In the age of analytics in baseball, a lot of longtime fans still appreciate the old-school ways. As baseball's oldest manager, Houston's Dusty Baker has plenty of old school in him. It turns out that his ace pitcher is pretty happy about that.
Baker bucked metrics-fueled trends in pitcher usage Wednesday during the sixth inning of the Astros' 4-3 Game 4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series in San Diego, sticking with Zack Greinke after a mound visit at a point when many managers would have gone to the bullpen. The decision helped save Houston's season, as Greinke wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam and turned over a lead to the Astros' bullpen.
Houston now trails 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
"I can't lie to you: There were some prayers there on the way back to the dugout," Baker said. "Sometimes I talk to my dad, and I just get a feeling."
Houston had just grabbed the lead in the bottom of the fifth at Petco Park on George Springer's two-run homer. Then the Rays put two runners on base with one out and the red-hot Randy Arozarena stepping to the plate. Baker strode to the mound to assess the situation and returned to the dugout alone, leaving in Greinke.
Greinke struck out Arozarena on a checked swing for the second out. Then Ji-Man Choi bounced an infield single that Carlos Correa cut off from going into the outfield, preserving a run but loading the bases for Mike Brosseau. Baker had righties Cristian Javier and Ryan Pressly throwing in the bullpen.
Baker once again stuck with Greinke, who struck out Brosseau with a changeup, snuffing the Rays' threat.
"I was just saying it was nice having someone have confidence in me," Greinke said. "Because since I've been here, they haven't seemed to have confidence in my ability. So it was nice having that happen in an important time like that."
The sequence was the inverse of a recent, painful memory for Astros fans. During Game 7 of last year's World Series, Greinke mowed through the Washington Nationals' lineup, shutting them down for 6⅓ innings with a low pitch count.
Greinke then gave up a solo homer to Washington's Anthony Rendon, which cut Houston's lead to 2-1, and walked Juan Soto. He had faced 22 batters but thrown only 80 pitches, yet former Astros manager AJ Hinch did what most modern managers do with a starter who is into his third time through the order. Hinch pulled Greinke.
Reliever Will Harris entered, and Washington's Howie Kendrick poked a two-run homer off the right-field foul pole, propelling the Nationals to the championship. Greinke said that sequence was one of the lack-of-confidence instances to which he alluded.
When Brosseau came up with the bases loaded, Greinke had again faced 22 batters, and his pitch count was 87. Baker's patience was buoyed by his mound visit, during which he talked not to Greinke but to catcher Martin Maldonado, who vouched for his pitcher.
"My plan was to take him out, but I wasn't really convinced of my plan," Baker said. "Sometimes you look in the guy's eyes, sometimes you listen to the catcher, and you do what you gotta do."
Baker, 71, has long been known as a by-the-gut manager, few of whom are left in baseball. The Astros established a reputation as one of baseball's most analytically forward organizations during their rise to prominence in recent years. But after the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the Astros and baseball last winter, Baker's ability to relate to players and reputation for integrity landed him the job of replacing Hinch.
Meanwhile, Greinke has long been known as one of baseball's more cerebral and creative pitchers. It turns out that Baker's old-school ability to read players and not numbers is a trait Greinke values.
"He reads people really good, and I don't think I've seen him make a wrong decision when he sees [something]," Greinke said. "He's been right 100% of the time. Not everyone has that skill. Not many people do. He's been impressive in that regard, for sure."
As for Baker, it's hard for him to not have a good bit of old school in him, given that his managerial career began in 1993 and his playing career began at the big league level in 1968, when Hank Aaron was among his teammates.
He mentioned the factors in the decision to leave Greinke in: the gravity of the contest, the third-time-through-the-order factor, Arozarena's status as the hottest hitter in the playoffs and the fact that Arozarena homered against Greinke earlier in the game.
Why did Baker leave Greinke in?
"I don't know," Baker said. "Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't."