MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers

No, not the beards. Well sort of the beard. The complexion of Game Three of the ALCS is, in a nutshell, modern baseball. Mike Napoli represents both sides of the modern baseball dynamic with his performance tonight. One home run (game winning) and two strikeouts – two of Justin Verlander‘s 11 Ks on the night.

Verlander and John Lackey might not be part of the new vanguard of power pitchers, but they are two guys who helped usher it in. Verlander is the prototype power pitcher – he throws in the upper 90s with multiple secondary offerings, many of which touch 90 mph on their own.

John Lackey is the other kind of model for young pitchers. He might not light triple digits like Justin Verlander but he induced 16 swinging strikes out of 97 pitches tonight. He was a dominant starter for long enough that somebody gave him a gigantic pile of money for his trouble (and his ability to throw 200 innings while coaxing swinging strikes by the boatload.) That kind of monetary incentive is a great way to funnel talented young ball players toward the mound, the fruits of which baseball is currently enjoying.

When the playoffs begin, it isn’t that good pitching becomes more important, it’s that good pitching becomes more common. It usually takes a good pitching staff to qualify for October baseball. The Wild Card and best three-out-of-five format can tilt matters in favor of better pitching staffs. By the time the division series get rolling, rotations are set and good pitchers are rolling – if they weren’t pitching well, they wouldn’t survive the first round.

Strikeouts, home runs, few walks. The goal of the modern pitcher. Maybe too many hitters are swinging from their heels, refusing to adjust their approach with two strikes or when confronted with top-end pitching. Then again, against the second or third starter for a run-of-the-mill team, that can work. It does work, often. Scoring is down this season but home run rates keep going up in the big leagues. Home runs pay so here we are.

Mike Napoli hit a home run in a game that featured a grand total of 10 hits. There were 23 strikeouts in total tonight. 46 swinging strikes on 269 pitches. Three walks. Total. This is what baseball looks like now. It doesn’t look like this when Phil Humber starts for the Astros against Jose Quintana in May but this is the kind of game all other games aspire to be.

The future of baseball also includes a most recent creation than strikeouts and home runs – dominant relievers. Lots of them (and Phil Coke, too!) Maybe there would be more scoring if starters came out for the ninth inning after throwing 120 pitches. That doesn’t really happen any more, Hell, Verlander coming out for the eighth seems like a small miracle. Bullpens are lined with relievers like Jose Veras and Junichi Tazawa – very good pitchers who might be racking up saves in previous years. Now they pitch the eighth or the seventh or are called upon to get two guys out in the sixth because there are Al Alburquerque-s waiting in the wings and Joaquin Benoit-s and Koji Uehara-s behind them. Pitches who throw nothing but strikes and, when they deign to miss the strike zone, it’s with a pitch that looks suspiciously like a strike until the final instant.

It wasn’t exclusively about the pitcher this afternoon. There was enough defense to keep the fielders awake, most notably Dustin Pedroia‘s beautiful double play turn in the 9th inning, erasing the tying run from the base paths. But it was mostly about the pitchers. The game today is mostly about the pitchers.

We better get used it, is all I’m saying. Prepare ourselves for more taut, close games. It isn’t that low-scoring games are better or worse but they are going to keep happening until the next adjustment comes. Which it will, eventually. For now? Throw out the extra 7 and 8 from your manually operated scoreboard, you won’t need them for a while.

Comments (2)

  1. Sometimes when anomalies bunch up together, they look like a trend. I think if you look at the scores since the playoffs began, you can easily imagine a few of them happening on different days and see that your last statement is a bit overdone. We might be seeing some slight downward trends, but there isn’t a “new normal” that has taken place over the past week.

    • While I agree this week isn’t truly indicative of anything in particular, it is a microcosm of a large trend with offense in decline. Runs are down, pitcher velocity is on the rise, as is the velocity and relative quality of relief pitchers. The run on 1-0 games is a fluke, the dearth of runs is real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *