HOUSTON – The Red Sox knew the magnitude of the challenge they faced in the American League Championship Series.
The Astros pitching staff had allowed just 534 runs (3.3 per game) during the regular season, the fewest allowed by an American League team since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. Their 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings ranked second in modern baseball history. The group had combined nuclear stuff with fantastic execution to hold Cleveland to a total of six runs in three games in the American League Division Series.
“There were sleepless nights for a hitting coach,” acknowledged Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers.
“Their pitching staff is probably one of the best in the history of the game,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said after his team advanced past the Astros in five games to reach the World Series. “We hung with them.”
All season, the Red Sox have been a team whose talented hitters featured a detail-oriented commitment to game planning to to identify both what their opponents would try to do and where they are most vulnerable.
The Red Sox, with information from the team’s advance scouting team and analytics staff, have had a year-long conversation about what pitches opponents use in specific counts, locations where they work, locations where they miss and are vulnerable, and the visual appearance and action of pitches that might represent the margin between a strikeout and a two-strike foul-ball.
Ultimately, the team’s eruption for 29 runs over five games against the Astros – including a 23-run outburst to seize control of the series in Games 2-4, the first time all year Houston’s staff had allowed six or more runs in three straight games – reflected that willingness to commit to a game plan.
“They were committed to some game-planning and went up there and did it,” Hyers said. “It’s not easy to do against the pitching the Astros have.”
The Red Sox had a feel for how the Astros would attack – helped not just by ample video and heatmap data but also by input from Cora (last year’s Astros bench coach) and bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, who had worked in the same role with Houston in 2017 and thus had a feel for what Houston’s pitchers would try to do in their own advance planning.
The focus was on the starters. The Red Sox had confidence that they could hold their own against Houston’s relievers based on what they managed to do against the Yankees bullpen during the regular season and ALDS.
“We know that we can get to bullpens,” Cora said. “It was just a matter of getting through the starters. We did an outstanding job.
“It was a vertical attack – fastballs up, breaking balls down, stay on the edges,” he added. “We did an outstanding job [against that pattern]. We sustained it. We stayed very humble. We didn’t try to hit home runs. We stayed with the program, and in the end, it paid off.”
Starting in the fifth inning of Game 1, when the Red Sox walked their way into a rally against Justin Verlander, the team’s hitters showed an unusual level of discipline.
The Sox swung at 23 percent of pitchers that were on the edges of the strike zone or outside of it – easily the lowest rate of the four LCS teams. The Astros swung at 28.4 percent, the highest rate of the LCS teams. The Sox were even more disciplined in two-strike counts, swinging at just 9.7 percent of pitches on the edges or outside the zone.
The team was particularly aware of the Astros’ aggressive usage of off-speed and breaking pitches. Someone like Lance McCullers, for instance, is willing to throw literally nothing but curveballs in an at-bat.
“You’re sitting there watching it, say, all right, it’s 3-2, you can’t get too fastball happy right now. You see them taking pitches, an off-the-plate breaking ball that 99 percent of hitters swing at, or swing and miss,” said advance scouting manager Steve Langone. “You see them take a walk on those, that’s rewarding.”
The Red Sox had 18 two-strike hits in the series – three more than the Astros, and good for a .205 average in two-strike counts, the highest of the four LCS teams. (Houston was second at .170.)
Overall, the quality of execution by Sox hitters stood out even beyond those numbers. Houston had to fight for every strike.
“That was our gameplan going in, to win pitches. This is a tough team, tough pitching staff, more swing-and-miss than anyone in baseball. We knew we had to be disciplined. We knew we had to wait them out,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett.
There were moments that stood out. In Game 4, Jackie Bradley Jr. made the decision on his own (“Sometimes you’ve got to go with your hunch,” said the ALCS MVP) to look for a first-pitch changeup against Josh James after seeing the flamethrower try to get ahead using that pitch in the first plate appearance between the two; Bradley’s two-run homer on a changeup in Game 4 turned a deficit into a lead and an eventual 8-6 win.
Rafael Devers sat against Justin Verlander in Game 1 (“It’s funny, because I thought it was going to be a bad matchup,” Cora could laugh after Game 5), but given a chance on Thursday, he remained mindful of the report on Verlander: He won’t shy from his fastball in key moments, typically at the top of the zone, where his high spin rate creates ridiculous ride on the pitch that often takes it over bats for either a pop-up or swing-and-miss.
Devers got a first-pitch, 98-m.p.h. fastball at the top of the strike zone and ambushed it. He set his sight at the top of the ball and, rather than trying to pull it, drove it out to the opposite field for the decisive three-run homer in Game 5.
“There was talk all day long about his fastball riding so high up into the zone. The only way to get him was to get on top [of the ball],” said Barkett. “For a young kid to execute the game plan, it just shows how he’s grown throughout this season.”
Devers’ homer was one of 11 opposite-field hits for the Sox in the five games, and one of four against Verlander. The Sox hit .423 and slugged .732 when hitting the ball to the opposite field against the Astros. Though Devers hit his opposite-field homer, the team was mostly content to shoot liners to all fields and trust that a succession of quality at-bats could sustain the offense. In an era where teams live and die by the homer, the Sox went the other way.
The approach was, in the eyes of Xander Bogaerts, “a good one. Not a lot of home runs. I think if you go big or go home, we would probably go home. … The big approach, it’s not the best one against these guys. Just try to single, put up good at-bats and get walks and hopefully the next guy can do damage.”
“They’re a relentless group,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “They did a really good job of having an excellent game plan and going and executing it and they were extremely tough. ... They put pressure on you from the very beginning. They don’t concede any at-bats. They never got off our fastballs, and they laid off tough breaking balls. They do it right. And that’s why it’s hard to get 27 outs against them.”
Now, the team will face a more unfamiliar opponent. Whereas the Sox could build on seven games of regular season game-planning against the Astros, the team lacked such exposure to the Brewers and Dodgers. For that reason, Langone and the Red Sox advance scouting team were already well into planning for their potential NL foes in the middle of the ALCS – having shifted focus between teams amidst a back-and-forth NLCS.
“It’s basically like cooking two dinners, two full dinners, knowing one of them is going to get swept in the trash,” Langone said. “It’s back and forth. I started with Milwaukee, and when they were up, 2-1, I was all-in on Milwaukee. And then [Game 4], the Dodgers win, then they win [Game 5], and now all of a sudden we’re going full-time Dodgers.
“We’ll be ready for whoever it is. We haven’t played those teams this year, so there’s a little bit of unfamiliarity,” he acknowledged. “But I think that means guys will pay more attention. We’ll be ready.”