- Playoff games are increasingly likely to be decided by a team's relief pitchers, and several clubs—including the Cubs, Indians and Orioles—have 'pens that could prove mighty important to the October outcome.
This will not be your father’s postseason, or even your older brother’s postseason. We tend to view the golden age of baseball as whatever was being played when we were in those wonder years when we were between eight and 12 years old. It forms our view of how baseball “should be played,” and of course it ignores how the game constantly evolves.
Take starting pitching, or what is left of it. The consensus is that the Dodgers and Orioles are in trouble because their starting pitchers don’t throw enough innings—they rank 28th and 22nd, respectively—and that the Indians are in trouble because starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are hurt. Are people writing such stories on typewriters? Because relief pitching, bolstered by a seemingly endless supply of pitchers throwing harder and harder, has become nearly as important as starting pitching—particularly in the postseason, with its surfeit of off days that keep the best relievers available almost every game. The past two world champions, the 2014 Giants and 2015 Royals, ranked 10th and 22nd in innings by starters, respectively, but fifth and second in bullpen ERA.
"In the postseason," said one veteran executive, "it’s almost as if you play the first half of the game to a draw, and win the second half with your bullpen with guys who keep the ball out of play. Some teams go into a game [with their third or fourth starter] planning on it as a bullpen game."
Here’s one way to view how much postseason baseball has changed. Let’s check the percentage of games won by relief pitchers both in the regular season and in the postseason in three distinct four-year windows: the last four years before divisional play (1965 through '68), the first four years with the wild card ('95 through '98) and the first four years with two wild cards in each league (2012 through '15). You’ll notice I’ve given these four-year windows generational names, because the October baseball played in them is so different.
|Your grandparent's MLB: 1965 through '68||26.8%||8%|
|Your parent's MLB: 1995 through '98||30.0%||35.4%|
|Your MLB: 2012 through 2015||30.4%||41.3%|
I get it. We like to think of the World Series with the imprint of legends such as Christy Mathewson, Whitey Ford and Jack Morris—starters who took the ball often and threw complete games—but those days are long gone. We’re even a decade and a half removed from Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling teaming up to lead the Diamondbacks to the 2001 title.
Knowing how important bullpens become in postseasons in today’s game, let’s revisit the Dodgers, Orioles and Indians through the prism of what can win today. Here are the best bullpens entering this week, as ranked by ERA:
1. Dodgers: 3.21
2. Nationals: 3.28
3. Indians: 3.31
4. Orioles: 3.42
There just might be a 2014 Giants or 2015 Royals on that list.
Think about the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of the 1990 world champion Reds. The unit is famous for being “unhittable.” But here’s how much the game has changed: The Dodgers’ bullpen is nastier than the Nasty Boys and it doesn’t even have a nickname. But closer Kenley Jansen, who ranks second in the NL with 47 saves, and setup men like Louis Coleman, Grant Dayton and Joe Blanton should give manager Dave Roberts plenty of options—and confidence—in the postseason.
|category||1990 Reds||2016 Dodgers|
|IP||472 2/3||565 2/3|
One more list. The emphasis on deep bullpens has reached another level: deep bullpens with swing-and-miss stuff. The idea is not just to get outs, but also to keep the ball out of play entirely. The Cubs, without regard for playing the bullpen matchup games (like the 2015 Royals), set up their endgame with these pitchers, in order, and their ridiculous rates of strikeouts per nine innings: Carl Edwards (13.1), Pedro Strop (11.5), Hector Rondon (10.2) and Aroldis Chapman (15.2).
Let’s find the 14 best teams in history at keeping the ball out of play in the last three innings of a game. It turns out all of them have occurred in the past five years, including half of them just this year—including the Dodgers and Indians. (Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, who formerly ran the Rays, has four teams listed among the top nine.)
1. 2016 Yankees: 10.7
2. 2016 Dodgers: 10.1
3. 2016 Astros: 10.0
3. 2014 Yannkees: 10.0
5. 2015 Dodgers: 9.9
6. 2016 Red Sox: 9.8
6. 2014 Rays: 9.8
8. 2016 Cubs: 9.6
9. 2012 Rays: 9.5
10. 2012 Reds: 9.4
12. 2016 Indians: 9.3
12. 2016 Mariners: 9.3
13. 2013 Royals: 9.3
A baseball game begins with starting pitchers. The leagues hold press conferences the day before each game with them. The first thing we do when we break down a series is to look at the starting pitcher matchups. This is what we’re conditioned to do.
From 1985 through '91, starting pitchers won six of the seven World Series MVP awards. But since then, starting pitchers have won only six of 23 such awards. October baseball is played differently. Don’t be so quick to write off the Dodgers, Orioles and Indians.