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ANAHEIM, Calif. — There was this baseball game about a month ago, Gerrit Cole of the Houston Astros pitching against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the seventh inning. The score was tied. There was one out. A man was at third for the Rays.
The batter was, as Cole recalled, "The big guy, first baseman, used to be in Milwaukee, Aguilar."
Jesus Aguilar, a right-handed hitter, bounced a single through the left side.
"Rolled it over," Cole said. "Like a four-hopper."
The run scored, the Rays led by a run, and Cole pitched to one more batter. He struck out Mike Zunino. In the end the Astros won anyway and a month later Cole would be standing with his arms crossed, nearing the end of a season that so far has netted 19 wins and 316 strikeouts. He's scheduled for one more start, Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels.
And the story he told was of that one batter — Aguilar — and that one situation — man on third, one out, guy known to strike out some in the on-deck circle — and how in retrospect maybe he should have intentionally walked the first guy and pitched to the second.
"It wasn't a thought when I was on the mound," he said. "And, you know, in the end, if the ball was four or five feet in either direction it doesn't come to mind."
The significance is, the Astros have not intentionally walked a batter this season. They have not intentionally walked a batter since Aug. 17, 2018. (It was Oakland's Jed Lowrie, by reliever Hector Rondon.) They intentionally walked four batters all of last season, the fewest since at least 1955, when that statistic was first recognized. They've not intentionally walked a batter, then, in 201 regular-season games or in the eight postseason games amidst those. The average number of intentional walks in the American League (where walking the batter in front of the pitcher is an infrequent option) this season is 18. Last season the average was 21. In 2017, the first season of the no-pitch intentional walk, the average was 25, including the Astros' 17.
So the question was put to Cole: Does he know the significance of him vs. Travis Shaw on Sept. 12, 2017, in Milwaukee?
"He homered off me?" he asked.
It was the last intentional walk he issued, and only the sixth of his career.
And to Justin Verlander: Aug. 25, 2017, in Chicago against Jose Abreu?
The last of his 27 career intentional walks.
Course, there'd hardly ever be a reason for Cole or Verlander to surrender to anyone, so they perhaps aren't the best examples. The Astros have had 22 other pitchers appear in games this season, along with two position players, and together they've faced nearly 6,000 batters. Not once has manager A.J. Hinch held up four fingers, or at least not in this context.
Somewhere between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, Hinch appeared to become dubious about the benefits of the intentional walk, filling an open base, ducking an unusually adept batter, threading out a matchup, introducing a force play on the infield and any of the other plays for a perceived advantage. And, by 2019, he'd become wholly sold on the notion that every 90 feet, particularly the first 90 feet, would have to be earned.
You know, so far.
"I've had quite honestly a handful of times where I've mentioned to [bench coach Joe] Espada and [pitching coach] Brent Strom that I'm going to walk such and such if this happens and then it hasn't materialized," Hinch said. "So, whether that be a National League game, I was going to walk [Christian] Yelich. I go into every series assuming I'm going to walk Mike Trout. But the game has to dictate that. If the game doesn't make it a smart play I don't believe in putting baserunners on for free. If you do study the intentional walks, we always remember the ones that work out that seem like a great managerial move. But, more times than not, I just feel like it's putting undue stress on your pitching staff in a game that's built around failure where you can get that guy out."
By that, he meant that in the worst scenario (for the pitcher), the man at the plate averages three hits in 10 at-bats and so does the man in the on-deck circle. That varies from matchup to matchup, but those are the averages. It is notable, again, that Hinch speaks as the manager of the league's best rotation for two years running, so that three-out-of-10 is probably optimistic. What he's saying is, he trusts his guys to make pitches and get outs and would rather not complicate matters with unearned baserunners.
"If it's extreme, I'm not against it," he said. "I'm going to use it again. I'm going to do it again. I'm unlikely to do it this weekend. Not to set the season record or try to make a big deal out of it, but just because of the way the games are being played. We've already clinched. We're trying to work through a couple things. And I like the stress on our pitchers. So, it's just not as smart a play as often as it's put in play.
"I think there's a number of things that we do that other teams don't do as often. We play very aggressively infield-in in the first three innings. That's not something traditionally teams have done but I love that our pitchers know that I'm trying to put pressure on their offense to have to score. It's going to be hard to score against us. Secondly, while an open base is a consideration for a lot, I want our pitchers to find ways to get these hitters out. Again, there are extremes and there are situations where it makes total sense to do it, and I will do it again. Sometimes belief in your pitchers is a powerful thing."
Hinch said he'd once asked Verlander about pitching through potentially dangerous situations, and how in the past his managers might signal to him that this was a moment in which to be careful.
"He's like," Hinch said, "'I've never really pitched around anyone in my career.' "
"Especially," Verlander said Friday, "in the regular season, when you're playing the long game."
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow did not recall a thunderbolt moment in which a handful of baseball operations guys were hanging out, talking ball, when someone shouted, "Intentional walks are dumb," leading to broad agreement and toasts to the memory of the dumb intentional walk.
"I wish there was a moment like that," he said with a chuckle. "A.J. has a really good feel for what he has to do to win games."
So the Astros shift, they choke off runs earlier than most (or try) and, for another, they pitch through places where other organizations might seek the softer landing. Their staff had struck out an MLB-best 1,636 batters in 2019, with still three games to play, 51 off their record from last season. So, Hinch leans to that.
Maybe that changes slightly in the coming postseason, and almost certainly could were the Astros to reach the World Series and play games in a National League park and by National League sensibilities. And even then …
"As far as we know, we don't walk anybody," Cole said. "So there you go. Basically we have a Pavlovian response."
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