An October blueprint: What playoff baseball looks like in 2018

There have already been eight home runs hit by leadoff batters this postseason, with three of them coming off George Springer's bat. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Leadoff home runs, short leashes for starting pitchers and multi-inning relief weapons. This ain't your father's postseason. So what does October baseball look like in 2018? As the monthlong tournament of drama, tension and heroes unfolds, we dive into the trends shaping the game.

Here is an October blueprint of sorts and a look at how changes that are impacting the modern game are playing out this October, with a tip of the cap to Evan Wildstein of ESPN Stats & Info for research help:

Leadoff hitters with power

As the game has become focused on power, it's not a surprise that leadoff hitters are also hitting more home runs. The three seasons with the most home runs from leadoff hitters are the past three:

2017: 642

2018: 638

2016: 576

No. 4 on the list is 2008, with 466, and 20 years ago, the first year with 30 teams, there were just 381 homers hit by leadoff batters. We saw George Springer power the Astros last postseason from the leadoff spot, hitting five home runs in the World Series to win MVP honors.

How it's playing out this postseason: We've already seen eight home runs from leadoff hitters this postseason, with three of them coming off Springer's bat. The Dodgers have also had multiple leadoff hitters hit home runs this postseason in Joc Pederson and Chris Taylor.

More names to watch: Mookie Betts is the likely AL MVP after slugging 32 home runs, winning the batting title and ranking second to Mike Trout in the majors in OPS -- while hitting leadoff -- and he hasn't gone deep in October ... yet.

Small ball is changing

Small ball is down everywhere, with stolen bases and sacrifice bunts dying a slow death. In the 2017 postseason, only 30 steals were even attempted, the fewest since 30 in 1986 -- except in 1986 there were just 20 postseason games, while in 2017 there were 38. In any postseason in which at least eight games were played, 2017 featured the lowest per-game rate of stolen base attempts.

Additionally, there were just 15 sacrifice bunts last postseason -- just seven from non-pitchers. That rate actually mirrored the regular-season rate, so the idea that managers play more small ball in the postseason didn't ring true in 2017.

How it's playing out this postseason: Well, this is interesting. There have already been more stolen bases in a week of 2018 postseason games than we saw all of last October, as teams are a combined 23-for-29 on attempts.

The two teams doing the most damage on the basepaths? The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Brewers, who will meet in the NL Championship Series starting Friday night. Milwaukee's five steals might not be too big of a surprise after finishing the regular season as the only team with triple-digit stolen bases, but L.A.'s eight in four games vs. Atlanta is certainly worth tracking.

Meanwhile, we've seen eight sac bunts this postseason, with all but two of them coming from non-pitchers. The two by pitchers have both been by Dodger pitchers.

More teams to watch: The Red Sox actually ranked third in the majors with 125 steals during the regular season and are a perfect 5-for-5 on attempts this postseason.

Strikeouts are up

For the 13th consecutive season, strikeouts across the majors increased -- the average team fanned 8.48 times per game in 2018 (strikeout rate of 22.3 percent). Here are the regular-season and postseason strikeout rates since 2010:

Year: regular season, postseason

2010: 18.5 percent, 23.0 percent

2011: 18.6 percent, 20.0 percent

2012: 19.8 percent, 22.3 percent

2013: 19.9 percent, 23.6 percent

2014: 20.4 percent, 19.5 percent

2015: 20.4 percent, 24.2 percent

2016: 21.1 percent, 24.4 percent

2017: 21.6 percent, 24.7 percent

Other than 2014, the strikeout rate has actually gone up in the postseason. No surprise there -- you have better pitching in October. The Astros won the World Series in 2017 and had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2017. The Royals had the lowest strikeout rate in 2015 and won the World Series. On the other hand, the Cubs in 2016 and Giants in 2014 were middle of the pack in strikeout rate. The 2012 Giants had the second-lowest rate after removing pitchers.

How it's playing out this postseason: Strikeouts are up slightly from the regular season, but the current rate of 23.5 percent is actually a brief dip from the past few postseasons. Expect that number to rise again as the best pitching staffs move on to the LCS and World Series rounds.

Teams to watch: After removing pitchers, the Indians, Braves, Astros and Red Sox have four of the five lowest strikeout rates in the majors, all below 20 percent, but only Houston and Boston are left from that group. The Brewers and Yankees have the highest strikeout rates of the playoff teams.

Walk-off home runs

There were 102 walk-off home runs this season -- shattering the previous record of 80, set in 2004. Will this trend continue in the postseason? We had one walk-off home run last postseason in 38 games -- Justin Turner off John Lackey in Game 2 of the NLCS. We also had a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, a go-ahead home run in the top of the 10th and a go-ahead home run in the top of the 11th (oh, those final three all came by the Astros in Game 2 of the World Series).

How it's playing out this postseason: It isn't! We haven't had a walk-off home run yet this postseason, with Mike Moustakas' NLDS Game 1 single the only walk-off hit of any kind so far. The good news? That's likely to change soon, and that means more thrilling October drama headed your way.

