Nine Innings: How to Maximize Your NLCS and ALCS Viewing Experience; Predicting Unlikely Heroes

Baseball looks a lot different today than it did even a few years ago. This is the best way to enhance your viewing experience of the NLCS and ALCS. Plus, the unlikely heroes, the best reliever you don't know and key storylines for the four remaining teams.
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By Tom Verducci

Baseball from the 1990s is dead. Baseball from five years ago is passe. When you watch the League Championship Series you have to drop your notions of what baseball used to be and accept what baseball has become. It will enhance your viewing pleasure.

Don’t look at the Milwaukee Brewers, for instance, as unorthodox. Look at them as a team that is as good as any team at leveraging what wins in today’s game: home run hitting and deep bullpens with swing and miss stuff (to keep the other guys from hitting home runs).

To that end, here is a viewing guide to the LCS, or how to reset your expectations.

More Innings for Relievers is a Good Thing

Until this year, 20 teams logged 575 innings or more out of the bullpen and only one of them, the 2016 Dodgers, who popularized this trend, made the playoffs.

This year alone six teams logged at least 575 relief innings and made the playoffs, including three of the four teams left standing.

Most Pitching Changes All-Time by a Playoff Team

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Aggressive bullpen management is critical, especially in the postseason with its extra off days to allow recovery. Strategy becomes mostly about run prevention.

Moreso than ever, the key game in a seven-game series is Game 5. It’s the first time in two weeks a team plays on three consecutive days. Only then does fatigue become a factor. Remember Brandon Morrow in World Series Game 5 last year?

Changing Pitchers is a Good Thing

The NLCS winner will set a record: most pitching changes by a pennant winner, breaking the record set all the way back … last year, with the Dodgers.

Most Pitching Changes All-Time by a Playoff Team

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The Dodgers play platoon offensive baseball, so Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell will pull his starters quickly—starting with Gio Gonzalez in Game 1—and use multiple relievers. His plan is to play cat-and-mouse with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, trying to get him to flip his lineup early to gain the most platoon advantages.

Until 2016, no team ever made the playoffs with 70 starts of five innings or fewer. It’s happened seven times since then. The 2016 Dodgers (83) and the 2018 Brewers (82) are the only teams ever to make the playoffs with their starters going five innings or less in more than half the team’s games.

Don’t Expect Many Comebacks

The team that scores first this postseason is 14–2 while teams leading after seven innings are 16–0.

Bullpens are just ridiculously deep and hard to hit. In three years the state-of-the-art bullpen—it used to be the three-pronged Royals bullpen (Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Wade Davis)—has doubled in weaponry.

This year the Brewers allowed the fourth fewest balls in play ever from the seventh through ninth innings, behind only the 2017 and 2018 Yankees and the 2017 Dodgers.

Rallies Almost Never Exist

There are a million stats to break down win probability. Nothing is more important than this: out-homer your opponent. Teams that out-homer their opponent are 11–0 this postseason.

Home runs account for 44% of runs scored this postseason (54 of 123).

If you wait for stringing hits together, as the Braves did, you are going to die waiting. The postseason batting average this year is .216. As I said earlier this postseason, each game is like facing a closer all night long. It’s getting harder and harder to rely on hits, so when you do get them you better strive for extra bases:

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Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position is Overrated

We learned long ago that batting average had inflated value all these years, so why do we still cling to RISP hitting like it’s the secret sauce?

The Dodgers won the NLDS while hitting .179 with runners in scoring position. Here’s what is more important: banging home runs, especially when they follow walks. They out-homered the Braves, 8–2.

Teams are hitting .228 this postseason with RISP. So if your team is 2-for-10 on a given day with RISP, that’s neither terrible nor determinative.

That’s not to say key hits with RISP won’t happen or be extremely useful. (Hello, David Freese.) It’s just that in this climate, with deep bullpens, increased velocity, targeted scouting reports and finely calibrated shifts, we should not expect many three-hit rallies.

