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Aces Wild

Oct. 19, 2015
Oct. 19, 2015

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Oct. 19, 2015

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Aces Wild

IT LOOKED AS IF ACES WERE MATTERING LESS IN THE POSTSEASON ... UNTIL THIS YEAR. ALL THE TOP CY YOUNG CONTENDERS MADE IT TO OCTOBER, AND THEIR PERFORMANCES WILL MAKE OR BREAK THEIR TEAMS' CHANCES

This is an article from the Oct. 19, 2015 issue

HAS THE ornery, egocentric pitching ace joined the bullpen cart, stirrup socks and violent collisions (at home plate, anyway) in the dustbin of baseball history? It seems that way, judging from the dispositions of the three contenders in a National League Cy Young race that is virtually unprecedented in both its quality and its lack of clarity. Every vote cast will be both very right and very wrong.

Jake Arrieta, the Cubs' 29-year-old candidate, recently took the time to respond to a self-described #bitterbucsfan's Twitter query as to why he fiddles with his uniform so much: "My right nipple comes out of my tank top almost every pitch, so I place it back inside," Arrieta explained generously. The 27-year-old Clayton Kershaw, one of the Dodgers' pair of contenders, is a certified humanitarian, already the owner of a Roberto Clemente award and a Branch Rickey award—in addition to three previous Cy Youngs and an MVP—for his charitable work in Dallas, Los Angeles and Zambia. Zack Greinke, L.A.'s other leading aspirant, gets grouchy mainly about issues of personal hygiene. According to Molly Knight's new book, The Best Team Money Can Buy, the placid Greinke uncharacteristically aired a grievance during a team meeting in 2013. "Some of you guys have been doing the number two and not washing your hands," the now-31-year-old Greinke said. "It's not good. I noticed it even happening earlier today. So if you guys could just be better about it, that would be great." The only circumstance in which one of these guys would fire a bat shard in the direction of an opposing hitter would be if the hitter had a mugger sneaking up behind him.

If Arrieta, Greinke and Kershaw are altogether nicer than many of their sneering forebears, their performances have hardly suffered. Since 2000 just seven starters have had regular seasons in which they finished with an ERA of 2.13 or better. Three of those seven seasons were registered this year, and their owners will come as no surprise. Greinke's ERA, 1.66, was the best for any pitcher since 1995; he also went 19--3. Arrieta won a majors-high 22 games, against six losses, and his second half—during which he allowed a seemingly impossible nine earned runs over 15 starts and 1071/3 innings—pushed his overall ERA down to 1.77, the fourth best since '95. Kershaw's 2.13 pegs him as the ERA laggard, but his 301 strikeouts made him the first pitcher with at least 300 whiffs since 2002. Picking a Cy Young winner among them is like selecting between a Van Gogh, a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. Even in an advanced statistical age, numbers hardly differentiate them—all are priceless—so the decision can only come down to feel.

It will be no help to the 30 unfortunate NL Cy Young voters, whose ballots were due at the regular season's end, but the postseason is giving as much as an extra month's exposure to the relative merits of Arrieta, Greinke and Kershaw, in addition to those of the fourth-place finisher on the NL ERA leader board—the Mets' Jacob deGrom (2.54), whose name actually sounds as if he might be a Dutch master—and of the two similarly cordial leaders in the AL Cy Young race, the Astros' Dallas Keuchel and the Blue Jays' David Price. If it seems only logical that the league's very best pitchers ought to regularly lead their clubs into October, lately it has happened less often than you might expect. Of the past 28 Cy Young winners, just 15 participated in the playoffs in their award-winning season. The last time a Cy Young winner pitched in the World Series was in 2001, when both leagues' winners, the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson and the Yankees' Roger Clemens, played in the Fall Classic.

