October baseball has arrived, and the smell of high cheese is in the air.
As 10 lucky postseason qualifiers prepare for the grind, several favorites and darkhorses are blessed in a similar respect: They're long on power arms that can slice and dice opposing lineups amid excruciating pressure for the better part of a month.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have the 19th best bullpen ERA in baseball and struggled in September, but they're formidable because the 1-2 punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke is such a great equalizer. The Chicago Cubs are especially dangerous because of the Jake Arrieta-Jon Lester combination. And the Toronto Blue Jays are a much more serious threat to make a deep postseason run now that they've added David Price and a resurgent Marcus Stroman to the mix.
Scan the list of great postseason performances, and the pitchers who spring to mind gravitate toward the power end of the spectrum rather than the finesse end. Sandy Koufax. Bob Gibson. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. John Smoltz and Jack Morris duking it out in Game 7 of the World Series in 1991. And Madison Bumgarner, dealing as both a starter and a reliever in 2014.
The aforementioned pitchers routinely overwhelmed hitters during the regular season, so it's no surprise they shone brightly on the biggest stage. But how much of a factor was velocity in their success?
"I think people get lost on 100 mph," said New York Mets broadcaster Ron Darling. "They think, 'That's a power arm.' Clayton Kershaw is a power arm, and he throws 94-95 mph. Zack Greinke throws 92-93. He's a power arm. It's the swing-and miss-capability. Sometimes it comes at 100. Sometimes it comes in at 92."
Nevertheless, some recent data points to a link between big heat and preeminence in October. In conjunction with this story, Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight analyzed every pitch from the 2011-2014 MLB seasons and found that hitters were more vulnerable to high velocities in the playoffs than during the regular season. Although the difference wasn't huge, it was statistically significant.
But so many other factors come into play, it's clear that velocity is not the sole determinant of October success. Several MLB hitters, pitchers, coaches and media analysts shared their thoughts on the topic for ESPN.com, and tried to explain why some pitchers reign supreme when the days grow shorter and the pulse rates rise.
Big fastballs help simplify the narrative
Velocity is the standard measure of power pitching. It's why fans cheer and sportswriters gush when those big red numbers flash on the scoreboard. All you have to do is watch Aroldis Chapman's triple-digit readings to see the phenomenon at work.
But true dominance is reflected more by missing bats than clocking 100. Pitchers who can generate swings and misses bring more predictability to the equation by eliminating so many variables. That's true from April through September, of course. But the dynamic is magnified in October, when a lone pitcher-batter confrontation can mean the difference between advancing or going home.
"The fewer balls put in play, the better chance you have of winning a game," Darling said. "Just look at bullpens around baseball. Houston has talented guys, but they're balls-in-play guys. So late in games, not only does the pitcher have to be good, but the defense and decision-making have to be good. Then you look at a guy like (the New York Yankees') Dellin Betances, who can get three strikeouts on 10 pitches. With power arms, you take other factors out of play.
"I know analysts don't agree on 'BABIP' [batting average on balls in play] balls. But if John Smoltz breaks a bat and there's a grounder to third, it's different than a ball hit on the nose with spin that's a tough play. You take defense out of play with strikeout ability, and you don't have to worry as much about three-run homers that can decide games. When they're on, power pitchers dictate at-bats. For guys who don't throw hard, there's a mutual dictating of the at-bat by the pitcher and the hitter."
Not all gun readings are created equal
Clayton Kershaw leads the majors with 301 strikeouts and a 15.9 percent swing and miss rate, according to FanGraphs, while ranking 21st in velocity with an average fastball of 93.6 mph. Max Scherzer, who ranks second with a 15.3 swing-and-miss rate, is 17th in velocity at 94.2.
Zack Greinke's breakdown is even more instructive. He's 41st in velocity at 91.8 mph and 13th in swing-and-miss rate at 12.0 percent. His stuff plays up because he can command four pitches, throw them at any time in the count and has an innate ability to read hitter's swings and adapt. As Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez puts it, "He pitches with his eyes."
Among the teams with elite staffs, it's hard to find top-of-the-rotation starters without multiple weapons at their disposal.
"The guys throwing 97 nowadays aren't just saying, 'Here it is, hit it," said Mets hitting coach Kevin Long. "Matt Harvey has four pitches. Jacob deGrom has four, and Noah Syndergaard has three. Not only do they have good fastballs -- they have secondary pitches that go along with it."
Cubs starter Jake Arrieta's repertoire and stuff are imposing, to put it mildly. But the challenge is magnified by a cross-body delivery that makes it difficult for hitters to see the ball out of Arrieta's hand. In the battle to disrupt timing, deception and late movement are every bit as important as velocity.
"Certain guys might not throw that hard, but it plays hard," said Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson. "You'll come back to the dugout and say, 'Man, I know the board says 90, but it feels like 94.' With another pitcher it might say 98, but it doesn't feel like 98. Some guys happen to be quicker and their velocity plays up. If a 90 mph fastball gets to you in one second vs. less than a second, it's two different pitches even though they're the same mph."