Christian Yelich is Not a Miller Park Creation

The reasons Yelich emerged with more power this year are that he jumped on first pitches more often (.521 average with 12 homers, the most in the majors in three years) and he learned to turn on pitches down and in (his slugging on those pitches jumped from .469 to .800). He did not change his swing (his launch angle is exactly the same as last year) and it’s not because his flyball outs at Marlins Park last year turned into homers at Miller Park this year.

Yelich hit 22 home runs at Miller Park this year. Every one of them but one would have been a home run at Marlins Park. With the same swing he simply is hitting the ball harder, from 90.4 MPH exit velocity last year (very good) to 92.3 this year (great).

Alex Bregman is a Super-Duper Star

Here’s the list of hitters in the LCS you’d most want at the plate in a big two-out spot: Yelich, Mookie Betts, Bregman, Justin Turner.

Bregman has gone all next level this year because he added power without sacrificing contact. It’s a freakish combination. Only four batters this year made contact more often than Bregman (87.1%), who hit 31 home runs. Those four, Michael Brantley, Nick Markakis, Ian Kinsler and Jean Segura, hit between 10 and 17 home runs.

Don’t Expect Many Bunts

There have been only eight sacrifice bunts in 16 postseason games—only one after the fourth inning (Albert Almora of the Cubs in the 11th inning of the NL Wild Card game.)


David Price is the Most Fascinating Player in the LCS

If Price pitches poorly again in Game 2, can the Red Sox really give him another start in the series? His teams have lost all nine of his postseason starts. Against the Yankees in the ALDS, Price threw 60% of his pitches out of the zone, and when he did come into the zone, New York slugged 1.125 against those pitches.

The Next Generation of Starting Pitchers is Not Here

Kershaw, Price, Porcello, Verlander, Keuchel … you’ll see plenty of veteran Cy Young Award winners on the mound. But the coming aces behind them? They don’t exist.

Walker Buehler, 24, of the Dodgers is likely to be the only starting pitcher in the LCS under 28 years old. The youngest starter to win a postseason game this year is Nathan Eovaldi, 28, of Boston.

The game has changed so much so quickly that young starters are not groomed to pitch deep into the season or a game. There have been 157 starts made in the postseason over the past five years (2014-18). Not once did any pitcher under age 25 take the ball into the eighth inning. The last one to do it was Michael Wacha of the Cardinals in the 2013 NLDS.

The Next Generation of Managers Is Here

If you’re over 50 years old and hoping for one of the six managerial openings, good luck. Baseball’s Final Four validated a growing trend in the game: as the players get younger, so, too, do the managers.

Craig Counsell, 48, is the oldest manager in the LCS, joined by Dave Roberts, 46, A.J. Hinch, 44, and Alex Cora, 42.

Counsell, Roberts and Cora are all on their first jobs. No manager has won the World Series on his first job (not his first season) since Ozzie Guillen with the 2005 White Sox. Either that 12-year streak will end or the Astros will win their second straight title.

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By Jon Tayler

As David Bowie and Freddie Mercury once sang, “Pressure pushing down on me / Pressing down on you.” (Also: “Dum dum dum duh dah dum dum.”) Four teams remain in the chase for the World Series, but which squad is under the most pressure to bring a title home? Let these highly scientific breakdowns be your guide.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The last time the Dodgers won the World Series, George H.W. Bush was two weeks away from being elected president. The Simpsons wouldn’t debut on television for another year, and they’re currently at 641 episodes and counting. Clayton Kershaw was seven months old when that Los Angeles team lifted the trophy; Manny Machado was four years away from existing. It’s been a while, is what I’m saying. There’s no team facing more pressure than the super-squad that’s made the postseason in six straight seasons but gone home with nothing to show for it the last five times, each fruitless playoff run lengthening that drought by another year.

Milwaukee Brewers

Ha ha, Brewers fans say when Dodgers fans complain about World Series droughts. Thirty years without a title, that must be tough. Let us know when that streak reaches literally the entirety of your team’s existence. Beyond that pesky matter of never winning a championship, this is simply rare territory for this club. The Brewers have made it to the LCS just twice in the 49 years they’ve been on earth, and they’ve only won the pennant once, way back in 1982. On top of that, Milwaukee made an offseason push to contend now, and it’d be nice to get a return on that investment.

