One conventional baseball axiom says power pitching wins in the postseason. Think Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson dominating World Series games in the 1960s, or pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett winning in the 2000s with high-octane fastballs, or Justin Verlander blowing away the A's the past two Octobers.
Of course, in the past two postseasons, it seemed just about every pitcher dominated. Teams hit a collective .227 in 2012 and .231 in 2013 and averaged just 3.49 and 3.55 runs per game, the lowest totals since the wild-card era began in 1995. In the 38 postseason games played in 2013, eight were shutouts; there were 13 other games in which a team scored just one run. There were four games that ended 1-0; there had been just 10 such games the previous 18 postseasons. With offense trending even further downward in the 2014 regular season and strikeouts still trending upward, expect offense to once again be at a premium this October.
But what about that adage? Does power pitching ultimately reign supreme in October? Are the Nationals with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann (who ranked fourth and sixth in average fastball velocity among potential playoff starters during the regular season), and the Tigers with David Price and Max Scherzer (who can both crank it up to 97 mph) the favorites to reach the World Series because of these power duos?
There are different ways to look at this, but I took the approach of simply looking at average fastball velocity from starting pitchers in the postseason (leaving relievers for another study) and checking the results. We have data at ESPN going back to 2009, so we have five postseasons worth of starts to examine, or 132 different pitcher-seasons, ranging from Gerrit Cole in 2013 (96.7 mph average fastball velocity) to Barry Zito in 2012 (84.3 mph).
The median fastball velocity turned out to be 92.0 mph: We have 66 starters at that velocity or higher, and 66 below it.
Here are the totals for these two groups:
92-plus mph: 916.2 innings, 390 runs (3.83 runs per nine)
Less than 92 mph: 926.2 innings, 370 runs (3.59 runs per nine)
Maybe that's not the best way to look at this question, however, because the pitchers tend to cluster around the 92 mph mark. So let's break our 132 pitchers into three groups: High velocity, medium velocity and low velocity. The results:
High velocity: 594.1 innings, 256 runs (3.88 runs per nine)
Medium velocity: 730.1 innings, 284 runs (3.50 runs per nine)
Low velocity: 519 innings, 220 runs (3.82 runs per nine)
So the low-velocity guys have pitched fewer innings than the high-velocity guys, but have been just as effective. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising; low-velocity pitchers don't get as many opportunities, but if you can stay in the big leagues despite a below-average fastball, it's because you've proven you can get guys out.
The middle group has performed the best. This group includes postseason standouts such as Cliff Lee in 2009 (10 runs in 40.1 innings), Matt Cain in 2010 (one run in 21.1 innings), Chris Carpenter in 2011 (13 runs in 36 innings) and Adam Wainwright in 2013 (12 runs in 35 innings). Our ESPN colleague Schilling -- who obviously knows a thing or two about succeeding in October -- likes to say pitching is all about fastball command, whether you throw 98 or 88. Those are four pitchers who all have excellent fastball command.
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Much has been written about the decline in offense in recent years, from a steroid-era peak of 5.14 runs per game in 2000 to 4.07 this season, the lowest since 1981. There have been many theories: Testing for PEDs, testing for amphetamines, better pitching, worse hitting. When I canvassed veteran players in spring training about what they thought, Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford just laughed and said: "Steroids." Michael Cuddyer of the Rockies suggested it was the new wave of power arms. "Look at all these young pitchers coming up the past few years," he said. "They all seem to throw 95. And then you get into the bullpens and it seems like every team has a few guys can throw even harder than that."
Those undoubtedly are factors. But the overriding factor may be even simpler: The strike zone has gotten larger -- about 30 square inches larger since 2008, when Pitchf/x cameras were first installed in major league ballparks to track pitch location and data. And those 30 inches are mostly at the bottom of the plate. You combine a lower strike zone with pitchers throwing harder than ever and maybe it's amazing teams are able score four runs a game.
What's interesting is that none of the veteran players I talked to in spring training said they noticed a lower strike zone. C.J. Wilson of the Angels is one of the more analytical pitchers in the game, and he said he hadn't seen a change -- although he joked that with his shaky command, "I don't get those calls anyway."
Cuddyer broke the strike zone down this way: "It all depends on the umpire, the pitcher's movement and stuff like that. Obviously, I don't do the studies and can't give you the percentages and all that, so I may not be the best person to ask. A lot of it depends on the umpire and what they see that day, the movement on the pitches. If the pitcher has some good sinking action, maybe he loses some strikes."
Two people who weren't surprised about the lower strike zone were two veteran umpires, who wished to remain unnamed. One said: "That's the way we're trained to call pitches now, especially the new guys coming in."
The data allows umpires to be more thoroughly reviewed now. There's no doubt the quality and consistency of umpiring has improved in recent years, if still far from perfect. "Hey, the strike zone probably did get too wide there for a while," one of the veteran umps said. "How much does it help the pitchers? I don't know. What's the average fastball now, 91, 92 mph? When I first entered the majors, it was 85. I don't think the pitchers now are any smarter but they throw a lot harder. A guy like Nolan Ryan used to stand out. Now a lot of pitchers throw that hard."
And pitchers are adjusting to the lower strike zone. ESPN Stats & Information tracks pitches in three vertical zones: Down, middle and up. Look at the percentage of pitches in the down region since 2009:
2009: 37.7 percent
2010: 41.8 percent
2011: 40.6 percent
2012: 41.8 percent
2013: 41.6 percent
2014: 43.0 percent
What does that mean? Hitters do less damage on pitches down in the strike zone. Here are 2014 numbers:
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You may think the starting pitchers to watch in the postseason, then, aren't the ones with the best velocity but the ones who can keep the ball down in the zone. But that isn't necessarily the case, either. In looking at the 149 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings this year, these pitchers all ranked in the bottom 10 of percentage of pitches down in the zone: Madison Bumgarner, Doug Fister, Price, Zimmermann and Chris Tillman. Those are five good pitchers. Those are different types of pitchers, from the hard-throwing Price to Zimmermann, who throws a hard two-seamer up in the zone that generates a lot of ground balls, to Fister, who rarely tops 90 mph. Four of the five have supreme command and walk few batters, Tillman being the exception.
I guess this is the bottom line: You'll hear a lot about power pitching during the next few weeks. And yes, we'll see a lot of strikeouts and a lot of upper-90s gas. But there are many ways for a pitcher to succeed. About all I can guarantee is that we probably won't see a 23-7 game like we did in 1999, when the Red Sox beat the Indians in a division series game.