fatigue level.

The Phillies are going with Noah Syndergaard instead. Syndergaard, acquired from the Angels at the trade deadline, isn’t really Thor any more. He throws 94 now, down 3-4 mph from his pre-surgery peak, and is as likely to try to get you out with his curve as he is to blow a fastball past you. He was basically average this year for the Halos and Phils, a 3.94 ERA, 3.83 FIP in 5 1/2 innings a start, a combined two wins above replacement. Thomson has worked around him in this run, starting him just once, in NLDS Game Four, and hooking him after ten batters (3 IP, 1 R).

Given Syndergaard’s current skill set, Thomson’s aggressiveness, the off day tomorrow and a lightly worked bullpen, I don’t think the starter will be in the game for long. While all this is game-script dependent, something like Syndergaard for 11 batters, Ranger Suarez for three (Alvarez/Bregman/Tucker), Zack Eflin for six, then Jose Alvarado, David Robertson, and Seranthony Dominguez for whatever is left seems right. I’d rather ask Suarez for 15 pitches on his second day after a start than put Brad Hand into a meaningful spot or use Alvarado that early in the game. If the Phillies can get to Alvarado with the game still in the balance, they can win this one. All of the risk, though, is in that first time through the lineup. The last time they were in this spot, needing help from the back of the rotation, Bailey Falter put them behind 4-0 after seven batters.

The story today, though, is Justin Verlander. In this space, where we don’t define players by small subsets of their career, Verlander’s legacy is set. He’s one of the very best pitchers of the 21st century, with an argument that he is the very best. He has a ring, he has awards, he has career earnings of more than $300 million, and he has a supermodel wife. There’s nothing Verlander can do tonight in Philadelphia to change my mind about him.

This space, however, isn’t the wider world. Verlander goes to the mound tonight with an increasingly horrid track record on the biggest stage: a 6.07 ERA in eight World Series starts. His teams are 1-7 when he takes the mound in the Fall Classic and have lost four straight. He’s never had a signature start at this level; his best postseason start came in 2017, when he posted six innings of two-run ball (Game Score: 67) in a 3-1 Astros loss. He has two other six-inning quality starts in the World Series. He’s pitched into the seventh once in eight Series starts, and never gotten an out after the sixth. He’s never been credited with a World Series win. Cristian Javier, just to pick a name at random with less than 1% of Verlander’s career, has been. Verlander’s good work, at volume, in the AL brackets over the years -- a 3.04 ERA in 160 ALDS and ALCS innings -- isn’t what people remember.

This is arguably the biggest game in which Verlander has ever pitched, with his team tied 2-2 in the World Series. Verlander has had two chances to clinch World Series in the past. In 2017’s Game Six, he pitched well but got just one run of support in a 3-1 loss. In 2019, he coughed up an early lead in the fifth inning, allowing two solo homers to put the Astros behind for good in a Series they would lose in seven games.

Everything is set for Verlander tonight. He was the best pitcher in his league this year and is pitching for the best team he’s ever played for. He gets the ball on a fairly cool, fairly dry night; we saw the ball wasn’t flying much in last night’s contest, and the conditions will be similar tonight. He’s had an extra day of rest, and in fact, has barely pitched over the last five weeks. He doesn’t need to go the distance, doesn’t need to pace himself. The Astros have such incredible pitching depth that five good innings from Verlander should be plenty.

The ugly reality of the expanded-playoffs era is that to history, October matters more than the six months that precede it. All-time greats have had their career accomplishments ignored in favor of a listing of playoff failures. Others we remember as legends because they got the big hit, the big strikeout, the big double play. Barry Bonds over here, David Ortiz over there. Alex Rodriguez over here, Derek Jeter over there. No stats, just vibes.

Tonight, Justin Verlander’s career gets sorted, for good, into one of those groups.