Overpowering postseason pitching recalls dominance of Deadball Era

Tuesday October 15th, 2013

There have been 196 postseason series played since the A's and the Reds combined to score only nine runs in the first three games of the 1972 World Series. None of those 196 series ever found runs that hard to come by until the Dodgers and the Cardinals turned this year's National League Championship Series into a modern reenactment of the Dead Ball era.

The grand (combined) totals after three games: a .176 batting average, nine runs and no home runs. To find the last series that, after three games, included fewer than 10 runs and no home runs, you have to go back 75 years, to when the Cleveland Indians and Boston Braves staged pitching duels in the 1948 World Series. The first three games of this NLCS have ended 3-2, 1-0 and 3-0. At this rate Game 7 will be decided by penalty kicks.

It's time for some perspective on what we are watching this postseason -- about just how scarce runs have become. The average runs per game this postseason (both teams combined) is 7.2. That's down 14 percent from the regular season. Six of the 25 games have been shutouts. But wait. Look at an even bigger picture. There have been only six seasons in baseball history in which runs were this scarce: five seasons in the Dead Ball era (1907, '08, '09, '16 and '17) and the infamous Year of the Pitcher (1968, a season with so few runs that baseball responded by lowering the mound).

Yes, yes, we are looking at just 25 postseason games, not a full season. But the point is runs are so hard to come by that games are being decided by small plays on the margins: a 13th-inning single in NLCS Game 1, a passed ball in NLCS Game 2, a misplayed flyball in NLCS Game 3, a shallow single in ALCS Game 1 and a first-pitch changeup by a reliever in ALCS Game 2.

There is little reason to believe the four teams playing for the pennant will bust out with slugfests any time soon, especially when it comes to the Cardinals. They can't hit left-handed pitching, they have no bench to speak of and Matt Holliday (0-for-12) looks so tied up by fastballs that it is as if he had been wrapped in a lasso.

Holliday, with another soft 0-for-4 last night, just became the most important player of the NLCS. He is a career .311 hitter in the regular season, but he is only a .249 hitter in 50 postseason games. St. Louis is in deep trouble if his cold streak continues, especially if David Freese's calf injury is troublesome, and most especially because the bottom third of the Cardinals' batting order essentially gives opposing pitchers every third inning off. St. Louis' 7-8-9 hitters are batting .097 (3-for-31) with no extra base hits and one RBI.

Holliday has taken very few good swings in three NLCS games. He's been so bad that Yadier Molina has yet to come to bat with a runner in scoring position. Holliday has a track record of producing. He has a $120 million contract that pays him $17 million annually, making him the biggest earner on the team. He either is too good of a hitter to stay this cold for very long, or he is the 2013 version of Robinson Cano from last year's postseason (3-for-40). Which way he goes will help decide this series.

Jaffe: Postseason ranks among toughest for hitters in the Wild Card era.

2. A bad call in the neighborhood

As these playoff games get tighter and tighter, the umpiring becomes increasingly influential. Home plate umpire Mike Everitt called an enormous strike zone in Game 3, adding to the hitters' difficulty, though he did stay consistent. He also nailed the call on a slide by the Dodgers' Carl Crawford at the plate in the eighth inning. Give Everitt credit for making sure he was in the right position to see Crawford's foot sneak across the back corner of the plate.

(At the same time, what in the world was Kolten Wong thinking? The Cardinals' rookie second baseman picked up a bloop single in the outfield and threw behind Crawford to second base, where he had no play whatsoever, which allowed Crawford to score. It was a Little League play in a key spot.)

One of the bigger calls of the game was made by umpire Ted Barrett at second base. St. Louis had Molina on first with one out when Daniel Descalso hit a grounder to Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Gonzalez threw to second, where shortstop Hanley Ramirez, in his haste to turn a double play, was nowhere near the bag when he caught the ball. Barrett called Molina out. Ramirez's throw to first, despite his "cheating," was too late to catch Descalso.

The Cardinals should have had runners at first and second with one out. Instead they had a runner on first with two outs. Matt Adams whiffed to end the inning.

The courtesy of the so-called "neighborhood" play -- when the fielder is in the "neighborhood" of the bag and gets the call -- is designed to allow protection for middle infielders to avoid onrushing runners. But in this case, Molina was nowhere near Ramirez. The shortstop was "cheating" not for protection, but simply to try to get an out at first base. He deserves no "neighborhood" call there. I was shocked that St. Louis manager Mike Matheny did not argue the call; it was obviously wrong even in real time.

For everybody who loves expanded replay for next year, we have seen two examples just in this series that underscore the fact that the system is not as black-and-white as you might think. First, Molina did not "officially" tag Mark Ellis on a collision at home plate in Game 1. Replays showed his glove did not touch Ellis as he turned and braced for a collision. An MLB source said there would be "no chance" of the call being overturned next year with expanded replay, under the thinking that "there had to be some contact" between Molina's glove and Ellis at some point. So there is room for common sense, too.

Now we get a phantom force out that was obviously a wrong call upon replay. Would it have been overturned with an expanded replay system? It seems like the answer should be yes, and if it is, will that viewpoint be applied universally -- that you absolutely have to have contact with the base when in possession of the baseball? And if so, isn't that the end of the "neighborhood" play?

3. Observations and notes from Dead Ball, the latest hit television series . . .

• Cardinals center fielder John Jay had a miserable Game 3, largely because he lost his aggressiveness on several balls in the air. Jay set a team record for outfielders this year with a streak of errorless games that ended at 245, but that only proves how little value there is in measuring fielders by errors or fielding percentage. Officially, St. Louis played an "errorless" game last night, but defensive and baserunning mistakes were plentiful.

• Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright had his highest average fastball velocity since 2009 in his NLDS start against Pittsburgh (94.2) and threw a career-high 45 percent curveballs. But Wainwright wasn't as sharp in NLCS Game 3. To his credit, though, he gave St. Louis seven strong innings, giving up just two runs. He might have pitched shutout ball, but Jay allowed a fly ball to drop that started a two-run Dodgers rally in the fourth inning.

• Quick: What does A.J. Ellis now have in common with Chief Myers (1916) and Mickey Owen (1941)? They are the only Dodgers catchers with a postseason triple.

• Hyun-Jin Ryu was so good last night he went to only four three-ball counts. St. Louis looks so helpless against left-handed pitching that you half expect Jesse Orosco to come trotting out of the Los Angeles bullpen in one of these games.

Prince Fielder is Detroit's Matt Holliday: a big money slugger who is coming up empty in October. Fielder, whose $214 million contract is the fifth-highest in baseball history, is a .202 career postseason hitter who has no home runs and no RBIs so far in these playoffs. His defense is also noticeably poor. Fielder made two key miscues in the Game 2 loss: failing to stop a bounced throw to first base, which allowed the winning run to move into scoring position, and dropping a foul pop-up.

• Nice of Tigers manager Jim Leyland to take the bullet on the grand slam by Boston's David Ortiz, saying it was his responsibility to remind closer Joaquin Benoit not to let Ortiz beat Detroit. It was a veteran move by a savvy manager to take the heat off his pitcher. I, however, am not buying it. You need to be reminded to be careful with Ortiz in October? Hello? Where have you been the last nine years? And why are you throwing a changeup on the first pitch? You have nothing to change from.

• Please stop with the second-guessing that Phil Coke should have been brought in by Leyland to face the tying run in the eighth. The dude wasn't even on the ALDS roster and was torched for a .299 average by lefties. A manager should never have to apologize for bringing in his closer in a high leverage spot against the other team's best hitter in the eighth. It just didn't work out this time.

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