Baseball, especially playoff baseball, is in uncharted territory. Consistently for the past decade of October baseball, there have been more and more strikeouts accompanied by less and less hits, making for low scoring, powerhouse pitching contests.
The format of postseason baseball has done nothing to alleviate this phenomenon. The days in between games, unheard of during the regular season, takes the latter half of rotations and middle relief out of the equation.
“In the postseason, with the days off, at least for me, you get so much adrenaline you don’t really worry about how your body feels, or your mechanics,” Red Sox starter Jon Lester said to the New York Times. “It’s just a matter of who’s up, what’s the game plan, what are we trying to do?”
Couple that with the fact that pitchers have been increasing their velocity and spin rates for the past decade, while hitters have been accepting that a strikeout is no worse than a groundout (strikeouts have hit record highs for the past seven years), and you have an equation for pitching dominance. This year has proved to be no exception: according to SI.com, 23 games in to the post-season (putting us in the middle of the American and National League Championship Series), one out of every three batters (546 of 1627) who steps up to the plate either strikes out or walks, meaning in one of three plays the ball is not even put in to play.
Teams this postseason have combined to hit .231, including 1-for-27 with runners in scoring position on Sunday. There were three 1-0 postseason games in the last week; the 11 years prior to this one had three 1-0 postseason games total.
Write this off as a small sample size if you will, but the three highest-scoring teams in major league baseball are in the final four standing, and their playoff production has been anything but prolific. On the first day of the ALCS and NLCS, in two games, these high-powered offenses combined for 41 strikeouts on two runs total.
It’s easy to look at the four teams left standing and boast about their dominant bats, which is not without merit, but there are some power arms in this postseason, too. The Tigers pitching staff set a major league record for strikeouts this season, ERA leader Clayton Kershaw heads the Dodgers pitching staff, there are four pitchers who have thrown no hitters and two more who were just an out away.
The bottom line is this: teams make and stay around in the postseason for a whole lot of reasons, but starting pitching is perhaps the most important. Nine of the top 11 teams in starters’ ERA reached the postseason. The only exceptions were the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets, who were both in the lower half in OBP, a category also dominated by playoff contenders. The only team outside the top 11 who reached the playoffs (albeit only the wild card game) was the Cleveland Indians.
Elite starting pitching is not always the key to success. San Francisco destroyed the starting pitching of Philly in the 2010 World Series, and did much the same thing to Verlander last year. Even this year, Boston rolled through the star starters of Tampa Bay, Matt Moore and David Price. But for the 2013 postseason, thus far at least, pitching is king. And for baseball purists, that’s a beautiful thing.
Anyone who knows a thing or two about baseball can enjoy an 11-10 contest, but it takes having watched baseball for years on end to appreciate the beauty of a 1-0 game. To understand that while baseball is far from the most physically taxing sport, it requires maybe the most precision and attention to meticulous detail. Understanding that Carlos Beltran’s throw from right field to prevent a run from scoring in the tenth took more than just a strong arm. So for me, this playoff format can stay. It forces the best pitchers to face the best hitters, pits strong pitching staff against strong pitching staff.
For now, the pitching staffs remain supreme. The ALCS, through its first three games, was a series in which the Tigers starters had a stat line of 21 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 9 BB and 35 K. And yet, they lost two of those three games. In a modern day playoff series, it’s the offense’s game to lose. Your move, sluggers.