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George Springer’s home run wasn’t a vindication for “third time through the order” avoidance strategy

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Dodgers starter Alex Wood brought a no-hit bid into the sixth inning of World Series Game 4 on Saturday night, limiting the Astros to a mere walk. With the 8-9-1 batters due up, many — particularly Sabermetrically-aligned people — wondered if manager Dave Roberts would allow Wood to face No. 1 hitter George Springer for a third time. As statistics show, hitters perform better the third time they’ve seen a starting pitcher. During the 2017 regular season, hitters put up an aggregate .727 OPS the first time they faced a starter, a .782 OPS the second time, and an .803 OPS the third time. Makes sense.

Wood got Marwin Gonzalez to ground out and Brian McCann to strike out, bringing up Springer with his no-hitter intact. Wood fell behind Springer 3-0, got a fastball over for a strike to make it 3-1, then hung a curve that Springer hit pretty well for a home run. It went 394 feet, according to Statcast, breaking the 0-0 tie.

Immediately after the home run, some members of the Saber-slanted crowd on my Twitter feed crowed about Roberts letting Wood’s no-hitter get in the way of using strategy in line with data. The Dodgers, of course, are one of the most analytically-driven teams in baseball (as are the Astros), so letting Wood — a lefty — pitch to the right-handed Springer there for a third time with four more right-handed-hitting batters to follow was a peculiar decision, ignoring the active no-hit bid.

Springer’s triumph over Wood, though, wasn’t a vindication for this “third time through the order” avoidance strategy. It was one event — as small a non-zero sample as can be — and analytic types should know that results don’t justify the preceding decision. Hitting on 20 isn’t validated when the dealer flips over an ace for you. Years of data showing the actual third-time-through-the-order penalty justifies pulling Wood in that situation. Giving up the home run, or not, changes nothing. Wood just as easily could’ve gotten Springer to pop up or ground out. If that had happened, the third-time-through crowd wouldn’t have boasted but they would have been just as correct to clamor for relieving Wood.

And I could just as haughtily point out that Astros manager A.J. Hinch yanked starter Charlie Morton after giving up a one-out double to Cody Bellinger in the top of the seventh. Reliever Will Harris came in and yielded a run-scoring single with two outs to Logan Forsythe. If we’re just looking at results to justify strategy here, then yanking Morton for Harris was the wrong call. It wasn’t.

Every successful counter-culture movement has to learn how to deal with becoming the establishment. Sabermetrics is now the establishment in baseball. Every team has an analytics department. On-base percentage is finally valued more than batting average. Beat writers have begun incorporating numbers into their columns. The writers who built their careers using statistics to swat down bad narratives should be conscientious about becoming that which they fought against for so many years. Wood’s home run justifying third-time-through strategy is just a lazy narrative.

Zack Cozart thinks the way the Rays have been using Sergio Romo is bad for baseball

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The Rays started Sergio Romo on back-to-back days and if that sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. Romo, of course, was the star closer for the Giants for a while, helping them win the World Series in 2012 and ’14. He’s been a full-time reliever dating back to 2006, when he was at Single-A.

In an effort to prevent lefty Ryan Yarbrough from facing the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup (Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, Justin Upton), Romo started Saturday’s game, pitching the first inning before giving way to Yarbrough in the second. Romo struck out the side, in fact. The Rays went on to win 5-3.

The Rays did it again on Sunday afternoon, starting Romo. This time, he got four outs before giving way to Matt Andriese. Romo walked two without giving up a hit while striking out three. The Angels managed to win 5-2 however.

Despite Sunday’s win, Cozart wasn’t a happy camper with the way the Rays used Romo. Via Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic, Cozart said, “It was weird … It’s bad for baseball, in my opinion … It’s spring training. That’s the best way to explain it.”

It’s difficult to see merit in Cozart’s argument. It’s not like the Rays were making excessive amounts of pitching changes; they used five on Saturday and four on Sunday. The games lasted three hours and three hours, 15 minutes, respectively. The average game time is exactly three hours so far this season. I’m having trouble wondering how else Cozart might mean the strategy is bad for baseball.

It seems like the real issue is that Cozart is afraid of the sport changing around him. The Rays, like most small market teams, have to find their edges in slight ways. The Rays aren’t doing this blindly; the strategy makes sense based on their opponents’ starting lineup. The idea of valuing on-base percentage was scoffed at. Shifting was scoffed at and now every team employs them to some degree. Who knows if starting a reliever for the first three or four outs will become a trend, but it’s shortsighted to write it off at first glance.