Three Strikes: World Series proving that 'pen is mightier than ever
KANSAS CITY — Quiz time: What's the easiest inning for a hitter to reach base? If you watched Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, or a decent sampling of baseball this year, you know the answer: the sixth inning.
The philosophy of the modern game to allow starting pitchers to throw fewer and fewer pitches and fewer and fewer innings has turned over more responsibility to bullpens. And the sixth inning, when starters have difficulty pitching to a lineup for the third time, has become the inning of reckoning. Major league hitters posted a .321 on-base percentage in that frame, the highest of any inning this year.
In Game 2, both starting pitchers, Yordano Ventura of Kansas City and Jake Peavy of San Francisco, reached the sixth inning with manageable pitch counts but were staring at the task of facing the opposing team's 3-4-5 hitters for a third time. Neither pitcher was up to the task. Ventura was gone after two of the three batters reached base. Peavy was done even quicker, departing after each of the first two batters reached base.
This is the modern game.
Only a few aces in today's game can get through a lineup three times. Otherwise, look what happens to the OPS allowed by MLB pitchers when they face hitters for a first, second and third time, respectively: .692, .714, .737. It's become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more teams load up bullpens with power arms, the quicker they turn over games to relievers.
And that's how each team reached the same fork in the road in Game 2: tie game and the Game 2 starter — not the Game 4 starter — needed help in the sixth. The Royals' bullpen did the job behind Ventura, picking up the final 11 outs while allowing only one bloop hit and no runs. The Giants' bullpen, meanwhile, cratered. Bochy was on his fifth pitcher into the sixth inning and still had only one out. It took the Giants 32 minutes to get three outs in the sixth, and when it finally ended, they were down 7-2, which turned out to be the final score and the announcement that we now have a competitive that holds open the possibility of just the second World Series Game 7 in the past dozen years.
"For me, in this type of series, if you can get us into the sixth inning tied or with the lead, you've done your job." Royals manager Ned Yost said. "I felt very strongly going into the sixth inning that the next run scored by either team was probably going to be the winning run."
Has there been a World Series in which starting pitching appears to be so irrelevant? Go back to the height of The Steroid Era: 2002, the only other all-wild-card World Series, between the Giants and the Angels. There were 14 combined starts in that series and nobody completed the seventh inning. Only twice did anybody finish the sixth inning.
But the lack of big-time starting pitching looming in this series is not because of an abundance of offense. It's the reliance on bullpens. Take out the two aces in this series, Madison Bumgarner and James Shields, and the other six starters (Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong for San Francisco; Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas for Kansas City) combined for a 62-70 record this year. None of them won more than 14 games. The Giants will become the first team in World Series history to start three pitchers with records four games worse than .500. No other World Series sent more than one such starting pitcher to the mound.
We are watching a postseason in which starters haven't been able to get through six innings more times (28) than they could (26). Excepting Bumgarner, we're not looking at Mathewson and Gibson and Ford and Smoltz and Schilling and Johnson and the rest of the workhorse starters we have come to associate with World Series games. We're looking at five or so innings of prelude, until the real battle commences — the battle of the bullpens.
2. Herrera's historic heat
Game 2 hit us with another obvious truth. Why is it harder to get a hit than in any of the 40 years since the DH was adopted to boost offense? All you had to do was watch the four pitchers Kansas City manager Ned Yost used. Ventura, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland threw 149 pitches; 94 of them were clocked at 95 mph or faster. That's 63 percent of their pitches between 95 and 102.5 mph.
Herrera put on an eye-popping display of power pitching. He threw 16 pitches of his 32 pitches at 100 mph or greater, including the fastest pitch ever thrown in the recorded history of the World Series: 102.5 mph. (The old record was 100 mph, by Carlos Martinez and Neftali Feliz, according to data that goes back only to 2007.)
Velocity in the game has spiked markedly, which is why managers can't wait to get to their bullpens, especially Yost. The Giants went 1-for-12 against Herrera, Davis and Holland, with six strikeouts. A tense game suddenly was littered with broken bats and check swings.
Yost's HDH formula (Herrera/Davis/Holland) is devastatingly effective. His team is 30-3 when he uses all three relievers, including 8-0 in the postseason.
3. News and notes
• Peavy has never made it through six innings in eight postseason starts, a record of such consistent brevity.
• Kansas City has won 93 percent of the time this year when it leads after six innings (66-5).
• Herrera and Davis have faced 646 batters this season without allowing a home run. San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland has faced only 23 batters this postseason and yielded a record-tying five home runs.
• Since 2008, AL teams are 5-12 in World Series games played in NL parks, including 0-4 at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Unlike most AL pennant winners, though, the Royals will not be terribly hurt by NL rules as the series moves to San Francisco. With all the pitching changes, DH Billy Butler will get a pinch-hit spot in every game — and Yost can time those spots for RBI situations. And the fabulous defensive Kansas City outfield is tailor-made for Triples Alley and the expansive outfield at AT&T Park.
• The Giants caught a break in Game 1 with their early lead, which allowed Bochy to get leftfielder Travis Ishikawa off the field after only three innings. Ishikawa started playing the outfield in earnest only in the last week of the regular season. He has given Bochy a solid effort, but in Game 2, the Royals' speed and the vast Kauffman Stadium outfield exposed his lack of experience in leftfield.