Pitching. The Year of the Pitcher has become the Postseason of the Pitcher, and there's no reason to think it will change now.
Here's what happened in the Division Series:
• RoyHalladay threw the second no-hitter in postseason history.
• TimLincecum set a Giants postseason record for strikeouts with 14.
• Halladay, Lincecum and Cole Hamels combined for three shutouts, more than the previous 368 starts in the past six postseasons combined.
• Jonathan Sanchez set a Giants postseason record for strikeouts by a left-hander with 11.
• Madison Bumgarner, 21, became the second youngest starter to win a clinching postseason game. (Only Fernando Valenzuela, 20, in 1981, was younger.)
• Cliff Lee struck out the most batters ever, 11, in a sudden death postseason game.
• Teams combined to hit .218 in the 15 LDS games. They also combined to score just 6.33 runs per game, down 28 percent from the regular season.
• In none of the 15 games did both teams score more than four runs.
So don't expect slugfests to start now that we've reached the LCS. Scoring first, which is always important, becomes even more significant when there are fewer runs to be had. In the NLCS, especially, both teams have the pitching to make early leads stand up. The Giants are the second-best team in baseball when they score first (65-20, .765, including the postseason).
That's impressive. But the team that's best at making a lead stand up is Philadelphia (66-12, .846).
How good is the pitching? There are 10 active Cy Young Award winners, and half of them pitch for the final four teams (Halladay, Lincecum, Lee, CC Sabathia and Barry Zito).
It makes for exciting baseball. When every run is important, a runner on first becomes a rally, defense becomes even more valuable and managers are under tremendous pressure to make the right decisions. It's a second-guesser's delight.
2. How many pitchers are starting in the LCS who have received Cy Young Award votes and how have they handled the pressure of October?
There are seven pitchers in the LCS who have received Cy Young votes, and just take a look at what they've done in the postseason:
The seven pitchers have a combined postseason winning percentage of .729 over the equivalent of half a season against the best teams in baseball. That's ridiculously good.
3. How else can you define the quality of pitching we're going to see?
Try this. There are 25 pitchers who have averaged 200 innings per season over the past three seasons. Here are the top 12 of those durable pitchers ranked by ERA from 2008-10. Pitchers in the LCS are in bold:
You're looking at seven of the 12 best, most durable starters in baseball on display this LCS. And if I had to pick one to win a game for me, I'd pick Halladay. If I gave you the first pick and you picked Halladay, I'd pick Lincecum. That's how good the matchup is Saturday night. Forget about statistical qualifiers for a minute; for pure star power and stuff, it's the best postseason matchup since PedroMartinez and RogerClemens hooked up in 2003 ALCS Game 7.
4. What's the most stunning trend to watch heading into the NLCS?
West Coast teams are overmatched when they come East in October. The weather, hostile environment ... who knows why, but West Coast teams can't hack it this time of year in the East. The two Los Angeles teams, the Dodgers and Angels, went 0-6 in Philadelphia and New York last October. And so continued a very powerful trend.
In the wild card era (1995-2010), in the 22 postseason series when the West Coast teams (Dodgers, Angels, Athletics, Padres, Giants, Mariners and Diamondbacks) play in the hotbeds of East Coast baseball (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit and Baltimore), the Westerners are 10-38, an awful .208 winning percentage - and it's been getting worse. Since 2003, West Coast teams are 3-19 (.136) when they enter the cauldron of East Coast baseball.
Good luck, San Francisco. Enjoy your trip to Philadelphia.
5. Is Game 1 as important in the LCS as it is in the LDS?
I told you last week the best-of-five LDS is all about winning Game 1, and the series went according to form. The winner of LDS Game 1 won all four series. The winner of LDS Game 1 is now 16-0 in series outcomes over the past four years and 25-3 since 2004.
The impact of Game 1 in the best-of-seven LCS is not as pronounced, though it is not to be ignored. Game 1 winners are 20-10 in LCS play, including an inexplicable split by leagues: 7-8 in the ALCS and 13-2 in the NLCS.
6. What is they key for the Phillies against Lincecum and Sanchez, the Games 1 and 2 starters for the Giants?
The Phillies must have the courage to take pitches, especially with two strikes. Lincecum and Sanchez combined for 25 strikeouts against the Braves in the LDS. All but two of those 25 strikeouts were swinging strikeouts, and most of those were pitches that were out of the strike zone (Lincecum's change-up and slider and Sanchez's breaking ball). They mowed through Atlanta with an average of just 13.7 pitches per inning.
Philadelphia is a league-average team when it comes to seeing pitches. Lincecum and Sanchez rely on getting out hitters out of the strike zone. It takes conviction to let those pitches pass by. The Braves started out with a strategy not to chase those pitches, but they could not execute that plan in the game. If the Phillies lack that discipline, too, they could find themselves down 2-0.
7. Is the Golden Age of shortstops officially dead?
None of the shortstops on the clubs still playing baseball have an OPS+ of 100. In order, they are Jose Uribe of the Giants (99), Derek Jeter of the Yankees (90), Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies (86) and Elvis Andrus of the Rangers (75).
To be fair, Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies and Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins are impact hitters. But the final four teams prove you don't need big offense from your shortstop to get to an LCS. (You should have known this after DavidEckstein played for not one, but two world championship teams).
Andrus, by the way, is a real throwback. He is one of only three shortstops in the live ball era (post-1920) without a home run for a postseason team. The others are MarkBelanger (1971 and 1973 Orioles) and SkeeterWebb (1945 Tigers).
8. What's wrong with Josh Hamilton?
Yankees scouts no doubt took note how Hamilton flailed at a heavy diet of breaking balls from Tampa Bay. Actually, Hamilton's stroke and timing haven't been right since he missed three weeks with an injury to his ribs. He has hit .161 since he came back, with five hits in 31 at-bats. He is either still fighting off rust or compromised physically. Either way, the Rangers have little hope of beating the Yankees four times if Hamilton's bat doesn't perk up.
9. Is Hamilton the most important player for the Rangers?
No. It's pitcher C.J. Wilson. He gets two of the first five games in the series. He's a guy who eats up left-handed hitters (.176 slugging percentage), keeps the ball in the park (10 home runs) and keeps his team in the game (the Rangers are 25-9 when he starts). He gets seven days of rest heading into his Game 1 start, which is a good thing for a guy who sputtered in September and is way beyond his previous innings high. Wilson is prone to issue walks but, if he has his command, he could present trouble for the Yankees.
10. OK, then who is the most important player in the NLCS?
It's Ryan Howard. The Philadelphia first baseman hasn't hit a home run in 33 at-bats since Sept. 25 -- not a terribly long time, but it could mean he is due for one of his power streaks. Howard is the one guy in this series who can change the game at any moment -- the only 30-home run hitter in the series. Howard does have good numbers against Lincecum (.316 with three homers in 19 at-bats), but the Giants, with Sanchez, Bumgarner and relief specialists JavierLopez and JeremyAffeldt standing by, figure to give him very few meaningful at-bats against right-handers.