Even if many of the game's truly elite pitchers have spent recent Octobers at home, conventional wisdom still held that the postseason was mostly a Tournament of Aces, and that deep playoff runs directly correlated with dominant starting pitching. That wisdom took a hit last fall, when, suddenly, playoff success seemed tied to endless, fireballing bullpens, such as that of the AL champion Royals. Just 18 of the 32 games played last October were won by teams whose starting pitcher worked more, or even as many, innings as the losing club's starter. Supporters of the Aces theory might point out that the World Series--winning Giants had the playoffs' single best pitcher, Madison Bumgarner. Not only did Bumgarner outwork his opponent in five of his six starts (and match him in the other), but he threw five shutout innings in relief—on two days' rest—in the Game 7 clincher. Still, last season's playoffs suggested that the impact of an ace like Bumgarner might become an outlier, and not the norm.

This October? The Tournament of Aces is back with a vengeance. Of the playoffs' first 12 games, through Sunday, 11 were won by the club whose starter worked more innings (nine times) or the same number (twice) as the loser's. Last year five starters in six starts delivered as many as 110 pitches in a postseason game. With the first round only half completed, eight had already done so this year, including the triumvirate of Arrieta, Greinke and Kershaw, each of whom was intimately involved with his club's early playoff fortunes.

The bearded Arrieta went first, in the Cubs' wild-card-game matchup against the Pirates on Oct. 7. Even an irritated nipple couldn't stop him, as he rode a sinker that reached 98 miles an hour and a slider that reached 93 to hold the NL's fourth-highest-scoring offense without a run over 113 pitches. It was the Cubs' first complete-game shutout in the postseason in seven decades.

"It's sheer dominance, really," says Cubs catcher David Ross. "He's dominating the game every time he goes out there." To Ross, Arrieta's approach is simple: "It's not emotional," he says. "He's super calm, collected. He has confidence, and he expects to dominate the game, but he's not showing up the other team. He doesn't try to send a message. He doesn't throw balls up and in: 'I'm going to intimidate you!' No. He's just trying to dominate the game. That's it."

Greinke's first turn on the mound this postseason came three days later, in Game 2 of the Dodgers' Division Series against the Mets. The game will forever be remembered for Los Angeles pinch hitter Chase Utley's controversial takeout slide in the seventh inning, which left Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with a broken leg and Utley with a two-game suspension (which he is appealing), a play about which the unassuming ace declined to comment. "I'm sorry," Greinke said. "I don't really want to talk about it. I try to just not get involved in confrontation anymore."

One of the many lamentable aspects of that play was that it overshadowed Greinke's outing, which featured two second-inning mistakes—a high, 94-mph fastball that Yoenis Cespedes deposited over the rightfield wall in Dodger Stadium, and another elevated heater three batters later that Michael Conforto treated similarly—and 108 other pitches, over seven innings, of three-hit, no walk, eight-strikeout brilliance. "There is really nobody that we have that we're going to bring in that's going to be better than that," said Don Mattingly, the Dodgers' manager.

There was, in fact, one pitcher on the Dodgers' bench—and, perhaps along with Arrieta, the only other pitcher in baseball—who can regularly be relied upon to be even better than Greinke was last Saturday night. That was Kershaw, whose résumé makes Greinke's, and certainly Arrieta's, pale in comparison: Greinke has one previous Cy Young, and Arrieta none, and Kershaw's lifetime ERA (2.43) is better than that of any other pitcher in history who has completed more than 1,500 regular-season innings and whose career began after 1912.

Kershaw, though, was unavailable, as he had pitched the night before. Disconcertingly, for both him and the Dodgers, he had been outdueled by deGrom. Even more disconcertingly, it was not nearly the first time that he had climbed a postseason mound and come away thwarted.

LAST FRIDAY, Kershaw became the 79th starting pitcher ever to make a ninth playoff start. When it was over, he remained among the seven of those 79 to have one win or fewer. His career playoff record is now 1--6, with an ERA of 4.99. Before Game 1 the southpaw was asked if his past playoff struggles would drive him this October. "I definitely remember, but it's a new team, new season and hopefully for me a new outcome," he had said. It wasn't. Tweeted The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga after Friday's game, "Happened to end up in a Dodger Stadium elevator with Clayton Kershaw, who was departing. I've seen vacant stares before, but ... wow."

