Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Is too much good pitching a bad thing?
By David Schoenfield
From 2002 through 2012 there were three postseason games that ended 1-0. We've already had four this postseason. Justin Verlander has allowed one run in his three starts -- and his team has lost two of the games. The Dodgers and Cardinals began their postseason series with the most homerless plate appearances to start a series since the Yankees and Giants in the 1921 World Series. The Cardinals have hit under .200 in each game of the National League Championship Series and lead three games to one. Teams have struck out 10-plus times in 21 different games so far.
The pitchers are dominating like we haven't seen in the postseason since the dead ball era, when Babe Ruth pitched a 14-inning complete game and Christy Mathewson spun three shutouts in five games. The pitchers throw harder than ever before, with unhittable off-speed stuff, great command and better scouting reports. Then we get to the wave of relievers throwing 97 mph. The hitters barely have a chance.
The low-scoring games certainly make for tense postseason action. As we saw on Tuesday with Mike Napoli's home run off Verlander, one swing can win or lose a game. Each jam a pitcher escapes from or one miscue in the field can be a decisive turning point. That's what October baseball should be about.
But is it exciting? To me, there are five major elements to a great postseason:
1. Close games.
2. Series that go deep.
3. Great players doing great things.
4. Memorable moments.
5. Back-and-forth action.
I'd say this postseason rates pretty high so far on 1 and 3 (although it's mostly the pitchers doing the great things, with a Carlos Beltran game-winning hit and throw and David Ortiz grand slam thrown in). Two of the four division series went five games; we'll see what happens here in the LCS and World Series. Memorable moments? Ortiz's grand slam is probably tops right now, although even that game was eventually lost on a bad throw, sloppy play by Prince Fielder, wild pitch and single through a drawn-in infield.
The major thing we've lacked is the fifth element, back-and-forth action ... lead changes have been few and far between, especially with the quality of late-inning relief. To me, the most exciting game so far was Game 4 of the Oakland-Detroit series, the 8-6 game that included the Max Scherzer escape from a bases-loaded jam.
Don't get me wrong, I think it's been an above-average postseason so far. But with each dominant pitching performance I grow a little less impressed -- knowing there's probably going to be another one the next day. (In other words: I predict Zack Greinke throws a gem today for the Dodgers.)
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Great line from Joe Sheehan on Nick Punto's awful play on Tuesday, getting picked off in the eighth inning with the tying run at the plate:
It was an entertaining play because it went against so much of the empty nonsense we hear about veterans knowing how to play the game, about the mental game of scrappy undersized guys. Had it been Yasiel Puig, we would have seen #hottakes for days; it's Punto, so I doubt Skip Bayless will weigh in on the play. That it was rookie Carlos Martinez making the throw just adds some joy. Year in, year out, we see young players with no postseason experience put the lie to the notion that postseason experience is a determinant of postseason performance. That one play, that pickoff of a 35-year-old by a 22-year-old, was the crystallization of that concept.
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I had a discussion with a couple colleagues the other day about John Farrell inserting Jonny Gomes for Daniel Nava in Game 2 against a right-handed pitcher (he started Game 3 as well), even though Farrell ran a pretty strict platoon during the regular season. The reason is probably this: With these low-scoring games, teams are reliant more than ever, it would seem, on the home run. Gomes is more likely to run into a pitch than Nava (and did almost hit one out off Verlander in Game 3). Maybe Nava is back in there Wednesday against Doug Fister, a guy who gives up more hits than Verlander or Scherzer, but expect more starts from Gomes.
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Jim Leyland has changed his lineup a bit for Game 4 -- Torii Hunter will hit leadoff, Miguel Cabrera second, Fielder third and Victor Martinez cleanup. Austin Jackson will slide down to the eighth spot.
Cabrera swung and missed at nine pitches in Game 3, the most swings and misses he's had in one game in his career. The Red Sox will continue to attack him like Junichi Tazawa did in the eighth inning: fastballs away. The only chance Cabrera has of hitting one out is on something inside. Even if he hits that outside pitch, he doesn't appear that he can drive it. He uncharacteristically showed poor discipline in the Tazawa at-bat, twice swinging at pitches well off the plate.
Then there's Fielder and Jackson. Fielder has now failed to drive in a run in his past 15 postseason games, a stretch that includes just one extra-base hit. The Red Sox will likely continue to feed him a lot of fastballs as well -- Fielder slugged just .439 against fastballs this season; two years ago, that figure was .607.
Jackson, meanwhile, is 3-for-33 this postseason with 18 strikeouts. There was speculation Leyland would start Don Kelly in center, but he decided instead to keep Jackson's glove in center. Jose Iglesias will start at shortstop with Fister starting, with Jhonny Peralta back in left field. Can't argue against any of the moves, but I like the Red Sox in this game, although I guess Fielder is due.
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The Dodgers aren't dead yet, not with Greinke and Kershaw going the next two games. But with Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez both trying to play through injuries -- both are in the starting lineup for now -- they're going to struggle to score runs. I'll predict another low-scoring affair, with Greinke outdueling Joe Kelly 3-1, sending the series back to St. Louis.