Let's play a quick game:
Say Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber isn't quite on Wednesday night in the deciding ALDS Game 5 versus the New York Yankees. He gives up a couple runs to the Yankees in the first inning, gets a couple hard outs in the second, allows a solo shot in the third, and then allows another run in in the fourth -- say a double, then a popout, then another double, and then a walk to the No. 9 hitter. There are two on, one out, Brett Gardner and then Aaron Judge coming up, and Cleveland is leading 5-4. Say, furthermore, that before the game Cleveland's brain trust discussed exactly this scenario, and mapped out its plan to get 17 more outs. What would that plan look like?
There are a few different paths, but the most likely, I think, goes like this: Andrew Miller comes into the game to get out of the jam, and then stays in to get through the fifth and sixth innings -- eight outs, 40 or so pitches. If things work out, the heart of the Yankees' order will likely be coming up again in the seventh: Righty reliever Bryan Shaw will face Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez, and lefty Tyler Olsen will face either Gardner before them or Greg Bird after, depending on where the lineup happens to be when Miller leaves. In the eighth, Cody Allen enters. He goes the rest of the way, throwing 35 or so pitches.
But maybe Carlos Carrasco, the Game 3 starter, comes out of the bullpen for a couple innings and 30 pitches. Maybe Danny Salazar does, but will he be recovered from throwing 42 pitches on Monday? Or maybe Allen comes out for the seventh inning -- could he throw 45 pitches without collapsing? Could Miller throw, say, 60, and take the ball all the way into the eighth? One of the great joys of the postseason is that you can do this wild imagining for almost any scenario that Kluber's performance sets up. Because of the stakes, and because of the extra days off, the typical pitcher roles are subservient to a more urgent demand to simply get 27 outs and survive.
And because of that, there's another great joy to the postseason, a subtle one that I didn't notice I was enjoying until a few days ago but that has been quietly making many of these innings even more entertaining than they already are: Pitch counts matter again.
Back when "Moneyball" came out, one of the hot takeaways was that there's something glorious and underdog-ish about a lineup that makes a pitcher work. "When a team wades into the opponent's bullpen in the first game of a series, it feasts, in Games 2 and 3, on pitching that is not merely inferior but exhausted. 'Baseball is a war of attrition,' Billy Beane was fond of saying, 'and what's being attrited is pitchers' arms.'"
Every baseball game has a literal score that tells us who is winning, of course, but athletic contests are more entertaining when there are lots of sub-details to root for, such as momentum or foul trouble or yellow cards or a right tackle in the medical tent with a rolled ankle. In baseball, for a while, our leading sub-detail was the starter's pitch count, or the bullpen's strength. Nonbinding markers such as these add small victories to otherwise static action. They are things to look at and things to cheer for. Caring about pitch counts was fun, and it turned a whole bunch of not-great players -- Brad Wilkerson comes to mind -- into personal favorites.
But the allure of the grinding at-bat faded. Partly it was because bullpens got so deep, and pitcher usage patterns changed so much, that it was no longer deemed worthwhile to get to the "soft underbelly" of a team's bullpen. There hardly is a soft underbelly in the game anymore. Every team has five relievers with better ERAs than most of the best starters. With occasional exceptions, knocking the other team's starter out doesn't do anything except bring in the other team's dominant seventh, eighth- and ninth-inning guys. And because these seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys are used in such a rigid, one-inning way, there's little chance of exhausting them before the three-game series is over and they become somebody else's opponent.
So swinging early in counts became the stathead ideal -- or, at least, batter temperament lost its ideological associations. The Astros, considered by many to be the most "analytical" team, saw the third-fewest pitches per plate appearance this year. "If [an opposing] pitcher throws 70, 80, 90 pitches, who cares? We don't," said Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier in 2015, after the patient Rays suddenly flipped to the aggressive Rays. "Hit pitches that you're supposed to hit. Hit fastballs early in the count, no matter if he's thrown five pitches this inning and you're the third hitter. If you make an out and the pitcher throws seven pitches, so what."
The result was that we lost something to count, and the middle of games lost just that little bit of nuance.
