HOUSTON — While baseball’s younger generation is telling us every day how it plays loud, there’s an equally loud contingent that wants the game to be like it used to be. You know, before sabermetrics took hold, before most of the general managers had résumés that resembled stockbrokers and back when bullpenning was a liability not a strategy.
If you’re one of those people, welcome to the 2019 World Series. You should like it. It’s a little more traditional, a little more familiar. It’s heavyweight vs. heavyweight. It’s aces and stars on both sides.
Meet the Houston Astros, who stack three ace pitchers in their starting rotation and have a lineup full of stars, including the possible AL MVP in Alex Bregman. Meet the Washington Nationals, who have three aces of their own, another lineup full of stars and the player who will be one of the most sought-after free agents this winter in Anthony Rendon.
If the Astros and Nationals have their way — and this is postseason baseball we’re talking about, so at best there’s a 30/70 chance of anything going according to plan — we’ll see starting pitchers throwing 100 pitches per game. We’ll see middle-of-the-order bats producing. It will be less of an analytical chess match and more of line-up-your-horses-and-let-’em-run.
This World Series matchup, in particular, is everything the “bring back how baseball used to be” crowd could want out of this October’s crop of teams. The postseason had a few other heavyweights, but the New York Yankees, for instance, were a team happy to pull a starting pitcher after five innings if they had the lead.
This is like a World Series from the ’80s or ’90s — only with some of the best modern names on the mound. Gerrit Cole vs. Max Scherzer in Tuesday’s Game 1. Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg in Game 2. Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin in Game 3 when the series turns to D.C. The teams still shift and are analytics-drive. You’re not going to get modern baseball teams to give those things up. The biggest variable these days is how teams manage their pitching and both of these teams are a throwback.
“I like the mentality of having the starters go out there and lay their hat and see what they’ve got that given day,” Verlander says. “More traditional. Traditional baseball.”
“If you’re into pitching,” Strasburg says, “you’re gonna see some good pitching. For me, I think it just shows that good pitching, a good starting rotation, is kind of a big deciding factor in the playoff structure.”
The ol’ pitching wins championships mantra hasn’t been abandoned over the years. It’s just been morphed into something new as teams have gotten creatively flexible about how to deploy their pitching. The shift to ace relievers was out of necessity because there aren’t that many Gerrit Coles and Max Scherzers in the world.
Most people would point to the 2016 World Series, in which the Cleveland Indians used Andrew Miller as a bullpen weapon unlike anything modern baseball had seen. He would pitch in any inning if the leverage was high enough.
There wasn’t a game in that entire series in which both starters pitched six complete innings. In the 2017 and 2018 World Series, it only happened in one game each. In the 2010s, there have been only 12 World Series games (out of 53) in which both pitchers finished six innings.
Higher stakes, quicker hooks — that’s how the thinking goes.
The 2009 World Series was the last time three games had both starting pitchers go six innings. The Astros and Nationals seem poised to challenge, which is probably good for the game and for the fans watching at home.
The teams, however, aren’t so keen on that idea.
“I think they should take their starter out after the third inning, to be honest,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch quipped Monday, because that’s one way to combat the Nationals starting staff.
“I think it’ll fun to watch all these pitchers,” says Nats vet Ryan Zimmerman. “I don’t know if it’ll be fun for me — but I’m gonna try to make it fun.”
For Zimmerman, this part of a cycle. Perhaps it’s just the way the postseason lined up this year. Perhaps it’s baseball finding its universal truth again.
“I feel like every 10 or 15 years, in anything, not just baseball, people freak out about something and then it just goes in cycles,” Zimmerman says. “It’s been the analytics stuff, it’s been the opener stuff. It’s been the young guys over old guys. And I’m not saying none of that works, because there’s plenty of examples where everything works. I just think starting pitching has always been what baseball has been about.”
If you are the baseball fan longing for the good ol’ days, don’t take this to mean everything in this series will be a throwback. The Nationals definitely dance in their dugout. Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman have big personalities on the Astros side. Bat flips and personality and everything you see in that “We Play Loud” commercial — that’s still happening.
“You also have the other side of that with the young exuberance,” Verlander says. “The Nationals dancing in the dugout after home runs. We have a bunch of high-fives and dances that we do after big moments. I think it’s a good mix of classic baseball with the heavyweight matchups and the fun-loving game this is turning into.”
That perspective is mirrored on the other side of the field by the Nats’ most respected veteran.
“You have different schools of thought,” Zimmerman says. “People who have been watching the game for 50 or 60 years and then younger kids who want to see the ‘We Play Loud’ stuff. I don’t think there’s a right and wrong answer. I think all of it is good.”
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