Thursday, October 21, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 21, 2021 -- "Starting Pitching"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 108
October 21, 2021

When the two games have a composite score of 18-3 with no lead changes, you’re not left with much to analyze. Let’s step back for a second.

There was a lot of online chatter yesterday about the lack of innings thrown by starting pitchers in this postseason. There’s no one reason for it. Many starters have spit the bit, including Astros starters in seven of their nine games. We’ve seen a few openers and a few bullpen games, tactics that send a segment of the baseball world into hysterics. The use of starters as relievers, thinking here mostly of Max Scherzer, has chipped away at the length of some starts.

Even the pitchers who have had conventional, effective starts haven’t worked deep into games. That’s a function of how starters are used in modern baseball; no starting pitcher averaged more than 6 2/3 innings a start this season. There were just 33 nine-inning starts all year (seven-inning games (and extra-innings versions of same) make calculating that as a percentage a challenge, but it’s well under 1% of starts). There were 111 starts of at least eight innings, well under 3% of all starts. Pitchers don’t do that any more against the Pirates in May, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to do it against playoff-caliber lineups in October.

Where the conversation loses me is in calling this some existential problem for baseball. Look, I get that my generation of sportswriters was shaped on the older end by the aces of the 1960s and the workload monsters of the 1970s, and at the younger end by the 1990s Braves and -- I’m pretty sick of hearing about this one game -- the John Smoltz/Jack Morris matchup in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. Between those two bounds, though, you had a half-generation of incredible pitchers that was broken by overwork, the Gooden/Saberhagen/Hershiser class. No one talks much about that group when glorifying the days when men were men.

The fact is, postseason baseball hasn’t just been Gibby and Sandy throwing haymakers for 175 pitches on two days’ rest. It’s been Casey Stengel employing quick hooks throughout the Yankees’ 1950s dynasty. Some years his starters threw 35 2/3 out of 37 innings in the Series; some years he quick-hooked like Sparky Anderson after a case of Red Bull. Speaking of Captain Hook, his vaunted Big Red Machine won consecutive World Series in 1975 and 1976. In 17 playoff games, Anderson’s starter saw the eighth four times, which is as many times as they didn’t reach five innings. Managers have always played to the conditions of the game and the strength of their roster. Heck, you know when this trend towards winning championships by throwing relief pitchers at the problem accelerated? 2011, when Tony La Russa used a deep arsenal to make up for a lack of frontline pitching on his way to the title.

The “primacy of starting pitchers” is something that has waxed and waned throughout history. It’s in a fallow period now, and maybe forever, because pitching is as hard as it’s ever been. There are very few soft touches in a lineup any more, certainly not in playoff lineups. On a per-pitch basis, pitchers in the modern playoffs are working the hardest of any pitchers in baseball history. The same amount of energy that might have gotten you four times through a lineup half-filled with 150-pound singles hitters in 1965 now gets you two times around one in which everybody can take you deep.

Yesterday, we saw Framber Valdez throw eight innings for the Astros’ third LCS win, and we saw the Braves use six pitchers to get 27 outs for their third LCS win. Neither is better than the other. The White Sox were as starting-pitching-forward as any team in baseball, and they’re home. The Brewers were shaped much the same, and they are golfing as well. Until we start holding parades and making commemorative gear for “the team that came closest to a championship while playing baseball the way it was played in 1983,” shut up about how the wins are racked up.

We want as many different approaches to winning as we can get. One of baseball’s real problems right now -- not “old people don’t like where the second baseman stands,” but actual problems -- is the lack of ways in which teams can win. You can’t win without power. You can’t win without having a bunch of strikeout relievers. You can’t win with one-run strategies because there aren’t enough singles to cash them in. I am very guilty of talking too much about baseball in the 1980s, but you had a combination of competitive balance and variety of approaches that has never been matched before or since. The deployment of pitchers is one of the few ways in which teams are taking a range of approaches, and we need to embrace that.

Astros/Red Sox

Alex Cora faced one of the toughest decisions he’s had this October in the sixth inning last night. Chris Sale was pitching better than he had at any time since his Tommy John surgery, allowing one run on two hits, with seven strikeouts against one walk in five innings. He’d thrown just 79 pitches in going around the Astros’ order twice.

A conservative approach would have been to thank Sale for his work keeping the Sox in a 1-0 game and turn to Tanner Houck. Houck had not pitched since Game One, throwing only an inning in that contest, seemingly so that he could serve as Sale’s backup should one be needed. One may not necessarily have been needed, but a fresh Houck versus Sale at 80 pitches facing the Astros a third time is probably a debate won by Houck. Like a lot of decisions this month, this one falls into a range where I can see it both ways.

