Three Strikes: Unheralded starters get ball on ALDS elimination day
The four American League teams remaining will have their postseason fates decided today in a pair of Games 5. Two of them, the Rangers and Royals, give the ball to exactly the pitcher they would want in that spot, the veteran ace they acquired three months ago for such big spots: Cole Hamels and Johnny Cueto, respectively.
And then there are the Blue Jays and Astros, who will be handing the ball to underdogs: Marcus Stroman and Collin McHugh. It’s one of the many great treats postseason holds for us every year: The ball doesn’t always wind up in the best pitchers’ hands when a team most needs a victory. But Stroman, who goes at home against Texas, and McHugh, who'll take the mound in Kansas City, have been underestimated before.
Stroman recovered in what seemed like world record time from a spring training ACL tear to take his place in Toronto's rotation in September. But his story of underestimation realty begins in 2012. Coming out of Duke, Stroman showed some of the best pure stuff heading into the draft. But he lasted until the 22nd pick. Why? He is 5'8", and the scouting world has an established bias against short righthanded starters. Stroman was the 11th pitcher taken in the 2012 draft; the 10 pitchers picked ahead of him all stand between 6'2" and 6'6". Seven of them have not yet reached the majors.
Why the bias? Many scouts prefer the longer levers of taller pitchers to create better angles (similar to tennis players), as well as preferring bigger bodies to withstand the rigors of a 200-inning season. And history reminds them just how rarely small righthanded pitchers succeed as major league starting pitchers.
Already Stroman is one of just 17 righthanded pitchers at his height or shorter to win 15 games in the majors, and only the second in the past 60 years. (The other was Tom Phoebus, from 1966 to '72.) If he can win Wednesday, Stroman will become the first starting pitcher this small to win a postseason game since lefty Fred Norman won 1975 NLCS Game 2 for the Reds.
As for McHugh, the bias against him was a lack of premium velocity, not to mention one of the worst starts to a career in baseball history. An 18th-round pick, McHugh was traded by the Mets and released by the Rockies within six months of 2013. His career record was 0–8 with a 8.94 ERA when the Astros claimed him off waivers in December 2013. The popular story is that Houston noticed the extreme spin rate on his curveball, saw it as an underutilized asset, and convinced him to throw it more. Presto! He became a better pitcher.
Well, maybe it didn’t exactly go that way.
“I pitched in the Arizona Fall League a few years ago and saw something about my spin rate being in the neighborhood of guys like Kershaw,” McHugh told me last month. “So I was aware of it. It just made me think, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good.’ But as far as anybody here telling me, no, not really.”
The biggest difference is that McHugh effectively canned his sinker and used a four-seam fastball to better complement his breaking pitches.
You would think that the edge in the ALDS games go to the Rangers and Royals because they have the more accomplished starting pitcher. But with Stroman and McHugh, people have been known to be wrong.
2. Leading indicator
It's not surprise that there is great value in being the first team to put a run on the board. The MLB-wide conversion rate from scoring first to winning the game is about 69%. No surprise.
But in sudden-death playoff games—when both teams are facing elimination—the importance grows even greater. There have been 23 League Division Series Games 5 in the wild-card era (since 1995); the team that scored first won 79% of those games (18–5). The only teams to get out in front and lose were the 2012 Nationals, '11 Diamondbacks, '05 Yankees and '03 and '01 Athletics.
Keep that in mind when watching how the early innings play out Wednesday in a sudden-death doubleheader. Playing for a run early in the game is not something teams often do in the regular season, but we’ve already seen Texas manager Jeff Banister start a runner with the bottom of the order in Game 1 to take a lead. Of the four teams today, the Rangers and Royals are best equipped to manufacture a run. The Blue Jays and Astros are more likely to microwave a run; with their powerful bats, one pitch left out over the plate can be turned into a run at any time.
3. Kershaw comes through
The test came, as it usually does for Clayton Kershaw in October, in the seventh inning in NLDS Game 4 against the Mets. Yoenis Cespedes topped a ball to the third-base side of the mound, where Kershaw, in his haste, flubbed it. The Dodgers' ace, pitching on three days' rest, was in trouble, with his reputation for letting postseason games get away back in play. How would he respond?
In six pitches, he was out of the inning: a pop fly, a fly ball and a groundout. The sequence was slider, fastball, slider, fastball, fastball, slider. Just like that, Kershaw put a halt to his playoff troubles and pitched Los Angeles into an NLDS Game 5 against Mets. Aren’t we lucky? It will be our fifth sudden-death game this postseason, already more than in any other year except 2012 (the first year with wild card games), which had a record seven.
Kershaw said after the game he did a better job mixing his pitches, a mindset that failed him on occasion in the past when his competitiveness took over. The Mets actually put the ball in play more against him in Game 4 than in Game 1 (16 times, compared to 13 last Friday) and had fewer swings-and-misses (nine, compared to 18), but Kershaw did a better job confusing them with his sequencing.
In a postseason in which the Blue Jays' David Price became a middle reliever, the Mets' Matt Harvey could only make one start in a series and in which few pitchers anywhere can deal with the stress and rarity of pitching on short rest, Kershaw proved once again why he’s the best pitcher on the planet: He threw a gem on short rest while his team faced elimination. The only new twist to this reminder is that he did it in October.