MLB postseason makes people do some very strange things but pay attention to nuances, including speed, catchers and bullpens
The postseason makes people do some very strange things.
People develop superstitions. They show up to games wearing Marlins jerseys. They wear their hats inside out on national TV. They start getting strange notions about 70-year-old billy goats. They use David Price, a man who will get a nine-digit contract this winter, as a fifth inning mop-up guy.
The playoffs are fun to watch, mostly because everything … matters … so … much. Even if you’re not a fan of one of the teams playing, you can feel the crowd rise and fall with each pitch. In the fifth inning, people are actually paying attention to strategic moves that managers are making rather than doing the wave. Managers treat playoff games a little differently; some players admit they play a little differently than they do in the regular season. And there’s no big mystery as to why.
Teams can feel the World Series trophy draw near, and every game, again, matters so much. In the middle of a sweltering July, you’re playing just another one out 162 … against a team on pace to go 70-92.
But for all of the maneuvering and player-personnel decisions that take place during the fifth inning in the fall, there are some messages hiding in there. When the chips are down, what’s with all the weird strategic decisions? Why don’t the managers just act the way that they did in July? What does it tell us about baseball that we might not have thought about?
There’s a reason Price is going to get a nine-digit contract
Think of the best starting pitchers in baseball. Names like Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez are starting to filter their way into your head. Now think of the best relievers in baseball. Since Mariano Rivera retired, it isn’t as easy, is it? Now consider for a moment the fact that while Kershaw and Greinke and King Felix all have mega-deals, there aren’t any $100,000,000 relievers out there. Not even Mo in his prime.
And it’s not surprising when you look at how managers behave in the postseason. Consider that we’ve seen Bartolo Colon, Dallas Keuchel, Mike Fiers, Price and Noah Syndergaard appear in relief — not as long men, but as tactical one-inning-ish relievers — despite the fact that their teams had a bullpen filled with other men who were actual relievers.
Imagine if you were a street sweeper and had been doing your job all year, but the week before the big city homecoming parade, the city manager comes to you and tells you that “Well, we need to make sure we get this week right, so we’re going to have Larry from accounting take over for you.” That’s basically what’s going on.
There are always those flashpoint pitchers about whom fans will argue whether he would be more valuable to the team as a starter or a reliever (see Chamberlain, Joba). If you don’t believe the gap in wages between the two groups, then believe this: When the chips were down in Game 5 of the NLDS, Terry Collins saw Syndergaard as his best option for the seventh inning, despite the fact the rookie hadn’t logged a relief appearance since 2012 — in Single-A — rather than Tyler Clippard or Hansel Robles. In Game 5 of the ALDS, A.J. Hinch went to Keuchel (OK, that one’s not too hard to justify) over Luke Gregerson and Josh Fields.
This sort of starter-turned-reliever happens every postseason and no one bats an eye. What’s more, it’s rare that teams ever try the conversion the other way around. If teams believe that their starters can step into a relief role with no problems and no advanced training and do a better job than the guys who specialize in it, then they clearly believe that their starters are their better pitchers.
In reality, if a pitcher has any chance of being a starter, teams will try him as a starter. Not everyone works out pitching six innings — and some guys really are just better out of the ‘pen — but if a pitcher would work out well as either one, teams will (and I’d argue should) make him a starter. And the market backs that up. Mid-rotation starters get $10 million per year on the free-agent market. A good “eighth-inning guy” might get $5 million. Maybe. Price — not the best starter in the league but in the top 20 — will get a deal worth nine figures. If he were the 17th-best reliever in baseball, he’d likely be a middle-tier closer and might get three years and $24 million. Maybe.
That’s how general managers and front office folks feel about starters vs. relievers. The ability to start is that important. The thing is that managers (and fans) don’t have to admit that they don’t really trust their relievers until the postseason.
There are a lot of guys with one major-league tool
Last year, we witnessed the emergence of the Royals’ Terrance Gore in the playoffs. He’s rather fast and last year the Royals used him mostly as a pinch-runner. I’ve argued before that when a team puts together its playoff roster, it’s actually advantageous to bring along a guy like Gore who has one tool, so long as it is a really good tool. The thing about Gore is that he’s 24, and he’s actually a decent hitter — for Double-A. This year at Northwestern Arkansas, he hit a respectable .284/.367/.311 (oops) meaning that he has almost no power to speak of (he had five extra base hits in 259 plate appearances). He’s the kind of player that makes no sense on a regular-season roster, but makes perfect sense on a playoff roster.
A lot of fans don’t pay attention to their team’s minor-league affiliates. There are a good number of these one-trick guys down in the minors. Whether they are guys who have light-tower power and always swing very hard in case they hit it, or the lefty who is devastating on lefties and has just enough to get Double-A righties out, they’re out there. It’s interesting because we get to see them in the playoffs, but of course, teams wouldn’t have these guys to roster if there weren’t a few of them kicking around in the minors.
