The wheels fell off for the Red Sox during the 6th inning of Game 5
Did manager Alex Cora leave the lefty on the mound too long? Or was this a matter of sound strategy backfiring due to poor execution? Let’s dive into what went wrong for the Red Sox in that pivotal sixth inning.
Sale cruised through five innings, allowing only one run on two hits. Despite that Sale made it through six innings only once this season, Cora felt he could get one more out of the lefty. He had thrown fewer than 80 pitches at that point and finished with a manageable 87. If Sale was going to get the hook after five innings, it wasn’t going to be based on his pitch count.
While he’s shown flashes of brilliance since returning from Tommy John surgery, Sale isn’t all the way back to his former self. The most notable difference is his inability to remain effective deep into games. Sale was lights out this season the first time through the order, holding opposing hitters to a .216 average and .622 OPS. Those numbers took a significant leap the second time through the order when he allowed a .314 average and .868 OPS. Sale didn’t go through the order for a third time often but the .304 average and .819 OPS he allowed in those rare instances explains why.
Jose Altuve led off the sixth inning for his third plate appearance of the game. Altuve hits lefties well and has a strong track record against Sale. That evidence, along with his decline when facing hitters multiple times in the game, was enough reason to question if the Red Sox should stick with their starter. After getting ahead with a first-pitch strike, Sale missed on four consecutive pitches to walk Altuve.
Once Cora had committed to sending Sale out for the sixth inning, he wasn’t going to pull him after the leadoff walk with the left-handed Michael Brantley coming to the plate. Brantley’s 59 wRC+ against lefties was the worst among qualified Astros hitters this season. Sale would have put him away with only one pitch but an error by first baseman Kyle Schwarber allowed Brantley to reach while Altuve advanced to third.
The outcome of this game could have been much different if the Red Sox had recorded at least one out on that play. Instead, the Astros had men on the corners for Alex Bregman, one of the team’s best hitters against lefties (131 wRC+). With another left-handed bat lurking in the on-deck circle, Boston stuck with Sale, who retired Bregman on a ground out that moved Brantley to second base.
The Alvarez at-bat was a critical turning point for the Red Sox
That brought Yordan Alvarez to the plate with two men in scoring position and this is where the decision-making got complicated for Cora. The only hits Sale had allowed in the game were both to Alvarez, including a solo home run in the second inning.
According to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo, the manager explained after the game that he never considered replacing Sale with a reliever to face Alvarez. Part of why he stuck with Sale in the sixth inning to begin with was because Brantley was due up in the inning and if anyone reached, another tough lefty hitter in Alvarez could get an opportunity.
"“I understand how people think, but there were two lefties coming up too in that pocket, right? (Michael) Brantley, who he did an amazing job early on, and we had Alvarez,” Cora said. “Still he is who he is, but he is Chris Sale. He is a lefty. He has made a living getting lefties out.”"
He’s not wrong about Sale’s dominance against left-handed hitters. They were just 4-for-26 (.154) with a .346 OPS against Sale this season. In his career, Sale has held lefties to a .202 average and .526 OPS.
Those numbers don’t carry as much weight against a reverse-splits hitter like Alvarez though. Even if you were to ignore the two hits he already had against Sale in the game, Alvarez owned a 140 wRC+ against lefties this season.
Alvarez ripped a double down the left field line to drive in a pair of runs, extending Houston’s lead to 3-0 and ending Sale’s night.
Was Cora wrong to stick with Sale against Alvarez? The alternative was Ryan Brasier, the only reliever warming up in the bullpen at the time. Brasier has been a trustworthy option at times but his extreme splits are troubling. He’s been outstanding against right-handed hitters but Braiser allowed a .474 average and 1.230 OPS to lefties this year. The Red Sox did not want to use him against Alvarez. Due to MLB’s three-batter rule, Brasier couldn’t have come in earlier without having to face the left-handed Brantley, Alvarez, or possibly both.
Brasier entered the game to strike out Carlos Correa for the second out of the inning but the bottom half of the Astros lineup followed with three consecutive hits to tack on three more runs. A tight ballgame was suddenly out of hand as the Red Sox unraveled in that crucial sixth inning.
Considering Brasier’s struggles against left-handed hitters, the decision to leave Sale in to face Alvarez isn’t as questionable as the approach to the Astros slugger.
Both of Alvarez’s previous hits in the game came on a fastball. Alvarez hit .305 with a .564 SLG against fastballs this season, per Baseball Savant. So what does Sale do? He throws a first-pitch fastball that gets clobbered for a double.
Catcher Christian Vazquez wanted to attack Alvarez high in the zone because he’s a great low-ball hitter but Sale didn’t get his 95 mph four-seamer high enough, leaving it over the plate where the hitter could catch up to it.
Alvarez was less effective against breaking balls, hitting .276 with an expected batting average that was far lower (.255 XBA). You would expect him to have problems with Sale’s filthy slider but using that pitch would be counter-productive to their plan of pitching him up in the zone. Alvarez was much worse against offspeed pitches (.210 average, .410 SLG) but Sale didn’t seem to have a good feel for his changeup, throwing only three in this game. The four-seam fastball was the best option to utilize for their plan to attack high, Sale simply didn’t execute it well enough.
The Red Sox could have intentionally walked Alvarez with first base open before sending Brasier in to strikeout Correa. That would have forced Brasier to face the left-handed Kyle Tucker with the bases loaded, although that’s no worse than facing him with a runner on second and two runs already in. Tucker reached on an infield single but there’s at least a possibility that the Red Sox could have turned that into an out if there was a force play at every base.
Cora is going to shoulder much of the blame for his bullpen management but the manager didn’t have many great options. The Astros wisely staggered their lineup by alternating their right-handed and lefty bats, making it difficult to count on relievers who struggle against hitters on either side of the plate. Houston led the majors in runs scored this season and their lineup poses a threat to any pitcher.
We can second-guess the manager with the benefit of hindsight regarding his decisions. The bottom line is that neither pitcher he trusted in that inning was able to execute. Sale could have been pulled before facing Alvarez or he could have thrown him a different pitch. Maybe they should have just walked him. We don’t know if it would have panned out differently if the manager made a different choice. What we do know is that this was the turning point in the game where the Red Sox let their last home game of the series slip away.