A WORLD SERIES RECORD FOR HOME RUNS WAS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE CHAOS THAT ENGULFED ASTROS-DODGERS. THE CLASH BETWEEN TWO ANALYTICS-HEAVY SUPERTEAMS WAS NOTHING LESS THAN THE DISTILLATION OF MODERN BASEBALL (AND MAYBE SOME POSTMODERN BASEBALLS) INTO A SERIES OF WILD THRILLS
SOMEWHERE AMONG Minute Maid Park's mammoth retractable roof, the ginormous train rolling on tracks 200 feet off the ground, the battalions of overworked long-whiskered relievers, the curiously lively and slick baseballs, the data provided by Harvard Ph.D.'s to help a manager run a game, the color-coded, pocket-sized laminated cards that tell outfielders where to stand, the paranoia-driven mound summits and—above it all—the constant shelling of home runs, one of which didn't even require two hands on the bat, the World Series became an extravaganza, a term 18th century Italians came up with to define over the top. On the spectrum of spectacles, October baseball this year moved further from Sandy Koufax and closer to Lady Gaga—two famous lefthanders of differing aesthetics who attended Game 1 in Los Angeles.
The Dodgers and the Astros played a brand of baseball that didn't exist three years ago, never mind back in Koufax's day of long shadows and short games. It was as if both teams took all the major trends in the game, chucked them in a blender and hit puree. Out spilled a concoction that thrilled in ways never before seen or imagined.
"I haven't seen a whole lot of World Series games," said Enrique Hernández, L.A.'s 26-year-old utility player, as he walked toward one of his team's three buses at the absurd baseball hour of 1:30 a.m. on Monday, after Game 5 in Houston. "But this has to be the craziest Series ever. Two juggernauts going at it. This has to be one of the best ever."
And Hernández's team lost Game 5, a baseball burlesque that would have made Gaga blush. The Astros overcame three Dodgers leads and blew one of their own before finally prevailing 13--12 in 10 innings, after five hours and 17 minutes. It was a Busby Berkeley production that put Houston one win from the 55-year-old franchise's first world championship. And it was set to an original score: None of the previous 1,542 postseason games had ended 13--12.
Through five games the teams had combined for 51 pitcher appearances, trying, and failing, to stem a home run tide. The 22 longballs broke the record set in the 2002 World Series, the last one before steroid testing, and amounted to more than in the 2012, '13 and '14 Series put together. Balls flew out at a rate of one every 15.8 at bats—essentially turning every hitter into Willie McCovey—a huge 44.0% increase over a regular season that produced a record bounty of 6,105 home runs, or roughly 463 miles worth of dingers.
Someday, L.A. ace Clayton Kershaw will have to try to explain this extravaganza to his son. For now, though, Charley is just 11½ months old, and after Game 5 was more than content with the simpler things in life: a pacifier and a cozy place in his father's arms at the front of the caravan of buses. His dad, the Koufax of our generation, actually started the 13--12 theatrics against another former Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Keuchel, making the night all the more bizarre.
"This is the game that they wanted," Kershaw said of the seven-homer slugfest, "so this is the game we got."
Kershaw was gone before the fifth inning ended. With 39 sliders, he obtained only one swing and miss—his lowest whiff count on the pitch in his past 134 starts. His troubles echoed those of Dodgers Game 3 starter Yu Darvish (zero swings and misses on his slider for the first time in 34 starts this year) and Astros Game 2 starter Justin Verlander (one swing and miss on the pitch for the first time in 36 starts this year of more than two innings), each of whom told SI that the unusual slickness of the World Series ball made throwing the pitch difficult, a claim supported by both pitching coaches, Brent Strom of the Astros and Rick Honeycutt of the Dodgers. (MLB officials denied any change to the ball other than the ink color.)
When asked if the ball affected his slider, Kershaw grinned, shrugged and said, "It's the same for both teams."
So preposterous was Game 5 that Houston outfielder George Springer could think of only one thing to say to Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger after drawing a walk in the 10th inning: "I need a sandwich."
On the next pitch, the 417th of the night, facing closer Kenley Jansen, third baseman Alex Bregman swatted a single into leftfield that brought home pinch runner Derek Fisher from second with the delirious 25th and deciding run.
HOW DID we get here? How could it be that only three years ago, in the pits of an offensive downturn, the rate of home runs was the lowest since 1992 and the batting average was the worst since the DH was added in '73? Verlander fished around his locker for an answer and found it: a printout that showed the probability of home runs in 2014 and '17 based on the same two variables, the launch angle and the exit velocity off the bat.
"Look, a ball hit 97 mph with this launch angle is much more likely to be a home run this year than it was three years ago," Verlander said. "In other words, a ball hit the same exact way is much more likely to be a home run now than it was in 2014. What changed? The variables are the same. Only the ball changed."
Home runs spiked suddenly in the final two months of the 2015 season, and have continued to surge. Around the same time, the analytics movement in baseball matured and became so widespread that it began to change how baseball is played, not just analyzed. In the fourth round in '13, for instance, the Dodgers drafted Bellinger, a first baseman/outfielder from Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz., with a flat, line-drive stroke. He had gone deep once his senior year. "And that one bounced on the top of the fence and over," he said.
Bellinger hit four home runs combined in his first two pro seasons, after which the Dodgers assigned him to work with Shawn Wooten, one of the organization's hitting instructors. Wooten told Bellinger he had to hit the ball in the air, not on the ground, and changed his swing to create more loft. Bellinger promptly hit 30 homers in Class A the next year, and a National League rookie record 39 this year. (He also whiffed 146 times, 13th most in the league.)
