Friday, October 20, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 20, 2023 -- "Finally"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Finally
Vol. 15, No. 119
October 20, 2023

After more than two weeks of games in which tension was hard to find, we finally got what we needed. The Phillies and Diamondbacks played a taut pitchers’ duel, scoreless into the sixth, 1-1 into the ninth, and won on a walk-off hit. All of those are firsts for the 2023 postseason.

The top-50-prospect version of Brandon Pfaadt showed up, the one we saw flashes of for a start or two at a time during the season. Pfaadt wasn’t overpowering, sitting 94 with his four-seam fastball, and his pitch characteristics were close to what they were all year. Pfaadt did a good job working up in the zone with a high-spin four-seamer, and then down with his sweeper and sinker. The Phillies could not touch him. They swung 36 times and put just nine balls in play, most of them unthreatening. The Phillies hit just two balls off Pfaadt at 100 mph or better. Pfaadt struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced. This, mind you, is the lineup that had been ripping up the NL bracket for two weeks. 

With all that, Pfaadt was pulled with two outs in the sixth inning, and rightly so.

See, intra-game performance isn’t predictive. It’s counterintuitive, but five shutout innings doesn’t make a pitcher more likely to throw a sixth shutout inning. In other words, everyone is dealing until they’re not.

This particular point has come up again and again in recent years, with managers who make the correct decision to bring in a pitcher more likely to get the next out absolutely ravaged by fans and media who want every playoff game to be played like it’s 1967. It’s the hardest notion to get past and it queers every conversation, because the people who see the pitcher lifted assume he would have thrown another three shutout innings in every case.

There’s a long version of this argument that dates to Game Six of the 2020 World Series and Kevin Cash’s decision to remove Blake Snell. The short version:

-- Every pitcher is subject to the third-time-through penalty (TTP). Due to a combination of familiarity and fatigue, batters hit pitchers better the more they see them on a given day. The TTP isn’t new, only our awareness of it. Your favorite workhorses from the 1960s and 1970s were subject to it as well. 

-- Reliever armies. Back in those halcyon days, bullpens were lightly populated, and mostly by pitchers not good enough to be starters. Leaving Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver or even their lessers in the game made sense because notwithstanding the TTP, they were better than the alternatives. That is no longer the case. Most teams have five or six pitchers who, brought in fresh, are more likely to get the next out than the starter is.

This is a different conversation in the regular season, of course, when you have to manage six games a week and get to 1440 innings a year. It’s also a different conversation with the top tier of starters in the game -- which is why we didn’t talk about this much when Zac Gallen was left in for the third time through in Game One.

-- The manager doesn’t get paid for losing in an aesthetically pleasing way. This is maybe the most important point. It’s not Torey Lovullo’s job to make 65-year-old ballwriters happy. It’s his job to win the game. 

Those are the table stakes for these decisions in the playoffs. Specific to last night, Lovullo was in the same place he’d been on Tuesday, when he let Merrill Kelly face the top of the Phillies’ order a third time and watched the game get away from him. At last night’s decision point, he knew that three of the next five batters would be left-handed and that he had multiple effective left-handed options at his disposal. He also knew that Pfaadt, in his rookie season, didn’t have a third-time-through penalty so much as a third-time-through flagrant foul:

Let’s Not Go, Brandon (Brandon Pfaadt’s times around splits)

          AVG   OBP   SLG
First    .268  .298  .405
Second   .243  .323  .536
Third    .397  .413  .779

Lovullo gave his team the best chance to win by not letting Pfaadt face Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, and Bryce Harper a third time. His bullpen gave him 3 1/3 innings of one-run ball after that, backing up his belief. 

Rob Thomson did the same thing, of course, lifting Ranger Suarez after 16 outs and using his deep bullpen to get to the ninth inning, where he made his only mistake. From Tuesday:

I said going into the Division Series that I didn’t trust Kimbrel, and while it’s worked out for the Phillies so far, I stand by the idea that using him in max-leverage spots is going to blow up on them at some point.

Craig Kimbrel doesn’t have the control or the swing-and-miss stuff he did at his career peak, and it bit him last night. He fell behind Lourdes Gurriel Jr. with three straight fastballs out of the zone, then after battling back to 3-2 could not put Gurriel away, eventually walking him on eight pitches. After a steal, Pavin Smith hit a weak grounder for an infield single. Three batters later, Ketel Marte ended the game with a single to center. Kimbrel faced five batters, walked two, got just three swinging strikes on 24 pitches, and given three two-strike counts couldn’t put a single batter away. In five playoff appearances, Kimbrel has walked four while striking out just two. 