Boston Red Sox

A funny thing happens when you lead the league in wins and make a run at the 2001 Mariners’ single-season victories record: The expectation is that you’ll then win the whole dang thing. If the Red Sox want to know how fans feel about teams that dominate the regular season but come up short when it counts, they need only head out to Foxboro, Mass., to ask the Patriots about the 18–1 2008 season and all the anguish that their Super Bowl loss to the Giants wrought. It’s weird to think of a 108-win season being a disappointment, but it’ll be hard not to feel that way if Boston can’t finish it with a World Series.

Houston Astros

As the defending champ, there already exists the pressure of defending one’s crown. Then again, this Astros team is so good and young that, should it fall short this year, it’s not exactly the end of the world. Tomorrow remains bright. Although Houston fans should consider that this was the same world in which the Cubs lived after their 2016 title, as they looked to be a dynasty in the making, primed to win multiple championships. Two years later, Chicago’s gone backwards in terms of playoff performance, as the rest of the National League has gotten better. There are no guarantees going forward, so you better win what you can when you can.

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By Emma Baccellieri

There’s one in every postseason—an unlikely hero. The Brewers already provided a taste in the NLDS, with backup catcher Erik Kratz’s 3-for-4 Game 2. But now the stakes are higher, the strategy’s leveled up, and even the tiniest play can be enough to equal heroism. So who’s the perfect candidate from each team? Some possibilities:

Houston Astros

Around this time last year, Jake Marisnick was being touted as a poster boy for the launch angle revolution. He’d changed his swing, begun elevating the ball, and emerged as a solidly above-average hitter. But the outfielder didn’t see the same results this season. His OPS dropped more than a hundred points, and he found himself coming off the bench more. Though he played in all three games of the ALDS, he never showed up earlier than the seventh inning and earned just one plate appearance in the series. Unlikely, definitely. A hero? He proved that he had the stuff for it last season—what’s to say he won’t be able to tap into it here for just one AB?

Boston Red Sox

Sandy Leon probably won’t do much at the plate. But he can do an awful lot behind it. The catcher showed off the best of his blocking ability in the ALDS, and he’s one of baseball’s better defensive backstops. After all, the hero doesn’t have to be the one who launches a grand slam. He can also be, say, the one who prevents a disastrous wild pitch—and more often than not, that’s Leon.

Milwaukee Brewers

Let’s go with Curtis Granderson. The 37-year-old was picked up at the last minute of the waiver trade deadline, and he quietly put together a strong September. It’s the second year in a row that he’s been traded midseason to a playoff contender—but this time, he’s against, rather than with, the Dodgers. The veteran coming back to haunt his old team is a classic of the playoff-hero genre, and Granderson’s recent performance suggests that he’s more than capable of pulling it off.

Los Angeles Dodgers

It feels almost unfair to pick David Freese; really, at this point, it feels unfair to say that there’s anything unlikely about postseason success from him. But still: He’s David Freese! The outfielder is having his best season since 2013, and he’s been especially sharp since being acquired by the Dodgers in August. Still, though, he doesn’t seem like a particularly likely hero—not in a stacked lineup like this one, at least. In other words, it’s the perfect foundation for him to work his characteristic October magic.

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By Gabriel Baumgaertner

There may not be a more maligned player in the minds of Dodger fans, but the ever-methodical Pedro Baez has become an unstoppable force for the Dodgers. Now in his fifth year in Los Angeles, Baez was the bane of Dodger fans existence forever—he works painfully slowly, he surrendered big hits in years past and his pace and demeanor hardly exude the angry fearlessness that fans like out of relievers. Simply put, he's not Craig Kimbrel in demeanor, which would be acceptable to fans if he had mild-mannered closer Kenley Jansen's track record.

