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MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals

You’ll never believe it but, even in the playoffs, striking out batters is a great way for a pitcher to help his team win. Anibal Sanchez of the Detroit Tigers pitched really well Saturday night and Max Scherzer also pitched well Sunday night. Combined they struck out 25 batters in 13 innings.

Scherzer might have pitched better but Sanchez got a lot of attention for leaving the game without allowing a hit, a desirable outcome for a starting pitcher. The Tigers staff as a whole held the Red Sox to just one measly base hit while striking out 17 as a staff. That’s good!

Comparing the two starts, it’s a little odd that Sanchez allowed six base runners while Scherzer only let four reach safely. Six walks seems like a lot for a “dominant start”. In the minds of some, this diminishes his outing a little. Hey, if taking pride in a strange fun allergy is your thing, go nuts – tear down as many no-hitters or near no-hitters as you can. Nobody forces you to enjoy them, let your beige accountant flag fly.

The Tigers dominated the Red Sox batters both nights, but the Sox ability to work counts and draw walks gave them chances to score on Saturday, loading the bases in the sixth inning against the AL’s ERA leader. It was in those brief moments of hope for the Sox that we saw the true value of the strikeout – a pitcher’s ultimate equalizer.

The no-hitter component of Sanchez’s outing makes it more noteworthy but his high strikeout, high walk results are not unique. His start was among 12 postseason starts in baseball history in which a pitcher struck out ten or more while walking four or more (nine innings or less).

If you look at the 12 game on that list, only twice did the starter’s team fail to win the game. There is another trend to look for – the relationship between strikeouts and walk. Not the ratio, the relationship. The worst starts on this list, by runs allowed, come in the games where the pitcher failed to create a differential between their Ks and BBs.

Rk Player Date Series Gm# Tm Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR GSc
1 Anibal Sanchez 2013-10-12 ALCS 1 DET BOS W 1-0 GS-6 ,W 6.0 0 0 0 6 12 0 78
2 Jim Palmer 1973-10-06 ALCS 1 BAL OAK W 6-0 SHO9 ,W 9.0 5 0 0 5 12 0 84
3 Justin Verlander 2012-10-06 ALDS 1 DET OAK W 3-1 GS-7 ,W 7.0 3 1 1 4 11 1 74
4 Kerry Wood 2003-09-30 NLDS 1 CHC ATL W 4-2 GS-8 ,W 7.1 2 2 2 5 11 1 72
5 Chief Bender 1911-10-14 WS 1 PHA NYG L 1-2 CG 8 ,L 8.0 5 2 1 4 11 0 73
6 Randy Johnson 1995-10-06 ALDS 3 SEA NYY W 7-4 GS-7 ,W 7.0 4 2 2 4 10 1 67
7 John Smoltz 1993-10-10 NLCS 4 ATL PHI L 1-2 GS-7 ,L 6.1 8 2 0 5 10 0 58
8 Steve Carlton 1980-10-15 WS 2 PHI KCR W 6-4 GS-8 ,W 8.0 10 4 3 6 10 0 52
9 Jim Palmer 1971-10-11 WS 2 BAL PIT W 11-3 GS-8 ,W 8.0 7 3 3 8 10 1 58
10 Sal Maglie 1956-10-03 WS 1 BRO NYY W 6-3 CG 9 ,W 9.0 9 3 3 4 10 2 63
11 Red Ruffing 1932-09-28 WS 1 NYY CHC W 12-6 CG 9 ,W 9.0 10 6 3 6 10 0 53
12 Orval Overall 1908-10-14 WS 5 CHC DET W 2-0 SHO9 ,W 9.0 3 0 0 4 10 0 87
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/14/2013.

There seems to be a magic number of “5″ among starts on this list. Strikeout five more hitters than you walk and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be okay. If we limit the list to pitchers who struck out more than 10 while walking four plus, we are left with five starters who allowed four combined runs, the worst of which occurred more than 100 years ago.

This is not science but watching Anibal Sanchez work on Saturday night it didn’t seem crazy. Sanchez’s strikeout to walk ratio was just 2:1, but that doesn’t tell anywhere close to the whole story. He struck out six more batters than he walked, much more impressive than striking out four and walking two. Not only is it a more effective ways to work through a lineup, it is indicative of skills which project well to future success (like leading the American League in ERA and earning a contract worth almost $90 million.)

It is the ability to strikeout hitters in bulk that makes the Tigers staff so tough. Sanchez coaxed 18 swinging strikeouts of the Red Sox hitters, Scherzer 24. That skill comes in handy when faced with a situation where just about any ball in play is going to result in runs on the board.

The Cardinals assortment of fireballers operate under the same principle. When you throw in the upper 90s and can miss bats almost at will, you can dodge the occasional bullet.

The Cardinals starters aren’t as well-decorated or strikeout happy as the Tigers rotation but their back of the St. Louis bullpen dominates in a way Jim Lelyand can only dream of, just as they did during Friday night’s 13 inning marathon. The Cards pen allowed just four his over seven innings of work, striking out six compared to two unintentional walks.

As one might expect, scoring is way down in the postseason. In the 2013 second season, league-wide ERA is down around half a run to 3.38. The league’s strikeout to walk rate is way up, not coincidentally.Groundbreaking stuff – strikeouts are key! In the playoffs especially! Close games lessen the margin of error available to all pitchers in October, being able to reach back for that crucial whiff has never been a bigger part of a pitcher’s arsenal.