The Mighty Bat Of Yordan Alvarez Is Inescapable
9:18 AM EDT on October 14, 2022
Seattle Mariners starter Luis Castillo had a sensible strategy for facing Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez Thursday, and from a certain perspective he executed it. Alvarez is a guy who bashes the absolute bejeezus out of the ball: This season he's in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity, in the percentage of times that he makes barreled contact with the ball, in the percentage of times that that contact produces a hard hit, in expected slugging percentage, in expected batting average, and more. When he makes contact, he smokes the ball. He's a respectably selective and judicious hitter, but in all cases it's better to hope he will swing and miss at something off the plate than to challenge him inside the zone. The Mariners paid dearly for throwing strikes to Alvarez in Game 1 of this series, when the Houston slugger ended the game with a three-run walk-off dinger on the second of two consecutive pitches thrown over the plate. Castillo was determined not to make the same mistake, and in the most literal terms, he did not.
In Alvarez's first plate appearance, with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the first inning, Castillo did not throw a pitch really anywhere close to the strike zone. The fifth of these, a 2–2 change-up a solid six inches below the zone, tempted Alvarez into taking a cut, and he trickled a harmless grounder back toward the mound, where Castillo had the satisfaction of throwing him out at first base to complete the clean inning. In Alvarez's second plate appearance, with the Astros down 2–1 in the fourth but with delightful rookie Jeremy Peña on second base, Castillo tripled up on the change-up, daring to throw the third of these, on a 2–0 count, just at the bottom of the zone, inducing an important but terrifying swing-and-miss. Castillo's next pitch was up and away, but Alvarez took a mighty cut and flew out harmlessly to shallow left. In two at-bats versus Alvarez, Castillo had tested the interior of the strike zone on just one of nine pitches, and had produced two outs. Until Alvarez and the Astros forced a situation where Castillo had to test the zone—a three-ball count, for example—the smart thing to do was to make Alvarez do extraordinary work to get the barrel of his bat into contact with the ball. It's not cowardly, but neither is it the boldest way of facing an opposing slugger. It's an acknowledgement that there are times when the rewards for being bold and aggressive are not worth the risks.
Castillo may choose to remember this differently. To hear him tell it, he went out there and danced with the toro, treating Alvarez the way he would, say, Victor Robles. “It’s not just him, it’s against any batter. I always go with that mindset: If you’re good, I’m good, too,” Castillo said after the game. “I came with the same plan of just getting him out.” I don't want to necessarily say that this is complete bullshit, but I would like to note that Castillo threw 65 pitches into the strike zone Thursday, and just one of them was thrown to Yordan Alvarez across three at-bats. There's trying to get a guy out, and then there's hoping that a guy will get himself out, and while both are perfectly valid in the crucible of playoff baseball, the whole idea of the latter is that it risks less than the former. Against Yordan Alvarez, in a close game, taking any risks at all starts to look like sheer madness.
Castillo continued this same careful approach in his next and final face-off with Alvarez, in the sixth inning, with the score locked at 2–1. It took some misfortune for Castillo to even have this dreaded third exposure to the heart of Houston's lineup: With two outs and Castillo cruising along, Peña took an ill-advised cut on a 98-mph sinker boring in on his hands and was jammed badly, popping up into very shallow center field. Mariners second baseman Adam Frazier and insanely cool rookie center fielder Julio Rodriguez both chased the ball in the air, but it found a square of grass directly between them to fall for a disgraceful bloop single. Castillo took this like a man who'd been sentenced to death by firing squad:
Castillo's first pitch to Alvarez was off the plate by a good six inches, but in an ominous bit of foreshadowing, Alvarez took a strong rip and fouled it off. What Castillo did next is perfectly sane and reasonable in 99 percent of circumstances: Having thrown a pitch outside of the strike zone and induced a chase, he decided to double up, and threw the exact same pitch to more or less the exact same spot. It missed the strike zone outside, but unfortunately it failed to miss the barrel of Alvarez's bat, and that is how baseballs are sent screaming into hell.
Both games of the series have now been won by Yordan Alvarez go-ahead dingers after the sixth inning. Alvarez becomes the first player in MLB postseason history to hit more than one go-ahead home run while trailing in the sixth inning or later, which, yes, is one of those weird, ultra-specific parsings of baseball history, but which nevertheless gives you an idea of how cool and rare it is for a player to hit big clutch dingers in back-to-back playoff games. The Mariners are certainly devastated: "It makes me sick that he’s beat us two in a row single-handedly," said Seattle catcher Cal Raleigh, who was behind the plate for both blasts. "It wasn’t a terrible pitch, but that’s kind of how it goes."
They tried pitching him in the zone, and they tried pitching him out of the zone. In Alvarez's fourth and final plate appearance Thursday, Mariners manager Scott Servais tried a third approach: not pitching to him at all. In the bottom of the eighth, with two outs and Peña on first, Servais disgustedly waved four fingers and had reliever Andrés Muñoz issue an intentional walk. Alex Bregman punched the very next pitch into right field to plate an insurance run.