The decisive sequence of a World Series doesn’t have to come at the end of the series, or even at the end of a game. It’s possible that this year’s World Series will end up hinging on the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 2. Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu had a 2-1 lead to work with and the Red Sox lineup pretty much bottled up. Ryu retired the first two batters of the inning, Ian Kinsler and Jackie Bradley Jr., on a combined three pitches.
Boston’s next batter was catcher Christian Vázquez, who is a big league hitter only by obligation. If Red Sox manager Alex Cora wants him to put on his gear and catch, Vásquez has to take his turn at bat every time through the order, and three-quarters of the time he makes an out: Vázquez hit .207/.257/.283 this year. Ryu quickly worked Vázquez into an 0-2 count, then to 1-2. For his career, Vázquez has ended his at-bat on a 1-2 pitch 166 times, more frequently than any other count he’s faced, and he’s hitting .173/.181/.216 under those conditions.
But in defiance of the numbers, Vázquez singled to right. The next four Boston batters reached too: Mookie Betts singled off Ryu, and Andrew Benintendi worked an eight-pitch walk during a plate appearance that required three mound visits and lasted longer than your average Thanksgiving dinner. In came Ryan Madson to relieve Ryu. The right-hander walked Steve Pearce on five pitches to force in the tying run, then surrendered a two-run single to J.D. Martinez to put Boston up 4-2.
.@JDMartinez14 is a hitting MACHINE. #WorldSeries pic.twitter.com/nDc3GxKnkV— MLB (@MLB) October 25, 2018
You can see the impact of this two-out meltdown on this win probability chart from FanGraphs. That fifth inning was the ballgame.
No one scored in the game’s final four innings, and the Dodgers, who were in position to steal a game at Fenway halfway through Game 2, now go home down 2-0. Since 1985, the only team to come back from losing the first two games of a best-of-seven series on the road was, ironically, the 2004 Red Sox. And in case you somehow haven’t seen the clip yet this week, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was the man who sparked the comeback.
In the fifth, Boston conjured three singles and two walks from nothing, but that magic trick has been its calling card since the playoffs began. Over the course of the postseason, the Red Sox have used the whole inning better than any of their competitors, scoring 36 of their 68 postseason runs with two outs.
If the Red Sox go on to win the World Series, their two-out offensive prowess will be one of the story lines everyone remembers about this team. To borrow a phrase from Boston’s postseason hoodies, teams that do damage with two outs develop a reputation for clutchness, or calm under pressure, or some other virtue. So are the Red Sox just preternaturally clutch? And what can the Dodgers do to stop them?
Lots of what happens in postseason baseball is based on random chance or the clustering of discrete events, but elements of Boston’s two-out success were predictable and are sustainable. The Red Sox had a better split-adjusted OPS (sOPS+) with two outs than any other team in baseball this year, and they scored more runs with two outs than any other team in baseball this year. Narrow the sample to two outs and runners in scoring position, and the story’s much the same: Boston led the league in sOPS+ and runs scored. So, they’ve been dangerous in these situations all season.
But it’s not like the Red Sox are suddenly and uniquely possessed of Aluminum Power with two outs; they also led MLB in runs scored and OPS+ overall. In other words, the best offensive team in general this year was also the best offensive team with two outs. During the regular season, the Red Sox scored 37.6 percent of their runs with two outs, which you’ll notice is just more than one-third, and just the 13th-highest ratio in baseball—in the playoffs, they’re scoring 52.9 percent of their runs with two outs. For comparison, the Brewers led baseball this year by scoring 41.9 percent of their runs with two out.
Consider the ALCS. Boston outscored the Astros by eight runs over five games, and more than half of that scoring margin was the result of an 18-13 advantage in runs scored with two outs. What’s going to get left out of the clutch-hitting narrative is that the Astros actually hit better than the Red Sox with two outs in the ALCS: .279/.389/.459 with two homers and five doubles for the Astros, .236/.373/.400 with two homers and three doubles for the Red Sox.
So some of Boston’s two-out success is based on talent and good process, and some of it is based on the vicissitudes of life in the cosmic cocktail shaker that we call baseball. Better to be lucky than good, they say, but it’s better still to be both.
What, then, can the Dodgers do about this? Well, Madson hasn’t been good as the first man out of the bullpen these first two games. While he hasn’t been charged with a run, he’s inherited five runners so far this series and allowed every last one of them to score. (The Dodgers are outscoring Madson’s inherited runners by only one run through two games of the World Series.) That’s not great, and perhaps Pedro Báez or Kenta Maeda or Dylan Floro might be better suited to Madson’s mid-inning fireman role going forward.
Madson’s been pitching high-leverage innings in World Series games for a decade. In fact, his appearance on Wednesday night moved him into a tie with Jeff Nelson for second in career postseason relief appearances. The only pitcher who’s appeared in more playoff games than Madson is Mariano Rivera. But maybe Madson, at age 38, and with a 5.47 ERA this year, is no longer the same guy who won rings with the Phillies in 2008 and the Royals in 2015, and it’s time for Roberts to look elsewhere.
But I’ve got an even better idea: What if the Dodgers just got Christian Vázquez out when he was down to the last strike of the inning? Failing that, the Dodgers had four more chances to get one out and escape the fifth inning with at least a tie. Betts, Benintendi, Pearce, and Martinez are far superior hitters to Vázquez, but every single one of them is more likely than not to make an out in a given plate appearance. The Dodgers needed that to happen once in five plate appearances to avoid the fate that befell them in Game 2, and they couldn’t get it done.
We look for statistical patterns in playoff baseball because we want to find order in chaos, and we second-guess managers because we like to play along with the tactical side of the game at home. But while most fans on some level feel like they could do the manager’s job, the same isn’t true of players. It’s tough to sit back and criticize Madson for throwing Pearce five fastballs and missing the zone with four of them. Partially because if you can’t throw a stone more than 70 miles an hour, you shouldn’t, no matter what your house is made of, but also because it’s boring to think that way. When players say, “we need to execute better” after a loss, we roll our eyes, but most of the time they’re telling the truth.
That’s not to say those patterns don’t exist, or that tactical process isn’t important. But a bad plan executed well works better than a good plan executed poorly, or in this case not at all. The Dodgers were devoured by Boston’s two-out offensive monster, but that monster was only summoned because Ryu got two strikes on one of the two or three worst hitters in the series, with two outs and the bases empty, and couldn’t put him away.