Cliff Lee and the Rangers brushed the Rays aside last night, ending the 2010 divisional round. The Rays/Rangers series was one of four very low scoring series, among the lowest scoring playoff rounds in recent memory. In fact, only one game of the entire divisional round featured more than 10 total runs and only one team scored as many as 7 runs in a game.
How can that be? Is the well-worn cliché “playoff baseball is all about pitching and defense” actually true? Not exactly, not for the reasons we’re often told.
The differences between playoff and regular season action in all sports fall under the same vague axioms. Hockey and basketball playoffs are clearly different than their regular season cousins, for no more compelling reason than effort. The inverse relationship between “hours spent enjoying bottle service” and “intensity of playoff games” is a pretty strong one. In baseball — especially when it relates to pitching — there is no effort. You’re either good or you aren’t.
The “playoff baseball” truism has little to do with a change in the style of play, it has to do with the talent of those playing it. Pitching and defense don’t win in the playoffs, they win ALL THE TIME.
Look at the San Francisco Giants – a team built on pitching and defense. True, they spent much of the summer trading for offensive upgrades in the outfield (by the dozen!) but the Giants scored a grand total of 11 runs in winning the NLDS. Playoff baseball teams not only feature the best pitchers in the game (Halladay, Lincecum, Lee, Sabathia) they feature the greatest concentration of pitching. The drop-off from Game 1 starter to Game 3 is much less for a playoff-caliber team than it is for the Friday to Sunday starters of the Cleveland Indians.
As a baseball fan, you’re surely familiar with the term “innings eater.” Less-than-spectacular starting pitchers capable of providing their teams with mediocre innings to keep the team afloat during the long winter years. The only thing an inning eater finds himself chewing on in October is sunflower seeds by the truckload.
Especially during the shortened divisional series, teams can front load their starting pitchers and set up their aces during the after clinching their playoff spot early. This moves their marginal starters to the bullpen (if they don’t put them out to pasture until spring). Former starters instantly become better options than mid-level relievers, saving the best bullpen options for later in the game.
The impact of an “end-game” situation changes the way managers use their bullpens also. The “there is no tomorrow” philosophy sees high-end relievers worked harder than normal for maximum impact. The extra days off give the illusion of rest for this late-game stoppers, but one only has to look to Keith Foulke and Robb Nen to learn about the rigors of playoff relieving.
Don’t let bland blanket statements trick you into believing what just isn’t so. Pitching and defense aren’t any more important during the playoffs, the deck is simply stacked in their favour during the hectic (and cold) short season. Besides: good pitching always beats good hitting. Everybody knows that.