Kimbrel is probably the Phillies’ fourth-best reliever right now, depending on how much you believe in Orion Kerkering’s stuff. (I do, a lot.) It’s one thing to give Kimbrel three-run leads with three outs to go; most pitchers, and some of you reading this, could escape safely in that spot. Asking Kimbrel to pitch in a tied ninth inning on the road, though, is taking on too much risk. I do not expect Rob Thomson to switch horses at this point, however, so Kimbrel will continue to be a problem for this team in big moments. 


Stolen from Jayson Stark (and updated). In the NLCS, Ketel Marte has six hits. All his teammates combined have 11. Marte was stranded after hitting each of his two doubles last night, yet when given a chance with runners on in the ninth, won the game. 


If you liked two starters being pulled with shutouts going, you’re going to love today. The Diamondbacks are using an opener, lefty reliever Joe Mantiply, an excellent choice as Rob Thomson won’t go away from Kyle Schwarber atop his lineup. Game script will dictate what happens next, but however Lovullo gets there, Ryne Nelson likely gets tasked with pitching the most innings. For the Phillies, rookie lefty Christopher Sanchez starts in what will likely be a tandem with Taijuan Walker. Sanchez, I would imagine, will go through Corbin Carroll’s second at-bat, assuming Carroll again bats second in front of six right-handed batters. 

One thing to watch tonight, given the anticipated lack of length from the starters, is that both teams used their A bullpens yesterday. You have to play to win today’s game, especially if you’re Lovullo, but any pitches today by the top relievers on either team could make them unavailable for Game Five.


It looked like another early TKO when the Astros went up 3-0 four batters in, and then it looked like a barnburner after homers by Adolis Garcia and Corey Seager got the Rangers back to a 3-3 tie.

Jose Abreu, though, ended the drama with a three-run bomb off Cody Bradford, and that was that. The Astros got 6 2/3 innings of shutout relief from their bullpen, which struck out five and allowed just one walk. They’ve tied the ALCS and turned it into a best-of-three in which they have home-field advantage. So far, the Series has played out like the 2019 World Series, which the Astros lost to the Nationals when the road team won every game.

The difference in each team’s pitching depth showed up in Game Four. Andrew Heaney didn’t get out of the first, and he and Dane Dunning combined to allow six runs on seven hits and four walks in just 3 1/3 innings. Bradford gave up the big hit, and both Will Smith and Martin Perez were touched up late in the game. The Astros leaned on Ryne Stanek to get them out of a jam in the third, which took him a single pitch, then turned to Hunter Brown for length and got three shutout frames. The Astros just have more good pitchers than the Rangers do. 

Today’s game is a rematch of Game One, with Justin Verlander taking on Jordan Montgomery. Verlander had a quality start in the box score Sunday night. Watching him, though, he seemed reluctant to go after hitters, leaning on his slider for chases out of the zone. Verlander threw 47 fastballs, got 27 swings, but not a single swing-and-miss. The third time through the lineup Verlander was reaching back for more and it wasn’t there, with late-game fastballs struggling to reach 95 mph. The mythos of Verlander has always been that he has that extra gear in the late innings. At 40, that gear may be gone.

Dusty Baker was able to win Game Four without using Ryan Pressly, Hector Neris, or Bryan Abreu, and Stanek threw just one pitch. This may be the day to ask Verlander to go all out for 18 batters and turn the game over to the bullpen. 

The Rangers send Warren Sp...sorry, Jordan the mound. Montgomery, a perfectly adequate #3 over his seven-year career, has morphed into a Hall of Famer over the last month. Since September 13, Montgomery has made seven starts. One was a clunker against the Orioles in the Division Series. In the other six, he’s allowed two runs in 40 1/3 innings, no more than one in any start. In three playoff starts, he’s walked just two of the 75 batters he’s faced.

One thing to watch is whether Montgomery brings back his four-seamer. He had gone away from it during the season, then after being traded to the Rangers used it more, including in his first two playoff starts -- about 28% of the time and pretty much equal with his sinker and curve. In Game One of the ALCS, though, he threw the pitch just 15 times while leaning on that sinker and curve to great effect. The Astros hit just two balls with an exit velocity of 100 mph against Montgomery, and they got to a three-ball count just three times in seven innings. 

The Rangers need that version of Montgomery one more time. We’ve seen what the Astros have done to the back of Texas’s staff, so Montgomery has to get Bruce Bochy to the relievers he trusts -- Josh Sborz, Aroldis Chapman, and Jose LeClerc. None of them has pitched since Monday, and there’s an offday Saturday, so if anyone but those four pitch, something’s probably gone wrong. There is no such thing as “low leverage” in a best-of-three, so Bochy has no business messing around with his weaker relievers today.