Solo homers by Royce Lewis and Edouard Julien were not enough to topple the Astros, who got three runs from Michael Brantley’s solo shot and José Abreu’s two-run job. Minnesota’s unconventional bullpen-day pitching plan worked, but 14 strikeouts and just 5 total baserunners from Twins hitters did them in.
Joe Ryan started the game with a splitter, low and away from known first-pitch fastball ambusher José Altuve, who promptly grounded it to Carlos Correa for the game’s first out. Ryan quickly retired Alex Bregman and Yordan Álvarez to set the Astros down in order in the first.
Edouard Julien jump-started what would end up a big night for him with a lead-off double to the base of the wall in right-center. Unfortunately, he was doubled off when Jorge Polanco’s soft liner was snagged by Jeremy Peña right near the second base bag. This was not a TOOTBLAN by Julien, but instead tremendously poor fortune for the Twins with the ball taking Peña right into place to put a tag on Julien after making the catch.
Royce Lewis then pulsed some energy back into the standing-room-only Target Field crowd with a no-doubt solo home run to left field off a José Urquidy elevated changeup. Twins 1, Astros 0
Ryan started off his second inning by striking out Kyle Tucker and popping up José Abreu. He made his first (and only) mistake of the night when he left a 92.8-mph four-seamer middle-middle to Michael Brantley, who smashed it for a solo home run off the facing of the second deck in right-center. Twins 1, Astros 1
Your favorite uncle's favorite uncle. pic.twitter.com/p9G7rgbfp3— Houston Astros (@astros) October 11, 2023
Ryan would work around another single to finish the inning and Urquidy struck out the Twins side in the bottom half.
With the 9th spot of the Astros order due up to lead off the top of the 3rd inning in front of Altuve and Bregman, we got the game’s first strategic move, which will likely be dissected endlessly in Twins circles in the cold months to come. They replaced Joe Ryan with Brock Stewart.
Pitching Change Sidebar
However you felt then (and feel now) about the Twins’ plan to limit Ryan to one time through the Houston order and then turn it over to their high-leverage bullpen arms probably isn’t going to change from reading what I write about it. Postseason pitching change management in the age of “analytics” has a way of dividing fanbases into mutually exclusive camps that shout at each other on the internet.
I’m uninterested in that. I am interested in thinking through the logic of the Twins’ plan, so I’ll try to do that here.
Joe Ryan, for as much as the Twins and many of us are bullish about his future, has not been a very good pitcher since the end of June. Over 14 appearances and 68 innings from June 27 to the end of the season, Ryan allowed 50 runs (6.62 ERA) and 24 home runs (3.18 HR per nine innings). He was scored on 31 of the 70 different frames (44.2%) he pitched in.
In this moment, the Twins were weighing their assessment of Ryan’s likelihood of allowing more runs in another trip through the top of Houston’s order against the likelihood of their high-leverage relievers doing the same.
Given Ryan’s recent performance in the not-so-small sample detailed above and the hitters he would be facing, it stands to reason that more often than not he’d be expected to give up additional run(s) with another inning or two of work against those hitters. With his challenges with gopher balls, there was an additional, non-trivial risk that those might come on a multi-run homer that could turn the game.
In isolation, Brock Stewart, with his high-octane stuff and performance, and Caleb Thielbar matching up left-on-left probably presented a better chance than Ryan (see more in the table below) to successfully navigate the top and middle of Houston’s order in the 3rd and 4th innings and give the Twins hitters more opportunities to hit in a tied game. This likely drove the decision to make the change when they did.
An additionally understood (and likely accepted) risk of turning to the bullpen this early in the game, and necessitating the use of 5 or 6 relievers to complete the game, is the strong likelihood that one of them wouldn’t have their best day. This is something I wrote about last season at the height of the quick hook strategy the Twins used to navigate around the limitations of Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer.
We can estimate the rough probability that the Twins could reach the end of the game without at least one of the relievers having a bad day by multiplying the relievers’ seasonal meltdown (i.e., an appearance that reduces the team win probability by 6 or more points) percentages. It’s not perfectly apples to apples with Ryan’s data above, but illustrates some of the decision inputs:
At that time, the Twins’ decision-makers were probably worried more about getting to the middle of the game tied or with the lead than they were about what they’d be dealing with toward the end of the game. That tips the scales towards making the move to Stewart and Thielbar, who had perhaps a ~70% chance (0.933 x 0.769 = 0.717) of working through their outings successfully, compared to Ryan’s ~55% best-case scenario chance of doing the same.
It seems clear that they decided if they were going to go down, they were going to do so having used their best relief options when the outcome of the game was still in question instead of saving them for late and close situations that might never come. A poor outcome from that approach does not necessarily equate to it being a bad decision.
