To arrive at its projected team win totals and playoff odds, PECOTA simulates the baseball season one million times. That’s a lot of seasons. 1,000,000. None of us will see more than a fraction of a percent of that many seasons. In a million simulations, you’re gonna see some stuff. You get seasons where the Astros and Yankees don’t make the playoffs at all. You get seasons where the eventual winner of the American League pennant plays the Padres in the World Series. You get seasons where the Padres win the World Series. You get good seasons, and bad seasons, and a bunch of weird-ass seasons. You get every kind of baseball.
Then they play. One way to think about the actual baseball season is as a series of doors closing. Opening Day contains a multitude of possibilities, all ready to unfurl, but slowly simulations are thrown out. The Astros put the AL West out of reach; the Yankees arrive ahead of schedule. The Padres: World Series Winner simulations are scuttled early. Doors close; we lose possibilities. The teams play and play and play for 162 games, and reduce the options until one Friday night, we find ourselves watching the Astros beat the Yankees 7-1 to force a Game 7. We find the Dodgers waiting on the other side. We find only a couple more open doors. And just as PECOTA simulates the season a million times, just as Houston clipped the wings of the West before turning to the Red Sox and the Yankees bullied the Twins before bouncing Cleveland, there were a million versions of this game. It had its own multitudes, its own simulations, and we saw a few of them. Some lasted an at-bat, or a half inning. Some ended with a lazy groundout on a 3-0 check swing. Some didn’t really get going until the eighth. They all unfurled until they began to collide with one another, forcing closed doors. Four warrant special notice.
The Ace Shoves Simulation
This sort of thing just doesn’t happen to you when you’re the Regional Vice President of Sales for the Great Lakes Region. Regional Vice Presidents pitch the big accounts; Big Lou, who owns a bunch of car dealerships along I-75? He doesn’t own a scrap of paper or box of pens you didn’t sell him. Of course there was that time you spilled coffee on yourself right before a meeting. Boy, did you feel stupid. They could see your undershirt! You’ve occasionally invoiced the wrong customer for toner. There was the time you got a little too drunk at the company Christmas party. Those weren’t great days, and you’d prefer to forget them, but at least Joe Buck wasn’t laughing at you as you insisted that no, Barbara, this is only my third cup of eggnog.
Joe Buck laughed at Todd Frazier. This GIF shows just how late he was on an 82 mph curveball, how badly he was fooled, but you should watch the moment again in real time. Your eyes and ears will play a trick on you. You’ll swear he doesn’t swing until after you hear the ball hit Brian McCann’s glove. I’ve watched it maybe 34 times. I’m 92 percent convinced the ball hit, and then he swung. It’s the darndest thing.
Frazier’s drunken Christmas party was just one of many at-bats against Justin Verlander that the Yankees would likely prefer to forget. Verlander struck out eight. He threw 99 pitches; 70 were for strikes. 17 of those were swinging. He gave up just five hits over seven shutout innings.
Verlander joins John Smoltz as the only pitchers to make three scoreless starts in elimination games in MLB postseason history; his 1.21 ERA when facing elimination is second only to Madison Bumgarner. His ERA this series is 0.56. Zero! His ERA starts with a zero, against a lineup that includes Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.
He did face pressure; after being given a 3-0 lead in the fifth, Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius reached, only to have Sanchez ground out on a 3-0 checked swing. And the seventh looked like it might get away from him. Greg Bird walked to lead off the inning; Verlander plunked Starlin Castro in the arm. But a 10-pitch at-bat against Aaron Hicks ended with a swing strike on a nasty slider.
A great catch (more on that in a moment) and a ground out later, and Verlander was out of the inning.
Post-season accolades are tricky; the sample sizes are small. Pitchers are often on short rest. The pressure is insane. The hitters are amazing. It all makes the analytically inclined a little nervous that we’re getting swept up in something. But sometimes you watch a guy, and think man, he just shoved. When his team needed him most, facing elimination and a shaky bullpen, Justin Verlander shoved. I wonder if Todd Frazier thought about what it might be like to sell office supplies.