But look at Baez's numbers and it's hard to argue against one incredible fact: He isn't simply the Dodgers' best reliever right now; he's been every bit as effective as the game's most feared arms over the last two months of the season. Below are three relievers' final 19 appearances of the season coupled with their 2018 postseason stats.

Player A: 18 2/3 IP, 1.93 ERA, .197 BAA, 17 K / 2 1/3 IP, 0.00 ERA, .125 BAA, 2 K

Player B: 19 1/3 IP, 0.47 ERA, .108 BAA, 19 K / 2 1/3 IP, 0.00 ERA, .000 BAA, 3 K

Player C: 16 IP, 0.00 ERA, .145 BAA, 21 K / 2 1/3 IP, 0.00 ERA, .000 BA, 3 K

Player A is Roberto Osuna, the Astros' feared closer. Player C is Ryan Pressly, widely regarded as Houston's most important middle reliever. Player B is Baez, who has given up fewer hits than all of them while facing more hitters. He's also the only one of the three who will work more than one inning of relief in an outing. Maybe Baez doesn't have the same terrifying reputation of Josh Hader, but he's been one of the game's foremost shutdown pitchers in the second half of the season.

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Emma Baccellieri: No one’s expecting to see this in the LCS, but Los Angeles’ best starting pitching performance will come from RIch Hill. (Hey, when that curveball’s on...)

Gabriel Baumgaertner: Lance McCullers will win or save a game for the Astros by pitching three-plus innings in relief. Remember Charlie Morton in Game 7 of last year's World Series? That's going to be McCullers if he gets his curveball functioning properly.

Connor Grossman: Josh Hader will blow the game in the late innings during the second half of the series. In a sense this prediction is low-hanging fruit because of the lefthander's utter dominance—a correction has to come at some point, right?—but no one truly envisions an elite arm imploding on the mound. Think Joe Torre had any doubt about throwing Mariano Rivera during Game 7 of the 2001 World Series? Hader's not on Rivera's incomparable level, but you'd have to think Craig Counsell's confidence with Hader sits as high as it could. 

Jon Tayler: A Brewers starter actually completes six innings: I mean, hey, there’s no chance of it happening, so no one will expect to see it, but why not? Stranger things have happened. Of the three pitchers the Brewers will throw out, I give Game 3 starter Jhoulys Chacin the best odds. He has the best pitch (a wicked slider) and a better track record than either Gio Gonzalez or Wade Miley.

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By Connor Grossman

Fifteen years ago we were treated to one of the most thrilling pair of League Championship Series in recent memory, probably dating back to legendary 1986 postseason. Curses abound in the Cubs-Marlins and Yankees-Red Sox matchups, with Boston and Chicago still leaning on the early 20th century for their last titles. You probably don't need much more explanation or context, so I'll leave you with two names: Steve Bartman and Grady Little. Two posterboys for two pathological fanbases that each came oh so close to reaching the World Series.

Alas, here's Tom Verducci piece from October 2004, taking a year to reflect on the omnipresent curses of the Cubs and Red Sox.

Enjoy the exerpt below and find the entire piece by clicking on the link above.

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By sunrise Bartman's life would become a nightmare. News helicopters hovered over his suburban home; his phone had to be disconnected; he could not go to the consulting firm where he worked; the domain names, .net and .org all had been claimed; writers for Letterman and Leno were scribbling Bartman jokes as fast as they could; people were planning their Bartman Halloween costumes; and actor Kevin James was preparing a pitch for a movie titled Fan Interference. A Chicago alderman, Tom Allen, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "He better get a new address. He ought to move to Alaska." Florida governor Jeb Bush offered Bartman asylum.

In a statement read by his brother-in-law, Bartman apologized the next day "from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart." He never made a public appearance thereafter. He spoke with MacPhail and briefly maintained private correspondence with baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

"That's not what lost it for us," Baker says. "We had our chances."

And then Baker speaks what passes for the Nicene Creed of the Cubs' and the Red Sox' congregations: "Maybe it was just not meant to be."