Justin Verlander's 122nd pitch on Saturday was a 97 mph fastball that Greg Bird fouled off. The next pitch was another 97 mph fastball, up and in. His final pitch was a slider that Bird pounded into the ground for the Yankees’ final out. After the Astros then scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, Verlander had thrown the first nine-inning complete game in a league championship series since the White Sox remarkably threw four in a row in 2005. That almost feels like a different era of baseball.
Verlander was viewed as a conquering hero, like he had washed up on the shores of Normandy to deliver starting pitchers from the tyranny of bullpens. The last pitcher to throw more pitches in a playoff game was Verlander himself, back in the 2012 American League Championship Series, when he threw 132 in 8⅓ innings. The last pitcher to throw more in a complete game was Mark Prior, way back in the 2003 division series for the Cubs, when he threw 133 in a 3-1 victory over the Braves.
Verlander’s turn-back-the-clock performance, however, has been the exception. He’s the only starter to pitch into the eighth inning, let alone go all nine. Only eight starters out of 42 starts have reached 100 pitches. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that managers are relying more than ever on their bullpens in postseason play. They don’t want to lose a game in the middle innings with a starter facing a lineup for the third time or as he starts approaching 90 pitches. Check out the percentage of innings thrown by starters in the postseason over the years, along with ERAs of starters and relievers and the percentage of seven-inning starts:
Maybe those numbers change as we move deeper into the postseason. In the division series, managers have to manage with an almost desperate urgency. We saw Verlander, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana all pitch in relief.
Or maybe that urgency will continue. “For us to be successful, we have to win eight games,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said recently. “So it’s a really bad mental process to think that you’re going to do it with just one or two guys, or have your starters throw 90 to 120 pitches coming off of no rest, pitching 12 significant pitches in a winner-take-all game in Washington.”
Dodgers starter Rich Hill said pitchers just have to adjust to the chaos. “These playoff games, as we’ve seen throughout the entire playoffs, are completely their own animal,” Hill said. “You have to win that game. So you do whatever it takes to win that game.”
So continue to expect more relievers and simply admire Verlander for his rare gem. Other things we’ve learned:
Aaron Judge is struggling
The playoffs sometimes seem so long that the wild-card game feels like another season. Judge went 2-for-4 with a home run and walk in that game, but has gone 2-for-27 since then with 19 strikeouts. There’s no other way to put it: It’s turning into a postseason of historic ineptitude. Alfonso Soriano holds the single-season postseason record with 26 strikeouts, but he did that over 17 games and at least drove in nine runs. Dan Wilson went 2-for-33 for the Mariners in 1995, tied with Bill North of the 1974 A’s for lowest average in a postseason with at least 30 at-bats.
I thought Judge’s struggles were at least partially a case of pitchers just throwing him some really tough pitches, so I looked at the percentage of pitches thrown to him that ESPN Stats & Information labeled as on the black or on the corner. In the regular season, that rate was 8.6 percent of all pitches. In the postseason, it has been 9 percent. Yes, he has faced some tough pitchers, but this mostly appears to be a case of a young player slumping at the wrong time.
He’s not the only young player struggling, however. I checked all players 25 or younger this postseason, a list that also includes some of the game’s biggest stars: Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Cody Bellinger, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Mookie Betts. Altogether, those 22 position players have hit .214/.298/.422 for a .316 wOBA. Gary Sanchez is hitting .176/.200/.382. Bryant has a .532 OPS. Lindor hit .111 and Ramirez .100 for the Indians.
Players 26 and older, however, have fared much better: .269/.346/.452, a .350 wOBA. So does experience matter? After all, if you’re playing in the postseason at a young age, it probably means you’re pretty good. Postseason numbers from 2010 to 2016:
25 and younger: .234/.297/.378, .299 wOBA
26 and older: .248/.318/.403, .317 wOBA
Now, you’d have to compare those numbers to the regular season to get a more meaningful analytic answer, but younger players are certainly faring worse this postseason than they have in the past. Maybe that’s good news for the Yankees: Judge and Sanchez are definitely due.
“It’s stressful. It’s fun,” Bellinger said of his postseason. “Everything matters a little more, every at-bat matters a little more. But you try to treat it like a regular-season game.”
Easy to say, harder to execute.
Defense does matter
It has been suggested that the increased rate of strikeouts in recent years means defense is less important since there are fewer balls in play. I don’t know if I agree with that -- you can argue that the average ball in play is hit harder now than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. Anyway, the Indians certainly echoed that belief with their decision to play Jason Kipnis in center field (or to play Carlos Santana in left field in last year’s World Series). That’s two years in a row they reached the postseason and played guys at a spot they hadn’t played all year.
Well, one thing we’ve learned this postseason is that the defense most definitely matters. Ask the Nationals. Ask the Indians. Ask the Yankees what happens when you don’t properly execute a relay throw. There have been 35 errors in 22 games so far; last year, there were 38 errors in 35 games. That doesn’t even count all the passed balls and wild pitches.
Ask the Astros about playing great defense. They twice beat Yankees 2-1, and in Game 1 Marwin Gonzalez threw out Bird at home plate and in Game 2 Josh Reddick made a leaping catch at the wall and started the relay that threw out Brett Gardner at third base.
“To play clean baseball is what I’m the most proud of,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch told the media Sunday. “It’s not perfect baseball ... but the cleanliness of our play, being able to make those relay throws, the throw from Marwin in left field, some of the running plays that [Alex] Bregman is making at third. ... Those are small plays that don’t get written about a lot, don’t get talked about a lot. But they’re hugely appreciated in the winning environment.”
Maddon was asked about Javier Baez's place in the lineup since he has been struggling at the plate. He pointed to the play in the first inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, when Baez made a quick, accurate throw to home plate to nail the speedy Trea Turner, which turned out to be a crucial play in a one-run victory. “We would not be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for his play in the first inning against Washington with the drawn-in infield. Don’t ever overlook those things. A lot of our success is based on defense, and Javy is so important to that.”
Not everybody loves the home plate collision rule
Swing the argument this way, however: What if Charlie Culberson had crushed Willson Contreras and put Contreras out for the season with a dislocated shoulder or something? That’s one reason the rule exists. The other: It’s obstruction. It has always been obstruction. It just wasn’t called obstruction for 100 years.
Does Hinch trust his bullpen?
While the Verlander game was impressive, you can argue that it also was a sign that Hinch doesn’t completely trust his bullpen (especially given that Verlander also appeared in relief in Game 4 of the ALDS). On the other hand, Hinch had quick hooks with Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton in the ALDS starts, so it may be more a situation of really trusting Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Ken Giles. Still, at some point, some of the other pitchers are going to have get some big outs.