Back to the Game Notes
Stewart did his job and worked a 1-2-3 top of the 3rd, while Urquidy ran his strikeout streak to five in a row before Julien drew a two-out walk. He would be stranded when Jorge Polanco grounded out.
Caleb Thielbar was next out of the Twins ‘pen to deal with their lefty-swinging middle of the order. Álvarez continued his terrorizing of Minnesota pitching by poking a soft single to lead off the inning. Thielbar got Kyle Tucker swinging for the first out but then left a fastball belt-high out over the plate that the suddenly red-hot Abreu demolished to the opposite field for a two-run homer. Astros 3, Twins 1
The damage done, Thielbar would get Brantley and give way to Chris Paddack who worked around a single to clean up the inning.
Minnesota went quietly in the bottom of the fourth and fifth innings, while Paddack showcased electric stuff in a dominant two-plus inning stint that should have Twins supporters excited for his rotation return next season.
Julien took his third plate appearance against Urquidy with one out in the bottom of the 6th inning and chipped into the Astros lead with a solo home run to left field. Astros 3, Twins 2
Hector Neris replaced Urquidy (5.2 IP, 3H, 2ER, 1BB, 6K) with two outs and Royce Lewis at the plate. Lewis chased a low splitter to fall behind 1-2, but then laid off three in a row down and away to coax a walk. Max Kepler was next and worked the count to 2-2 where he was rung up on a fastball that was inside and off the plate. Lewis was running on the pitch and Astros’ catcher Martin Maldonado was rising out of his crouch to throw and may have blocked the umpire’s view of the pitch.
It was a ball and a missed call at an inopportune time for the Twins because Lewis would have been safe at second and given the Twins a runner in scoring position with two outs. Instead, the inning was over.
Griffin Jax worked a quick top of the 7th with two strikeouts, while Neris continued working through the bottom half. During that, Carlos Correa laced a line drive better than 108 mph but it was right at Peña at short for another unfortunate out.
Jhoan Duran took over for the Twins in the 8th and went 1-2-3 against the Astros’ 9-1-2 hitters. The bottom of the 8th featured some hopeful excitement for a lightning strike when Byron Buxton made a pinch-hitting appearance with one out, but he was beaten by a 99.7-mph Bryan Abreu heater in the zone and popped out harmlessly.
Duran worked around a one-out single in the top of the 9th to give the Twins one more chance to scratch across the tying run, but Astros’ closer Ryan Pressly punched out Polanco, Lewis, and Kepler in order, punctuating the victory with a perfectly located 94.7-mph fastball on the outside corner after he’d thrown five off-speed pitches to start Kepler’s at-bat.
In the end, the Twins’ pitching strategy for Game 4, however controversial some might think it was, gave them a good chance to win this game. Holding the Astros’ lineup to three runs, with Álvarez and Abreu swinging the way they are, has to be considered a success.
Twins hitters going 3-29, with 14 strikeouts and two walks, and only getting one runner into scoring position in the game tonight was the root cause of this defeat.
That type of production was a familiar storyline for much of the Twins season in 2023. Strong pitching provided plenty of chances, but an offense that failed to put the ball in play enough failed to take full advantage. That core issue proved fatal in October.
In striking out 14 times in each of the home games in the ALDS series, Twins hitters swung at 120 pitches and came up empty 63 times, a whopping 52.5% whiff rate that is approaching twice their season average. They went just 5-38 with runners in scoring position in the playoffs. Diversifying the offense away from its current one-dimensional home run dependence must be a priority this offseason.
- Edouard Julien (2-3, R, HR, 2B, BB)
- Royce Lewis (1-3, R, HR, BB)
- Chris Paddack (2.1 IP, H, 4K)
- Jhoan Duran (2 IP, H, K)
- Rest of Twins’ lineup (0-23, 12K, 2BB)
- Caleb Thielbar (0.2, 2R, HR, Loss)
- The upcoming off-season debate about analytic-driven pitching changes
Comment of the Game
Goes to SooFoo Fan: “I just want to say regardless of what happens tonight, this year has been awesome and you guys rock”
I’ll echo SooFoo and end with a “Thank You” to everyone for participating in our game coverage and reading our other articles at Twinkie Town this season. The past week, with that torturous streak broken and an actual playoff run to enjoy, for better or worse, has been a ton of fun. It has been a treat to actually experience playoff baseball, as CYHusker so expertly articulated in this FanPost earlier this week. The Twins’ future appears bright and we look forward to even better Octobers to be experienced with this community in the seasons to come.
Go Twins Go.