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What Didn’t Happen in Game 1 (And What Needs to Happen in Game 2)

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Identifying three key areas of improvement for the White Sox after the loss in the opener.

MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

That certainly wasn’t the result that most of us were hoping for.

In some senses, it was a worst-case scenario: Lance Lynn was erratic and without his best stuff, and the offense simply couldn’t make anything happen, looking fairly anemic from top to bottom. Too many things went wrong in Thursday’s 6-1 loss to pin the blame on any particular person, group, or moment.

There’s a lot to unpack, but at the bottom line, there were a whole lot of a few basic principles of winning baseball that the White Sox could not abide by in Game 1. Some of those are reflective of larger issues. If Lynn is fatigued after doubling his innings total from last year, there’s only so much that can be done.

In spite of what a brutal welcoming to the real postseason this was, it wasn’t an irreversible failure. Zooming out and looking at the big picture, it’s easy to see what the game plan was. For it to succeed in Game 2, there are several basic key areas where better execution could make the difference between a best-of-three series with home field advantage, and a 2-0 hole that would undoubtedly feel fairly insurmountable.

First-Pitch Strikes

The cause of Lynn’s struggles was easily visible to the naked eye, and shows up similarly in the visuals and numbers. At a base level, for whatever reason, he wasn’t executing his pitches in the way he wanted. His control was not sharp, and his pitch chart has the kind of sprawl you don’t want to see out of someone who, as we’re constantly reminded, throws a ton of fastballs:

The lack of consistent execution was particularly evident on 0-0 counts. Lynn threw the ball in the zone on barely 25% of his first pitchers to Houston hitters (six of 20), and routinely missed spots even with Yasmani Grandal set up more or less down the middle (or at least solidly in the zone).

That second clip, of course, resulted in the game’s first run, courtesy of Jake Meyers. Just as they were dominant against fastballs, Houston was also one of the best teams this year when hitting ahead in the count, ranking first in the American League in batting average, second in slugging and wOBA, and third in expected wOBA.

The Astros have also consistently been one of the most patient teams in the league over the last half-decade. They make their hay by getting ahead in the count and then punishing pitchers when they have to come over the plate, because they typically make more contact than most teams. On Thursday, Lynn accommodated them and made it all too easy for Astros hitters to wait and lock in on the pitch they want — or take a walk.

If Lucas Giolito is able to throw his changeup and slider for a strike early in the count, he can keep Astros hitters at bay. Like Lynn, his fastball isn’t quite elite enough to beat the best hitters in the league when they know it’s coming. It’s basic baseball logic, but sometimes easier said than done.

Being Selective (But Not Too Selective)

The White Sox tried to apply the same approach, but McCullers didn’t oblige them. Looking at his pitch chart on 0-0, it’s clear that the Sox came into Thursday’s game with the intention of avoiding early-count chases and making McCullers come to them. They swung at the first pitch just three out of 25 times at the plate against him today. That generally doesn’t happen by accident.

But instead of taking advantage of hitter’s counts like Houston did, the White Sox remained more passive. Even when they did go 1-0, Sox hitters proceeded to take strike one six times without lifting the bat. Of the times they did swing, two were whiffs, and another was a foul ball. On the whole, McCullers drew 23 called strikes out of his 104 pitches, which is the third-most called strikes the Sox have taken against a starter all year. The sentiment is understandable, given that plate discipline (or lack thereof) has been pointed out as a weak spot after Grandal and Yoán Moncada are removed. But it doesn’t appear to be the approach that’s going to get Eloy Jiménez out of his funk.

Executing Deep in Counts

The White Sox walked only once in game one, though it didn’t stem from the free-swinging philosophy that’s generally embodied the non-Grandal and Moncada members of this team. Where Lynn’s difficulties executing pitches and hitting spots with consistency ultimately led to two walks and a lot of difficulty putting hitters away, McCullers saved his best for the moments where he most needed it, consistently throwing strikes when the Sox threatened to grab a free baserunner. Thanks to their early-count autotake policy, the White Sox did in fact find themselves in plenty of deep counts. All in total, they saw 22 pitches with three balls. Yet they wound up with just a single walk.

That wasn’t necessarily the hitters’ fault, either. Houston pitchers simply didn’t throw out of the zone very much with three balls, and all but maybe two of the pitches out or somewhat out of the zone fall well within “too close to take” territory:

The fact that there’s only one red dot in there — an “In Play, No Out” — amid that big cluster of pitches in the middle sums up the White Sox offense’s issues pretty succinctly. Like Lynn, they just couldn’t execute. The odds still wouldn’t have been in their favor, but teams that win in the postseason generally make good on pitches like these:

On the more optimistic side, some of it is still the luck of the draw. You could make an argument that Leury García maybe should have done more with this pitch, but it’s hard to have many complaints about Moncada’s swing today — he just came up a few feet short.

While the approach might still be an issue, some of the little bits of batted-ball luck that prevented this from being much of a game could easily swing the other way on Friday. That goes for both hard outs and for cluster luck, which is to say that if the Sox pick up six hits in three innings tomorrow like they did in the seventh through ninth innings today, there’s a good chance they’ll get more than one run out of it.

Looking Towards Game 2

Beyond that, if the right adjustments are made, there’s reason to believe the White Sox might see better results against Framber Valdez on Friday. McCullers and Valdez were two of just five starters in baseball to walk more than 10% of the hitters they faced this season, and both of them throw fewer first-pitch strikes than most pitchers. At a basic level, it makes sense to apply a more selective approach. Neither pitcher has consistently shown that they can avoid giving free passes to their opponents, if the hitters are willing to let them.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike McCullers, strikeouts aren’t Valdez’s bread and butter. He throws one of the league’s heaviest sinkers in the league over 50% of the time, with unremarkable velocity. He complements that with one of the league’s biggest curveballs, which drops more than five feet on average and gets a lot of swings-and-misses and weak contact. Valdez thrives on how much his pitches move, which makes them hard to control but makes it even harder for hitters to square up.

That being said, if Sox hitters are able to successfully work deep counts as much as they did on Thursday, the odds are that Valdez won’t be able to keep it in the zone or hit a spot in almost every single big moment quite the same as McCullers seemed to do today. At the same time, if White Sox hitters can figure out how to be aggressive enough to start putting good swings on the pitches they were previously taking or fouling off, they’ll probably find it easier to string hits together than they did in game one.

Like most of these things, it’s easier said than done. It’s a fine line between selective aggressiveness and getting baited into bad swings for quick and easy outs, which is how Valdez tends to go deeper into games than most modern starters. It’ll be up to White Sox hitters to find the middle ground between playing into Valdez’s hands and taking their way into situations they can’t hit their way out of. They showed us enough on Thursday — and for much of this season — that even if it’s far from a sure thing, there’s no reason to believe they’re not capable of taking just a few of the breaks they didn’t get yesterday and making the most of them today.