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.