You know that old saying “It’s better to be lucky than good?” Yeah, that definitely applies to the Guardians’ Wednesday night win against the Tigers. It’s hard to argue with what Matt Lyons wrote in our recap: “Just so many dumb, improbable things happening at once.”
But just how improbable was this eighth inning? Let’s dig in.
To start, consider the Tigers’ win probability. At the beginning of the eighth, the Tigers had an 84.4% probability of winning, which rose to 88.5 and a game-high of 91.3% after consecutive strikeouts from Owen Miller and Andrés Giménez. This brought the Guardians to their last four outs against a good bullpen. It feels a bit weird describing anything about the 45-75 Tigers as “good,” but their bullpen certainly qualifies. By fWAR (5.2) and FIP (3.31), the Detroit bullpen is the fourth best in all of baseball, right in between the Yankees and Dodgers. Because their starters are so poor (4.6 fWAR, 26th in MLB), the Tigers’ bullpen has also logged more innings (456.1) than any other team in the top 10 of fWAR except the Orioles (466).
Luke Maile struck out, which would have been the end of the eighth inning had Andrew Chafin’s third strike not sailed wide of Eric Haase’s glove. Thanks to perhaps baseball’s most bizarre rule, Maile was able to get to first safely and keep the inning alive. I can’t find a statistic as to how often batters reach on third strikes, but it’s much easier to peg how often Chafin throws a wild pitch: Entering Wednesday, Chafin had thrown 39 innings, faced 159 batters, and only thrown one (1!) wild pitch. For his career, Chafin has faced 1,596 batters and only thrown 17 wild pitches (including last night), which means 1% of the batters he’s ever faced have seen a wild pitch — and the number of those that occurred on third strikes is absolutely smaller.
Myles Straw, he of the .206 average and 59 wRC+ this season, kept the inning alive with a single in the next at-bat. Clutch hits from Straw have been especially unlikely this year, as he’s posted a WPA -3.11 this year, weighed down by FanGraphs’ Clutch measurement of -0.68 (his career-worst). But Chafin, who rarely makes mistakes this year (2.43 FIP), made a mistake and threw the ball up and away to Straw – the closest thing to a nitro zone Straw has. In that area, Straw is hitting .333, but pitchers seem to know better than to pitch him there and have only thrown him pitches in that area 4.8% of the time this season. Straw pounded the ball into the ground, but hit it with enough power to register a .400 xBA and get himself to first to keep the inning going.
In the subsequent at-bat, Steven Kwan hit a fly ball at 76.9 mph off the bat with a launch angle of 42 degrees, which gave it an xBA of just .090. Even though fewer than 1 in 10 hits that come off the bat similarly fall for a hit, Kwan had the good fortune of dropping his fair and on the rubberized track, sending it into the stands for a ground-rule double. However, Kwan even hitting a fly ball is something of a rarity. As described by Justin Choi, he’s been steadily decreasing the number of fly balls he’s hitting over the last 60 games because “when Kwan hits a fly ball with his modicum of power, it’s almost guaranteed to become an out,” which is borne out in his .198 average on fly balls. His fly ball on Wednesday, though, that one wasn’t an out.
Amed Rosario has been rather incredible for Cleveland so far, but he hasn’t been very clutch. Though he’s on track for career highs in fWAR (2.3 so far) and wRC+ (108 currently), he has the worst WPA (-0.76) and Clutch measurement (-0.47) since his first full season in MLB. And yet, the ball he struck at 65.2 mph with a launch angle of -55 degrees was an RBI infield hit that tied the game.
After his bad luck with Rosario, certainly Tigers fans thought Alex Lange was due for a break. After all, he’s been pretty remarkable this season, pitching 47.1 innings with an ERA of 3.61, FIP of 2.97, and K/9 of 11.97. He’s been particularly great with his curveball, which by FanGraphs’ weighted pitch values is the most valuable curveball among qualified relievers, at 5.9. Lange even located the pitch well, just scraping the very bottom of the strike zone. Unfortunately for him, he was facing José Ramírez, who annihilates curveballs. This year Ramírez is averaging .556 and slugging .778, and he did his thing to give Cleveland a lead when Lange threw him one of his favorites.
There’s so much that is improbable about Oscar Gonzalez so far, but that’s a subject for a whole separate article. For the sake of this article, the fact that the biggest and loudest hit of the Guardians’ eighth inning — 93.9 mph at a 33-degree launch angle, travelling 349 feet off the bat — was the least likely hit of the whole parade, with an expected batting average of .080. An out in so many other stadiums, instead this rebounded off the left field wall like a kid in a SpongeBob bounce house. God bless Progressive Field.
Finally, we come to Owen Miller, whose single drove in the sixth and final run of Cleveland’s insane eighth inning. With a .950 xBA, his hit was the most likely of any ball struck that inning – except for, you know, all the stuff that happened before it that allowed it to happen. But Miller probably shouldn’t have been in the game at all. Daniel Norris, the Tigers starter, is a lefty, which is kind of like Miller’s kryptonite: this year versus lefties, Miller is hitting a paltry .186 with a wRC+ of just 67. Given the options at first base at Terry Francona’s disposal (excluding Josh Naylor, who tweaked something the last time he played the field), there was little rationale beyond gut feeling for playing Miller on Wednesday night. Miller played and plated the sixth run of the eighth inning and provided yet another example of how silly baseball can be sometimes.
It would have been easy for this team to have given up on the game Wednesday night. After the frustrating and confusing way the team lost Tuesday, the players could have just, “[gone] home with their tail between their legs and stew on a disappointing series,” as Lyons added in the recap.
But they didn’t. They fought.
Certainly the Guardians were lucky, all of the things described above don’t happen if you’re not lucky. But the team put itself in position to get lucky by not giving up, and I’d say that’s pretty damn good too.