Kershaw hadn't pitched poorly by any reasonable standard—his box score showed that he had allowed three earned runs, on four hits and four walks against 11 strikeouts—but he had pitched poorly for someone who is nothing short of the best hurler of his generation. He had also once again run into trouble in the inning that has produced his past October undoings, the seventh. Last year, in a pair of NLDS losses to the Cardinals, he allowed nine runs in that frame and just two in all others. In the seventh inning of Game 1 this year, which he entered trailing 1--0, he walked the bases loaded before being pulled for reliever Pedro Baez, who allowed the two-run, up-the-middle single to David Wright that would provide all the runs that the Mets—and deGrom, who went seven scoreless—would need.

In conversations with several baseball people, both close to and removed from Kershaw's orbit, three explanations for his relative postseason struggles emerged.

1) Sample size. Kershaw has just happened to run into trouble in a few playoff starts in a row. "My answer is it's probably just noise and luck," says one rival scout.

2) Workload. Kershaw has averaged 222 innings pitched over the past six seasons. Though he has been in the majors for four years fewer than Greinke, he has completed 1,611 regular-season innings to his teammate's 2,0942/3. Arrieta, a late bloomer, has pitched just 7951/3 big league innings. DeGrom, who was born just three months after Kershaw in 1988, has pitched only 3311/3. Fatigue might repeatedly set in late in games after a long season, and especially on hot days: The game-time temperature at Dodger Stadium last Friday was 92°.

3) Stress. Kershaw's repertoire—a fastball that sits at 94, a slider that averages 89 and a curve that tops out at 77—is so filthy that on, say, a midsummer night in San Diego, he has no reason to deviate much from his preferred pitch sequences, which generally involve the hard stuff early in counts and the slow stuff late. Greinke even suggested as much before Game 1. "The thing I learned most from him is just if you get some good pitches, you can almost have the same sequence to where the hitters almost know what you're doing," he said. "But if your pitches are that good, they can't do anything with them."

In tense postseason affairs, though, in which Kershaw is usually matched up against an opponent's ace, the same sequences don't always work—particularly against some of the league's most disciplined lineups, after they've had a look at him two or three times that night. His latter two walks in the seventh inning of Game 1, against Tejada and Curtis Granderson, came after battles of eight and seven pitches, respectively. "It's Clayton Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and MVP," says Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer. "You're not banking on grinding it out and working him that way. But you're hoping."

The true explanation for Kershaw's scuffling is likely a combination of all three factors, and the Dodgers could only hope that he would find a way to overcome them. Baseball's playoffs remain a Tournament of Aces—perhaps more so, given this October's participants, than ever before. The winner will most likely be the club whose kinder, gentler ace carries it the furthest.

Even in an advanced statistical age, numbers hardly differentiate them.

Cy Young Pick

This year's races are among the tightest ever. Here's how SI's TOM VERDUCCI filled out his ballot

AMERICAN LEAGUE

1 DALLAS KEUCHEL

Astros

2 DAVID PRICE

Blue Jays

3 SONNY GRAY

A's

NATIONAL LEAGUE

1 ZACK GREINKE

Dodgers

2 JAKE ARRIETA

Cubs

3 CLAYTON KERSHAW

Dodgers

PHOTODAVID J. PHILLIPS/AP (KEUCHEL)UP IN ARMS Cy Young favorites (from left) Keuchel, Price, Greinke, Arrieta and Kershaw could define these playoffs. PHOTOCHRIS O'MEARA/AP (PRICE)[See caption above] TWO PHOTOSJEFF GROSS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GREINKE, KERSHAW)[See caption above] PHOTOFRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ARRIETA)[See caption above] PHOTOSEAN M. HAFFEY/GETTY IMAGES (KERSHAW DUGOUT)JACOB'S LADDER Kershaw (left) didn't pitch badly in Game 1 but was outdueled by deGrom (above). PHOTOJEFF GROSS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DEGROM)[See caption above] PHOTODAVID EULITT/KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS/GETTY IMAGES (KEUCHEL)PHOTOJEFF GROSS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GREINKE)