Consider this: Gore is a tremendous athlete. His skills would translate into a lot of other sports. And among major leaguers, he’s one of the fastest guys out there. And yet, he’s not much of a major leaguer. The Royals have given him a few token September regular-season plate appearances, but that’s it. It gives you an idea for how insanely hard it is to play baseball at a high level. You have to be able to put the bat on the ball consistently, but be able to put enough force on it that the pitcher has to respect you, and you have to be able to move around enough to be able to run from place to place and base to base. And you have to be able to handle the cerebral aspect of it all and do it night after night for six straight months. It’s not enough to have one amazing tool in the regular season. Baseball is a game played by guys who have some balance in their athletic (and mental) profile. A guy who excels at one particular athletic skill is considered flawed! Strangely enough, it’s not until we get to the playoffs that we really get to see those flawed guys.
Pitcher-catcher relationships might be the most important thing in the game
In Game 5 of the ALCS last Wednesday, the Toronto Blue Jays trailed 3-1 in the series and faced elimination at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. Marco Estrada was scheduled to pitch that night, which meant that manager John Gibbons had a choice to make. If ever there was a time to make sure that he had his best possible lineup on the field it was that night, because if the Blue Jays had lost that game (they won), there would have been a lot of sorrowing Canadians exiting the Rogers Centre afterward. That decision? All season Dioner Navarro has served as Estrada’s “personal” catcher. Navarro hit decently — for a backup catcher — putting up a .246/.307/.374 line with five home runs in 192 plate appearances. But the Blue Jays had Russell Martin, whom they signed to a giant contract last offseason, and Martin put up a much better .240/.329/.458 line with 23 HR in the regular season. Martin’s defense even ranked a little bit better in 2015 as well.
Gibbons went with Navarro in the starting lineup. Why?
During the regular season, there’s a certain logic to having a catcher who pairs with a certain starter. Catchers need more days off than do other position players. If Navarro and Estrada are a matched pair, then whenever Estrada’s turn comes up in the rotation, it makes a nicely scheduled “day off” for Martin. But in the playoffs, there are already days off built into the schedule. Why not start Martin? The fact that Gibbons penciled in his backup backstop tells us something important. In a must-have game, Gibbons clearly felt that it was more important to keep his pitcher paired up with his normal catcher than to put in the obviously better hitter and defender. It’s not that Gibbons was alone in this strange behavior. In Game 1 of the NLCS, Jon Lester started for the Cubs and threw to his friend David Ross, despite Ross’s sub-.200 batting average and the availability of Miguel Montero.
The name “catcher” really doesn’t do justice to what the job entails. While the catcher does stop the 95 mph fastball from going to the backstop, he does more than that. A lot of times, he’s calling the game. He not only has to know the game plan for how to get each batter out, but he has to be mindful of how his pitcher is doing out there and whether he would be able to actually execute a curveball on the outside corner. Sometimes he has to go out there and calm his pitcher down. And the two of them have to work well together to pick the 100 or so pitches that the pitcher will throw that night and each of those 100 pitches basically has to be perfect, or at least near-perfect. And just about any MLB hitter is capable of turning a not-so-perfect one into a souvenir for some kid in the left field bleachers. The catcher and pitcher are a unit, and they have to understand each other to work well together.
Whether or not they are correct, both Gibbons and Maddon clearly believe that a pitcher’s comfort level with his catcher is still worth the downgrade that comes from putting him in the lineup over the “better” catcher. It’s something that we can’t quite put into our calculations of WAR yet, which is a bit of an oversight, since it might be one of the most important pieces of the game.
Managing a baseball game is really hard
If there’s something that you can learn from watching a World Series game, it’s how hard it is to manage any baseball game. You could learn that by just watching a random game in July, but now, you’ve got an interesting game on TV and for most people, a lack of a rooting interest in either team. At once, Ned Yost has to keep an eye on how Yordano Ventura is doing on the mound, and consider how many more batters he’s willing to let Ventura go. Who would be up then? Should he get Danny Duffy up in case he needs to face Daniel Murphy or Lucas Duda? What will he do with Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the order? What if Ventura doesn’t make it that far? Who does Terry Collins have on the bench that he might use to pinch hit in the pitcher’s spot? Should he get Ryan Madson or Luke Hochevar up as well to limit Collins’s options here? Which one? What if he gets Duffy and Hochevar up, but only uses one of them and then the other has gotten all warmed up to do … nothing? Is he still good to pitch in half an hour? Is it worth potentially burning a guy in the bullpen only just to make Collins think a little more about his pinch-hitting choices?
And that’s just one situation that might lead to one move that you actually see. But there were plenty of variables that went into that decision, some of which you have no idea were even in play. Baseball is a complicated game, but it has a lot to teach us if we watch closely. So Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET, when you tune in to Game 1 of the World Series on FOX, see if there’s a little something extra you can learn about the game.
Or just enjoy the (hopefully) seven most fun games in all of sports!