Teams see an awful lot of each other over a short time span in the postseason. In recent weeks, Mets scouts have been watching the Dodgers and honing in on Adrian Gonzalez's bat speed and trying to find holes in Corey Seager's swing. (Good luck with that). Meanwhile, Dodgers scouts are preparing up-to-the-minute assessments of the giddyup on Matt Harvey's fastball.
The barrage of information puts a bigger premium on execution. Pitchers dutifully study the scouting reports. But the ones who thrive tend to stick with a game plan, focus on their strengths and are proactive rather than reactive.
"There's an overload of reports, and there's even more now with the technology out there," said former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "What you try to do -- whether it's a power pitcher, a sinkerballer or whatever -- is make sure he's not in prevent defense. It's always going to be more about consistency of location and fastball command regardless of velocity."
The ability to reach back for a put-away pitch can help separate the best October performers from the average or above-average ones. The great Atlanta staffs of the 1990's and 2000's serve as classic examples.
Greg Maddux (11-14, 3.27 ERA during the postseason) and Tom Glavine (14-16, 3.30) were better October pitchers than the conventional wisdom suggests. But Glavine averaged a mere 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings in October, while Maddux checked in at 5.7. In stark contrast, John Smoltz generated 8.6 strikeouts per nine on the way to an otherworldly (15-4, 2.67 ERA) playoff and World Series portfolio.
When Mazzone reflects on the Braves' extended postseason run, he recalls how the 1993 Phillies and 1996 Yankees were particularly adept at fouling off borderline pitches and extending at-bats. As a rule of thumb, that's easier to do against pitch-to-contact types.
"It comes down to how many pitches you can execute," said Scherzer, "and you probably have to execute more pitches if you're not a power pitcher. You have to make quality pitch after quality pitch after quality pitch. There's a little more margin of error for a power pitcher. But if you make a mistake, I don't care what kind of pitcher you are. You're going to get hammered in the playoffs."
What about the bats?
Some baseball people contend that lineups are more susceptible to the prime heat in October because of all that's transpired from March through September. When hitters have accumulated 600 plate appearances and played through injuries and grueling summer heat, it stands to reason that their bats might drag a little at the very end.
But you'll also find a healthy contingent of observers who discount that theory entirely.
"If somebody's bat is dead in the postseason, something is wrong," Mazzone said. "You can throw that theory out the window. The only time bats start to die is when you're going down the stretch in a pennant race, and you're playing teams that aren't in the pennant race. That's when bats die."
Kevin Long, who plans to spend lots of time in the cage keeping Mets hitters sharp before the NLDS opener, thinks the sporadic October schedule affects hitters more than the 162 game regular-season grind. He's more concerned about rusty bats than tired bats.
"It's harder to time fastballs and higher velocity pitches than lower velocity pitches," Long said. "We're going to have four days off [before the NLDS], so we have to do a very good job making sure our hitters keep their timing and feel good in the batter's box.
"I think that's one advantage for wild card-teams. They keep playing. People say, 'How do these wild card teams keep winning the World Series?' There's something to be said for [playing every day]."
Game times and atmospheric conditions
Big fastballs might play up in October (or November) when temperatures drop and hitters are wearing extra layers or aren't quite as limber. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight said evidence shows that hitters consistently swing and miss more the colder it gets.
"You've just gone from playing four or five months of baseball in nice weather to potentially playing in freezing rain or snow, so things are physically going to change," Granderson said. "Pitchers are throwing pitch after pitch, inning after inning. They have the ability to stay looser. As a hitter, you may not hit for a while. So when your next at-bat comes up, you may not be able to feel your hands or your fingers or your legs."
In addition, hitters are at a distinct disadvantage when confronted with offbeat starting times, particularly during the Division Series. The only thing more daunting than facing Kershaw is facing him at 4 p.m. local time, when half the infield is shrouded in shadows and it's impossible to see the ball.
Some guys just rise to the occasion
Last year, ESPN.com's David Schoenfield tried to link the velocity rates of pitchers with postseason performance and came up with some interesting conclusions. He divided the pitchers into three categories -- high velocity, medium velocity and low velocity -- and found that the best overall numbers belonged to the group in the middle.
Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, three of those dominant October starters, didn't possess mind-blowing velocity. But they had great fastball command along with a comfort level on the biggest stage.
"The makeup comes into play," said Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen. "Some guys want to get that complete game and shut that other team down in the playoffs. Guys like Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson want the ball, and they want to put the series away.
"There's a lot more pressure this time of year. If you don't do it in the playoffs and you're the goat, the fear of failure is huge. Guys who are able to overcome it and say, "I want that pressure' stand out no matter what their stuff is."
While a 96-98 mph fastball is a wonderful security blanket, it's a lot more daunting when paired with nerves of steel. Come October, the slower the heart rate, the bigger the fastball plays.