Coming off a needed Game 3 win, the Astros were still in trouble. That win did not erase the fact that they dropped the first two games of the series at home with two of the best starters in baseball in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. For Game 4 they did not have anyone who approached those two or Zack Greinke, so they decided to do a bullpen game.
The idea made sense. The Astros had one of the best bullpens in baseball this year going by RA9, as well as strikeout and walk rates. However, they decided to start the game with a longman in José Urquidy. The Mexican-born pitcher made his debut earlier this season, and he had a solid debut in nine games and seven starts. Over 41 IP, he had a 3.95 RA9 and demonstrated remarkable control, walking only 4.2 percent of batters faced. That control proved to be especially useful against a Nationals team that ranked in the top ten in baseball by walk rate.
I doubt even hardcore prospect junkies were familiar with Urquidy before he made his major league debut, even if they were heavily focused on the Astros’ system. BP’s Jeffrey Paternostro said that he “would have scoffed that he’d be in 2019 major league consideration.” He could not even crack FanGraphs’ Top 39 prospects! Now he just followed up a respectable major league debut season with five shutout inning and zero walks on baseball’s biggest stage.
Unsurprisingly, Urquidy’s .251 WPA was the highest of the game. Despite hitting a grand slam, Alex Bregman’s WPA was barely more than half that at .148, and not all of that was from that home run, because he singled in José Altuve in the top of the first inning. As a matter of fact, that single was worth far more by WPA (.113) than the Grand Slam (.065)!
Remember that WPA is mostly a function of opportunity and luck. Putting your team up 1-0 in the first inning is more impactful than increasing your three-run lead to a seven-run lead in the seventh inning. Furthermore, as compared to Urquidy shutting down the Nats, driving in five runs is not too impactful when the opposing team scores only one run in the entire game.
I wonder what A.J. Hinch was expecting from Urquidy in Game 4. I am sure that he was more than prepared to pull him early if he got into trouble, and planned for two times through the order at the absolute most, but I imagine he was thrilled to get five shutout innings from the guy. Sure enough, the Astros were fortunate to see Urquidy get Yan Gomes to fly out to end the fifth inning, just about ending the second time through the order with the number-eight hitter.
One could have argued that Hinch should have left Urquidy in to begin the sixth inning, and had he done so, I would not have argued with it as long as pulled him immediately after the first batter, because you would not want him to face Trea Turner for the third time.
Anyone could have predicted that Dave Martínez would pinch-hit for Patrick Corbin to begin the sixth, seeing as how the team was down 4-0 and Corbin was not having a good night. It was probably also unsurprising that he pinch-hit with Gerardo Parra, a lefty. Believe it or not, the Astros have no left-handed pitchers on the World Series roster. Urquidy has a good changeup that he likes to throw over a third of the time to lefties, per Brooks Baseball.
Despite the fact that James struck out over 37 percent of batters faced this season, he was also at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Urquidy in terms of control, having walked over 13 percent of batters faced in 2019. Parra can’t really hit anymore and does not walk much, but the last thing the Astros would want is for Parra to set the table for the top of the lineup.
Well, James walked Parra to start off the sixth inning, who then eventually scored the Nationals’ only run of the game on a Juan Soto single, but that hit was not off of James. Hinch pulled him after he walked Adam Eaton, the third batter of the inning. There was one out with runners on first and second, and Anthony Rendon was stepping up to the plate. It made perfect sense to bring in Will Harris for this high leverage situation, who was one of the Astros’ best relievers this season. He could not retire Rendon, but he got out of the inning allowing only one inherited runner to score and minimizing the damage.
To be clear, I am not criticizing Hinch for starting the inning with James, and I never criticize decision making based on results. I am simply breaking down the thought process and an alternate strategy. Starting James in the sixth inning was a reasonable decision. He is a strikeout machine, and I can see the rationale behind wanting to start him off with a clean inning outweighing the idea of playing match-ups with a poor hitter such as Parra.
I doubt we will see Urquidy start another game this series, but there is no way we have seen the last of him if this goes seven. This is certainly shaping up to be an exciting World Series!
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.