Complicating this is that gorgeous Astros lineup, which starts RLRLRLR, leaving no obvious place to bring in a reliever to gain the platoon advantage, and perhaps more importantly in this moment, no obvious place to remove Sale. If you didn’t take out the lefty after the fifth, with the top of the order coming up, there would always be a left-handed batter coming up to tempt you into leaving Sale in.

That’s exactly how the inning played out. Sale issued a five-pitch walk to Jose Altuve, an at-bat during which he threw his slowest four-seamer of the night (92.5 mph), and didn’t break 95 on any of them. This was a sign that Sale was losing effectiveness...but coming up was a left-handed batter, Michael Brantley, so it made sense to leave Sale in. Brantley topped a first-pitch slider to third, a difficult if makeable 5-3, but Kyle Schwarber flat dropped the throw to first. Altuve went to third on the error.

This is where I think Cora went wrong. He needed to have a right-hander ready for the Alex Bregman/Yordan Alvarez/Carlos Correa stretch, and he didn’t. If you can defend sending Sale out for the sixth, you can’t defend doing it without having a reliever hot. With no one ready -- Brantley put the first pitch in play, remember -- Sale faced Bregman, who also put the first pitch in play, topping out to Sale. Now, we’re back to having a lefty at the plate in Alvarez, and there’s again no case for taking out Sale. Alvarez hit a first-pitch fastball -- 95 mph, again among his slowest of the night -- down the left-field line, and the game was over.

(Aside: The first indication from the broadcast that the Red Sox had anyone up in the bullpen at all was a shot of Sale walking to the dugout after being removed. Terrible. Just terrible.)

It’s hard to take out your nominal ace when he’s pitching as well as Sale was. It’s hard to take out your lefty starter when two lefties are due up in three batters, and you don’t have a lefty reliever up. It’s hard to take out your pitcher when he’s been victimized by an error. It’s hard to take out your lefty starter when he’s allowed a walk and two weak grounders and there’s a lefty at the plate. At every turn, I can understand why Alex Cora made the choice that he did, but it was passive managing in a situation that called for being more active.

This streaky series has now seen the Astros rip off a 17-1 run over 11 innings to head back to Houston up 3-2. Their rotation is a bit of a mess, down Lance McCullers and with Luis Garcia’s knee a question mark. The Red Sox send their best to the mound Friday night, Nathan Eovaldi, and after the week the Dodgers have had we’ll all be watching to see if Eovaldi is affected by throwing 24 pitches in relief on Tuesday.


Eddie Rosario seems to have taken the baton from Enrique Hernandez as the playoffs’ random hero. He had a triple and two homers last night in the Braves’ 9-2 win at Dodger Stadium, putting the Braves, for the second straight year, one win away from the World Series. Never forget:

“What an embarrassing trade deadline for Paul Dolan. The Cleveland front office made four deals at the deadline, and two of them were entirely accounting tricks. They gave Cesar Hernandez to the team they were chasing in the division to save about $1.7 million. Then they made a one-for-one deal with the Braves, sending Eddie Rosario out for corner infield prospect *checks notes* 34-year-old Pablo Sandoval. That trade shuffled about another $1 million off the payroll. That is literally all it does, as Sandoval was released almost immediately.”

Tonight’s game flips the script from Game Four, with the Dodgers employing a bullpen game against the Braves’ good young lefty. Max Fried. The Dodgers can pitch anyone at this point and it won’t matter unless they get their offense going. The second-best offense in the NL during the season has hit .211/.266 (!)/.422 in the playoffs, scoring just 3.5 runs a game. It’s actually a little worse than that, as they’ve been held to three runs or fewer in five of their nine playoff games.

The Max Muncy injury can be blamed for some of that fall-off, but you have the Turner Twins at .154 with two walks and a .218 SLG being a much bigger factor in the team’s wretched month. Justin Turner is done for the year after straining his hamstring last night, and it may very well make the Dodgers better in the short term.

It’s silly to write off the Dodgers when we saw this script play out a year ago. This year, though, the Dodgers are a bit worse at this stage of the season, the Braves are a bit better, and the final two games aren’t being played in Arlington. The Braves have been the best team in this series, and unless that changes immediately, they’re headed back to the World Series for the first time since 1999.