Hitters old and young began changing their swing to get more loft. L.A. third baseman Justin Turner revamped his stroke after the 2013 season, and transformed from a guy the Mets released to one the Dodgers will pay $64 million over four years. Outfielder Chris Taylor, upon being left off L.A.'s postseason roster last year, reported to hitting consultants Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc in Arizona for an overhaul. After belting one career homer, Taylor smacked 21 this year. When the Astros took Bregman with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, they told him his days of hitting ground balls were over, then commenced tweaking his stroke.
"Nobody wants to hit the ball on the ground anymore," says L.A. manager Dave Roberts. "Especially with the shift now, you hit the ball on the ground, you're out."
You know analytics have arrived when laminating becomes a required skill for coaches. Before each World Series game, first base and outfield coach George Lombard would print sheets of paper with positioning charts for the Dodgers' outfielders, cut them out, then run them through a laminator. It's a system the team used during the regular season but took a step further in the postseason, creating new diagrams tailored to who was on the mound. Each time L.A. made a mid-inning pitching change, a ball boy would grab new cards from Lombard and run them to the outfielders.
Welcome to the World Series of analytics. Not only did this Fall Classic pit two 100-plus-win teams for the first time in the free agent era (the last such matchup was in 1970), but also two of the most advanced sabermetric staffs. The Dodgers, for instance, employ a senior analyst in research and development, Dan Cervone, who studied math and statistics at Chicago, interned at Google, earned a Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard, served a data science fellowship at NYU and turned down offers from hedge funds so he could crunch baseball stats—or more accurately, according to his website, focus on "spatiotemporal data and hierarchal models, with particular application to sports analytics and player tracking data."
Houston has been at the forefront of using spin rates to sign pitchers (Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton)and of using technology to enhance performance. After being acquired from the Tigers on Aug. 31, Verlander has prospered from footage from the high-speed video camera that films bullpen sessions. The Astros had won all 10 games Verlander pitched for them heading into Game 6 in L.A., including a wild 7--6, 11-inning victory in Game 2, the prequel to their epic Game 5 win.
"If we're in a slugfest, my money is on this team," Bregman said. "We bang. We're the best hitting team in baseball. Their bullpen is really good, and I don't want to sound like a [jerk], but we'll go toe-to-toe with anyone and win."
Meanwhile, during the Series, the rest of baseball was trying to close ground on Los Angeles and Houston. Three playoff teams let veteran managers go—the Yankees' Joe Girardi, 53; the Red Sox' John Farrell, 55; and the Nationals' Dusty Baker, 68—and searched for their own versions of World Series managers (and good friends) Roberts, 45, and A.J. Hinch, 43. They sought skippers who could connect with young players and are fluent in analytics. The game has changed so much in a short time that experience has lost its cachet.
Boston hired Astros bench coach Alex Cora, 42, and Washington went with Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, 53, neither of whom have managed previously. The Yankees had not found their Roberts yet, but they did send an email to Chicago masters students looking for a quantitative analyst associate and summer intern to work on "projects related to player evaluation, player development, and/or in-game strategy."
THE WORLD SERIES proved how much the quants are driving in-game strategy. As teams emphasize using more bullpen arms for larger chunks of games, this year's winner will have pulled its starters after five innings or less in the regular season more than any other champ, whether it's the Dodgers (76) or the Astros (61). Such strategy had worked fine for Los Angeles, which had been 93--0 with a lead entering the ninth inning, until Roberts pulled starter Rich Hill after four innings in Game 2, starting a bullpen cascade that ended with a rusty Brandon McCarthy taking the loss.
The it-takes-a-village school of bullpen management took a firmer hit in Game 5, always a dicey proposition because it's the only time in a Series when clubs play for a third straight day. By then relievers for the Dodgers and the Astros were either overworked, overexposed or both.
The risk never was more obvious than when Roberts, after saying before the game that he wasn't going to use Brandon Morrow, plugged the righty into the seventh inning with an 8--7 lead. Morrow had called the dugout from the bullpen to say he felt well enough to pitch for the 12th time in the past 13 games. The Astros scored four times on four vicious swings on Morrow's first six deliveries.
"I don't know how many times I've said, 'This is the craziest game of my life,' in the past couple of weeks," said winner Joe Musgrove, the only one among 14 pitchers in the game who got at least three outs without giving up a run. He also was one of the 11 bearded pitchers among the 14, adding a Comic Con tinge to the show. "But now this is the craziest game of my life."
Only one World Series game saw more runners cross home plate: a 15--14 win for Toronto in Philadelphia in Game 4 in 1993. That game included only three home runs, and mostly featured singles (19 of them) skittering across a wet artificial field. This one had 11 singles and 14 balls that smacked off or over the outfield wall, including a two-run, single-handed shot in the 10th from L.A. slugger Yasiel Puig.
That game was an anomaly; this game was a signature. In just three years baseball has increased its home runs in a season by 1,919 and pitching changes by 1,198. The great sweep of rapid change—the swing paths, the data-driven decision-making, the parade of relievers, the consequences of a livelier ball that gets airborne—vacuum-packed itself into one World Series. The sheer density of it all was extravagant.
"THIS HAS TO BE THE craziest Series ever," SAID HERNÁNDEZ. "TWO JUGGERNAUTS GOING AT IT."
YOU KNOW ANALYTICS HAVE ARRIVED WHEN laminating becomes a required skill FOR COACHES.