The Platonic Love of Coworkers Simulation
All jobs are terrible. You might love your job. You might be a brain surgeon or a baseball writer. Maybe you love teaching children, or selling jewelry, or going to trial. Maybe you love it. But your job is terrible. Your job is time away from your family and your garden. You’re not hiking. You aren’t watching TV or eating perfectly crisp lettuce. Your job is terrible, and its necessity is the subject of entire fields of study, which are themselves jobs, because human beings can’t help smacking their heads against low-hanging beams. The only thing that makes terrible jobs bearable is good people. Maybe you’re both suckers unlucky enough not to be born idly rich, but hey, you’re suckers together.
When asked what he thought of Verlander’s start after the game, Jose Altuve said, “I literally love Justin Verlander.” Verlander returned the sentiment. But there’s a difference between telling and showing. Telling is relatively easy. We say things we only sort of mean all the time. Showing is harder.
George Springer, too.
The Bats Come Alive Simulation
Going into Game 6, the Astros were hitting just .147/.234/.213 against the Yankees. This from a team that led the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. They hadn’t scored a run since the seventh inning of Game 4. This from a team that led the AL in runs. Robert Gsellman (pitcher), was the only major leaguer with a .147 batting average in 2017. No one had the exact on-base percentage of .234, but Hyun-Jin Ryu (pitcher) checked in at a shameful .235. Jake Arrieta (pitcher) and Travis Jankowski (Padre) both slugged exactly .213. Luis Severino is the Yankees best starter. Gsellman/Ryu/Arrieta-Jankowski was not going to do it.
For a while, it looked like more of the same. The Astros were hitless until the 4th. But then in the fifth, after a walk and groundout got Alex Bregman to second, they strung together:
Great offenses go through slumps just like bad ones do, but it was only a matter of time before the Astros shook off the fog of a Gsellman/Ryu/Arrieta-Jankowski slashline, and hit like themselves again.
The Did We Kill Ourselves Tomorrow By Living Another Day? Simulation
Up 7-1, the Astros’ win expectancy in the top of the ninth was 100% according to Baseball Reference. Barring something dramatic, they were going to win. They had it in the bag! Ken Giles came in and threw 23 pitches anyway. After the game, A.J. Hinch seemed unconcerned. Giles was already warm after Brad Peacock had looked shaky the inning before. Hinch said Giles will be running on adrenaline in Game 7; Dallas Keuchel will be available out of the bullpen. We might see Verlander again. It isn’t an obviously disastrous move, or even an definitely wrong one. The Yankees can score runs in bunches, whatever the win expectancy says. The Astros had to get to tomorrow. But somewhere in the million versions of tomorrow’s game, mixed in with a four home run night from Altuve and a dominant relief appearance from Keuchel, there’s a simulation that involves a gassed Giles, up a run with two men on, hanging a fastball to Aaron Judge. Hinch better hope that isn’t the one the Astros get. That one sends you home.
Every game, every season starts with endless possibilities, possibilities that over nine innings or 162 games slowly drop away until one team lifts a trophy in October. Game 6 could have gone a lot of different ways. Gary Sanchez could have taken a pitch up 3-0 in the count. George Springer could have mistimed his jump. Todd Frazier could have caught Jose Altuve’s single down the line. David Robertson could have settled down. Beneath the simulations and permutations we saw were others that have the Yankees on their way to Los Angeles. But those weren’t the ones that won out. They got dealt an ace instead; they succumbed to lively bats. The Astros played parts of a million different games, but in the end, they won this one.
Later tonight, they’ll both start again, carrying bits of this game with them. We’ll see which simulations become realities, and which team will glance up at the scoreboard to see that their opponent has closed the door behind them on the way to the World Series.