Baseball is smarter than ever, so the path to winning a baseball game in 2019 isn’t as linear as it used to be.
And how to win a baseball game in October? Well, that’s a task that MLB front offices obsess over like they’re doctors in a laboratory.
Baseball’s information age has made it such that the old formula isn’t the only formula. Feared starting pitchers, hitters that get on base and middle-of-the-order boppers who can hit the ball over the fence — those things still work. But modern baseball teams, in their neverending quest to get an edge, have employed some tactics that startle fans who have watched the games for decades.
Strikeouts aren’t as frowned upon if they lead to home runs, relievers sometimes start games and a starting pitcher going five innings is sometimes good enough.
“The object of the game is to score more runs than the other team. There’s a lot of ways to do it,” says Terry Francona, the longtime Cleveland Indians manager. “You get pigeonholed into one way of thinking, you’re probably not doing it right.”
This October brings us teams like the Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays, who don’t look at starting pitching the way teams used to. If using a reliever in the first inning helps them get 27 outs, so be it. The Houston Astros, Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers line up powerhouse starters like the teams of yesteryear. The New York Yankees stack their bullpen in such a way that getting to the sixth inning with a lead is a strong recipe for victory.
The Yankees, like the Minnesota Twins, also kill their opponents with the long ball — both hitting more than 300 homers this year, rarified territory in MLB history. The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals win with depth, gathering talent they can plug in when needed.
The best teams check a number of these boxes, which is why the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers and Twins all more than 100 games. But even the best teams know that winning in the postseason is a challenge of another kind. One that, when October rolls around, can call for even bolder strategies.
“I don’t know if it’s more difficult,” says Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “It’s just, you have to be more creative.”
The starters are the stars
The first question, and probably the most important question, any playoff team faces is a simple one: Do you have good starting pitching? If so, that’s the strategy most managers still favor.
“Each team identifies when they get to the postseason what their strengths are,” says A’s manager Bob Melvin. “And if that’s starters, then they’ll try to incorporate starting pitching more and then maybe [starters] out of the bullpen. If it’s bullpen, maybe you’re doing what Milwaukee did last year and heading off the starters and using more of your bullpen.”
“I like having the stars,” says Hinch, who won a World Series with the Astros in 2017. “Give me the horses and I’ll play a little more of a brand of traditional baseball.”
“We’re more traditional,” says Braves manager Brian Snitker, “in we have our frontline starters. I feel if they are pitching the bulk of the innings, we’re going to be doing pretty good.”
“I still believe,” says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, “that with the three guys in Walker [Buehler], Clayton [Kershaw] and Hyun-Jin [Ryu], that we feel very good when they’re in the game. Every team manages a pitching staff different in the postseason, but to have three starters that you can really count on is very helpful for us.”
“Do you want to take deGrom out and put in someone you don’t trust as much?,” says Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly. “You want to take Scherzer out, Strasburg out? The teams that have those types of starters and those have been their guys, you don’t have a better answer out there. I think they are going to take their chances with their better guys.’
“I think the best route to win playoff games,” says Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, “is exceptional starting pitching, that’s what sets the tone and lets you catch your breath through a little of the excitement of entering that playoff picture. I don’t think you can use an opener in the playoffs scenario.”
“Starting pitching pretty much is the right way to do that,” says Joe Maddon, the ex-Chicago Cubs managers. “All the other methods that are being employed to me are just an indicator that you don’t have enough good starting pitching. So then you have to go to plan B.”
Playing the bullpen game
Ah yes, Plan B. It used to be that Plan B was to lose. Or turn your cap inside out and hope for a 10-run inning. In modern baseball, where star relievers are employed like grenades on the battlefield, managers know they have options beyond starting pitchers.
Maybe they go for the bullpenning method, which we saw both the A’s and Brewers use in the 2018 postseason. Maybe they try to get a few innings out of a starter and turn it over to an Andrew Miller or Josh Hader type relief pitcher.
A lot of that goes back to Francona’s 2016 Indians.
“I just was doing what I thought. We were so beat up. We were trying to leverage our guy,” Francona said. “Andrew Miller was the hottest pitcher on the planet. We were trying to leverage that because we had other guys who were hurt. As a manager, your job is to put your guys in a situation where they can succeed. Like, you look at Houston this year, I’m guessing Cole and Verlander are going to pitch more than four innings.”
“I think you’ll see the same style,” Mattingly said, “that has been played the last three or four years where [relievers] get in quick.”
“To have guys in your ‘pen,” Robert says, “that can give you multiples and can get lefties and righties out almost as effectively, there’s a huge value in that.”
“Some went to their bullpens last year relatively early in games,” Snitker says, “and I think a lot of that is organizational theory and how they go about it and what their game plan is. Postseason is a different animal.”
“I think the teams that are incorporating [the opener] don’t like their starting pitching as much,” Maddon says. “I think what it comes down to is that.”
“I’ve been asked about using an opener,” Hinch says. “I don’t have a lot of interest in the opener when you have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and [Lance] McCullers and [Charlie] Morton and [Dallas] Keuchel and guys like that. I’m not against it. I’m just against it with our team.”
“I think with what we’re doing with [A.J.] Puk and [Jesus] Luzardo,” Melvin says. “kind of the piggyback thing, and allowing them to relieve with the starter’s preparation, so to speak, it allows us to get some of our guys who have been worked a lot off.
“End of the day,” says Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoya, “pitching is going to win the games, man.”
‘Don’t wait around until the next time’
There’s a case to be made for pitching winning games if you believe good pitching always beats good hitting — but does that hold up in 2019, a time when more home runs are being hit than ever before?
There’s so much to baseball beyond pitching, but this year, a big part is hitting the ball in the seats. Just ask New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone, whose unit hit 306 homers this year. No team had ever hit 300 before 2019, but the Twins actually hit one more than the Yankees.
Boppers will bop, there’s no doubt. Especially in the urgency of October.
“The team that ends up winning the World Series will do a good job of holding offenses down,” Boone says. “And probably hit a lot of balls in the seats when they have traffic.”
“I’ve said this oftentimes to [Alex] Bregman and George [Springer], we talk about offensively, don’t wait around until the next time,” Hinch says. “You may not see this pitcher again. It’s getting that way in the regular season, let alone the postseason. So you can’t set up a guy, you can’t spend a lot of time navigating your first at-bat assuming you’re going to get another look at this guy.”
Pitching and hitting matter immensely, but what also matters is the decisions. In October, every manager’s decision is amplified by a national TV audience and then picked apart right after the game ends by analysts.
So much of October success is making the right decision at the right moment. Analytics help. They provide a blueprint, but that blueprint isn’t foolproof. Timing is important too. One mistake at the wrong time can be the difference between playing another day and going home.
“You know what, when you get to the postseason you obviously have more time to spend to prepare, which really helps,” Terry Francona says. “So you prepare to put the team together and you go in knowing, this is what I’d like to do if all goes well. You’d like to do this. Do you go that way? Sometimes no. Sometimes yeah. But, once you get prepared it’s kind of easy. Everything doesn’t always work out, but it’s not like you’re flinging it. You kind of have an idea of what you want to do. Or what you’d like to do if you’re able to. Or what you’d like to stay away from.”
“I don’t know how you predict how something is going to unfold,” Boone says. “We’re going to do everything we can from a team standpoint to be prepared and have our guys ready to go. Again, try and do all we can depending on who we’re facing to pitch well and prevent runs and then take advantage of mistakes the opposition mistakes. When you get those opportunities, you have to capitalize, period. The teams that do that the best end up advancing.”
Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown, Chris Cwik and Matt Ehalt contributed reporting to this story.
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