The irony is that more days off produce more pitcher scarcity in October than in the rest of the season. For most of the year, starters go five or six innings every fifth day, the good relievers cover their one inning when their team is up three runs or fewer, and managers don't ask for much more. Occasionally a closer has pitched three days in a row and might be unavailable; occasionally extra innings demand a second inning from a high-leverage reliever, who might then be unavailable; occasionally a starter is pitching so well you might like to keep him in longer but for his high pitch count. Occasionally. But for the most part, managers have the pitchers they want pitching when they want them to pitch.
In October -- especially in the past few years -- managers are pushing harder and harder to give all high-leverage innings to just three or four pitchers on their staff. They're doing this while, at the same time, pulling their starting pitchers earlier and earlier. So Andrew Miller almost never pitches one inning in the playoffs. Last October, he got at least four outs in every appearance he made. Cody Allen did the same in six of his 10 appearances, and has twice this year. Meanwhile, traditional starting pitchers -- such as David Price and Kenta Maeda, not in postseason rotations, and Chris Sale and Justin Verlander, working in extra games as relievers -- are notching grueling, multi-inning relief outings of their own.
These outings, far more than the 14-pitch innings that Miller or Allen work in the regular season, are exhausting. They're exhausting the day of, and they can be prohibitively exhausting for the next day or days. The pitch count watch is back!
We've seen some great, potentially series-changing plate appearances this postseason, which had the potential to matter not just in the moment but in the innings and days afterward. In Game 1 of the Yankees-Indians ALDS, New York DH Chase Headley faced Miller with one out and nobody on in the eighth inning. The Yankees trailed by four runs; they were 97 percent likely to lose, and even a home run by Headley wouldn't change that figure much. But Headley worked Miller to a full count and fouled off six two-strike pitches, including five more or less perfect sliders:
Finally, on pitch 12, Headley drew a walk. The Yankees were still 96 percent likely to lose, but besides doing what little he could to move that number up, Headley made Miller throw a dozen pitches without even getting an out. Miller would end up throwing 30 pitches in the game, which is enough to make 30 pitches the next day a difficult ask. And because Miller threw so many pitches, Allen had to enter the same game in the eighth. (Allen threw 16 of his 20 pitches for strikes, blunting the Yankees' efforts to carry a further edge into the next day's game. Allen would throw 36 pitches in Game 2, while Miller threw only 15 before coming out after an inning -- his first ever one-inning postseason appearance as an Indian.)
In Game 3, Cleveland got the Yankees back: With the count 0-2 against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, Jose Ramirez fouled off a 102 mph fastball at the top of the zone and then fouled off a 104 mph fastball in the upper half of the zone.
Still alive, he got a hanging slider and singled. Besides giving the Indians a better chance of winning that game -- important on its own -- the hit extended Chapman's outing. The extra batter he had to face, Carlos Santana, saw eight pitches, and Chapman finished with 34 on his count. The Yankees won; Cleveland lost. But there was that small victory that carried over into Game 4: Chapman's availability for that game was somewhere between questionable and limited.
One more: In Game 4 of the other ALDS, Astros DH Carlos Beltran doubled off Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel to drive in a crucial insurance run in the ninth inning. Kimbrel is one of the best relievers ever, but at that moment he was probably compromised. Beltran hit Kimbrel's 38th pitch of the game, his 23rd of that inning, and his eighth of that at-bat. The wear of the previous 37 seemed to show: Kimbrel's first five fastballs of the night were 99, 101, 101, 100 and 100; his final five were 98, 97, 98, 97, 98. Still hard to hit! But it's easy to look back at the first 8 2/3 innings of that game and wonder which at-bats might have tilted the Beltran/Kimbrel matchup to Beltran: The eight-pitch at-bat Bregman worked against Kimbrel earlier in the ninth? Or maybe the nine-pitch at-bat Carlos Correa had against Chris Sale, perhaps forcing Kimbrel into the game a couple batters early?
Maybe none of them. Maybe Kimbrel wasn't compromised at all. But it's certainly plausible that he was. Which is why, as soon as Corey Kluber and CC Sabathia throw their first pitches Wednesday night, and as soon as each side's bullpens start getting loose, I'll be watching the pitch counts.