World Series: Phillies’ Zack Wheeler caught ‘off guard’ at being taken out of season-ending loss

The Philadelphia Phillies‘ chances of capturing their first World Series championship since 2008 were dashed on Saturday night, when they lost Game 6 (and therefore the best-of-seven series) to the Houston Astros by a 4-1 final. The most pivotal moment of Game 6 happened in the sixth inning, as Phillies manager Rob Thomson replaced starter Zack Wheeler with reliever José Alvarado. Alvarado subsequently surrendered a three-run home run to Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez.

After the game, Wheeler admitted that Thomson’s decision to remove him from the game “caught [him] off guard.”

Thomson, for his part, said that he thought Wheeler still had good stuff. He simply preferred the matchup Alvardo provided against Alvarez.

Wheeler’s final line saw him work 5 1/3 innings, surrendering two runs on three hits and a walk. He struck out five and threw 49 of his 70 pitches for strikes. Despite his success through the first five-plus innings and his low pitch count, his removal from Saturday night’s contest probably shouldn’t have come as too big of a surprise.

For one, the Phillies have approached Wheeler with a conservative mindset since he returned from the injured list late in the season. He didn’t throw more than 80 pitches in his final three regular-season starts, and threw fewer than 90 in all six of his postseason appearances. The Phillies opted to give him an additional day of rest not once but twice in the World Series — they could’ve brought him back for Game 5 on normal rest, yet decided instead to give him a full five days off after his Game 2 outing.

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For another, Wheeler was embarking on his third time through the order — typically the danger zone for starting pitchers. Even pitchers as good as Wheeler suffer with more exposure to the opposition. To wit, his OPS swelled from .609 and .583 the first two times he saw a batter in a game during the regular season to .722 the third time. That’s still better than the league-average mark for a third in-game matchup, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily the best pitcher to face Alvarez.

Indeed, Alvarado had allowed a .630 OPS against lefties this season, and a .585 OPS overall. It was reasonable to think he had a better chance of retiring Alvarez — and, perhaps, even inducing an inning-ending double play — for other reasons, too. As we wrote as part of our preview of the top five World Series matchups:

In the aftermath, people were quick to point out that Alvarez hit only .265 against sinkers this season, his lowest for any pitch type that he saw with regularity. What’s more is that his .283 average against left-handed sinkers was nearly 60 points lower than his average against any other pitch type delivered from southpaws. If you’re doing a surface-level analysis like this, then yes, the sinker is the way to go.

Add it all up, and Alvarado was a defensible pick in that position. It just didn’t work out.

Alvarado, who generated nearly 60 percent of grounders during the regular season, simply threw a bad pitch: a sinker that caught too much of the plate. Alvarez crushed it, some 450 feet to center field, and that was that. That’s the beauty and the agony of baseball, especially in the postseason: what makes sense on paper doesn’t always translate.

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Still, you can understand Wheeler’s position. He wanted to deliver for his team and keep them alive in the fight for a World Series title. In most respects, he did his job. Unfortunately, there’s a thin margin of error afforded when playing against a team as good as the Astros. Alvarado and the Phillies just fell on the wrong side of it.

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