If there was one thing the experts agreed on prior to the start of the 2022 World Series, it was that the Houston Astros’ big advantage lay in their bullpen.
Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker presented a roster laden with seven proven relievers. The Astros’ bullpen had over the course of the regular season performed far better in both WHIP (1.091 to the Phillies pen’s 1.301) and ERA+ (162 to Philadelphia’s 134).
Yet in Philadelphia’s 6-5 Game 1 victory Friday night at Minute Maid, it was the visiting team’s bullpen that performed more heroically.
How could that happen when the pre-series numbers told such a different tale between the Astros and Phillies?
Five Phillies relievers produced five and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball, allowing just four hits to a team that had just hammered ace starter Aaron Nola for six hits — and five earned runs — in just over four innings.
The Phillies’ pen struck out seven and walked only two, a Game 1 bullpen WHIP of 1.05.
Not that Houston’s pen was especially bad. Baker’s half-dozen relievers allowed three hits and three walks in their collective five innings, a 1.2 WHIP.
Of course one of those hits was the 10th inning home run J.T. Realmuto delivered against Baker’s sixth reliever, Luis Garcia, that provided the winning margin.
In a sense, Garcia doesn’t even count as an Astros ‘reliever.’ During the regular season, his 28 appearances all came as a starter. It is a measure of how deep Houston’s rotation is that Baker has consigned him — and fellow starter Jose Urquidy — to the bullpen for the postseason.
Still, the true takeaway from Friday’s Game 1 outcome is the fragility of developing predictive conclusions by relying on data as frequently tenuous as the predictability of bullpen performance.
Managers and their Svengalis, the front-office strategists, don’t often like to talk about this. But when they or media members are basing conclusions about the likelihood of a particular series outcome on the performance of an element so naturally unstable as a bullpen, there is inherent danger ahead.
The first problem obviously is that of sample size. Baker’s bullpen may have pitched heroically during the regular season, but the seven regular season relievers who made the postseason roster still accounted for fewer than one-quarter of the team’s regular-season innings, averaging just 48 innings of work apiece.
You can lard those numbers some by adding Garcia and Urquidy, but in doing so you raise the question of whether starting and relieving are identical assignments. Here’s a hint … they’re not.
The problem is compounded by attempting to apply those relatively small sample numbers in an even smaller sample, namely a seven-game series. Apply them over any single game such as Friday’s Game 1 and what you’re really doing is playing a bullpen version of Russian Roulette.
Baker and Thomson both played Bullpen Roulette vigorously Friday, and eventually Baker pulled the trigger once too often. With multiple relievers in play on each side, the prospect that one of them would not have his best stuff was inevitable.
It turned out to be Garcia.
But it could have been Seranthony Dominguez, who was saved from delivering defeat to his team only by the ninth inning fielding wizardry of right fielder Nick Castellanos (a phrase rarely heard this season, by the way). Castellanos raced in to make a diving catch of Jeremy Pena’s sinking fly ball with Jose Altuve racing toward home plate.
Or it might have been Phillies’ closer David Robertson. Protecting that one-run lead in the 10th, he came out of the bullpen to yield a double to Alex Bregman. With two out, he walked Yuli Gurriel, wild pitched the tying and winning runs into scoring position, and would have hit Aledmys Diaz save for plate umpire James Hoye’s decision that Diaz leaned into the pitch.
Robertson then got Diaz on a bouncer to third for the final out, probably just before some fan back in Philly ran out of nitro-glycerin pills.
So the Phillies left Minute Maid with a 6-5 victory and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven. What does it mean for Game 2?
Not much, probably. Both teams will probably be delving deep into their pens again by the middle innings of Saturday’s Game 2, turning the exercise into a baseball version of a Vegas roulette wheel. One manager will continue to dip into his pen until he finds the guy who on that particular night doesn’t have it, and his team will tap out for the evening.
Then we move to Philly for Game 3, rinse and repeat. It is the inescapable nature of the modern game.