World Series: Phillies’ Zack Wheeler caught off guard after being pulled from season-ending loss

The Philadelphia Phillies‘ chances of winning their first World Series championship since 2008 were dashed on Saturday night, when they lost Game 6 (and thus the best of seven series) to the Houston Astros by a 4-1 final. The most pivotal moment of Game 6 came in the sixth inning, as Phillies manager Rob Thomson replaced the starter Zack Wheeler with reliever José Alvarado. Alvarado later gave up 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 “surprised [him] off guard.”

Thomson, for his part, said he thinks Wheeler still has some good stuff. He simply preferred the match that Alvardo provided against Alvarez.

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

For one, the Phillies have approached Wheeler with a conservative mindset since returning from the season-ending injured list. He hasn’t thrown more than 80 pitches in his last three regular season starts and has thrown less than 90 in his six playoff appearances. The Phillies opted to give him an extra day off not once but twice in the World Series – they could have brought him back for Game 5 on normal rest, but instead decided to give him a full five days off after his match 2 release.

On the other hand, Wheeler was starting his third time in the order – usually the danger zone for starting pitchers. Even pitchers as good as Wheeler suffer from greater exposure to opposition. Namely, his OPS went 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 for a third game in play, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily the best pitcher to face Alvarez.

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

In the aftermath, people were quick to point out that Alvarez has only hit .265 against the lead this season, his lowest for any type of pitch he’s seen with any regularity. Additionally, his .283 average against left-handed sinkers was nearly 60 points lower than his average against any other type of field delivered by left-handers. If you are doing a surface level analysis like this, then yes, lead is the way to go.

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

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

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 many ways, he did his job. Unfortunately, the margin for error is slim when playing against a team as good as the Astros. Alvarado and the Phillies fell on the wrong side.

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