Names to watch: Jesus Aguilar. The Brewers slugger is the only player left in the postseason who hit multiple walk-off home runs this season. Yasmani Grandal hit the only walk-off homer among teams still playing this postseason when he took Milwaukee's Matt Albers deep in August.

Starting pitchers throwing fewer innings

Given that nobody throws complete games in the regular season, you won't be shocked to know that complete games in the postseason are just as rare. Justin Verlander threw the only one last season, out of 76 individual games started. Hey, that rate (1.3 percent) is actually higher than this year's regular-season rate (0.85 percent). Verlander, however, was also the only pitcher to throw more than seven innings last postseason, and in nearly half the games, the starter didn't even make it through five innings (the average start lasted just 4.7 innings).

That means managers are relying more on bullpens. Here are the percentage of innings given to relievers in the postseason since 2012:

2012: 37.6 percent

2013: 34.8 percent

2014: 40.2 percent

2015: 39.5 percent

2016: 43.2 percent

2017: 46.5 percent

The five teams with the lowest bullpen ERAs in 2018 all made the postseason: Astros, Cubs, A's, Yankees and Brewers.

How it's playing out this postseason: Bullpens have pitched more than ever. With the bullpenning Brewers and A's leading the way, relievers have accounted for a staggering 48.3 percent of innings so far.

Teams to watch: The Astros have the deepest bullpen, but they also have starting pitchers likely to go deep into games the rest of the way, so that leaves the Brewers. Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress were All-Stars for the Brewers, but Corey Knebel -- last year's All-Star closer -- is a huge key after struggling much of the season before finding a groove in the season's final month.

Starting pitchers used as relievers

An interesting trend developed last season: 12 pitchers were used as both starters and relievers, the most in postseason history (the previous high had been nine in 2003, 2004 and 2011). Those 12 pitchers: Alex Wood, Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton, Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Robbie Ray.

In Game 4 of the AL Division Series, Sale and Verlander both pitched, even though it wasn't a do-or-die game for the Astros. Lester pitched 3 2/3 innings in relief in Game 4 of the Cubs-Nationals NL Division Series, and then Scherzer and Quintana both appeared in that crazy Game 5 (Scherzer, in fact, picked up the loss as he allowed four runs in one inning). The Astros used four pitchers in both roles, partially a result of A.J. Hinch scrambling as his primary relievers struggled. Morton allowed one run in six innings in Game 4 of the World Series and then pitched the final innings in relief in Game 7 to become a World Series hero.

Even though managers usually now carry 12 pitchers on their postseason rosters, the desperate nature of the postseason, combined with those quicker hooks for starters, means they don't necessarily want to give more innings to the 11th and 12th relievers on the roster, so this is a trend that might continue. Or maybe 2017 was an aberration (there were just four such pitchers used in both roles in 2015 and 2016). The Astros, for example, have a deeper and more trustworthy bullpen this season, so Hinch may stick to a more conventional usage pattern.

How it's playing out this postseason: This is a trend that's going to play out as the series go from five games to best-of-seven after the LDS. We have already seen some interesting pitcher usages, ranging from Chicago's Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks coming out of the pen in the NL wild-card game to Trevor Bauer used for an inning or more in all three of the Indians' ALDS losses to the Astros. And Sale turned in a scoreless inning out of the pen as the Red Sox closed out the Yankees in ALDS Game 4 on Tuesday night.

Teams to watch: Dave Roberts used Kershaw in deciding games in 2016 (NLDS Game 5) and 2017 (World Series Game 7), and with a shaky bullpen, Roberts could call on Kershaw or even Walker Buehler or Hyun-Jin Ryu, who have been excellent the final two months.

But you still need a workhorse

OK, starters don't get deep into games. Relievers are pitching more innings. Recent history, however, suggests you can't completely rely on the bullpen. The postseason is so long that you need somebody to step up, carry a big load and win a big game somewhere along the line. Consider:

2017: Verlander, 36 2/3 innings (6 games, 5 games started). Beat the Yankees 2-1 with a complete game in Game 2 of the ALCS and then threw seven scoreless innings in Game 7 of the series.

2016: Lester, 35 2/3 innings (6 G, 5 GS). Threw eight shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS to win 1-0. Won Game 5 of the World Series and then pitched three innings in Game 7.

2015: Edinson Volquez, 28 2/3 innings (5 GS). The Royals are kind of the exception to the rule, but note that Johnny Cueto did pitch eight innings in Game 5 of the ALDS and threw a complete game in the World Series.

2014: Madison Bumgarner, 52 2/3 innings (7 G, 6 GS). The legend.

2013: Adam Wainwright, 35 innings (5 GS). The Cardinals lost the World Series, but Wainwright averaged seven innings per outing. Lester of the winning Red Sox went 7 2/3 innings in three of his five starts.

2012: Matt Cain, 30 innings (5 GS). Another exception, as Cain averaged just six innings per start.

2011: Chris Carpenter, 36 innings (6 GS). Carpenter had one short outing but won Game 5 of the NLDS 1-0 over Roy Halladay with a complete game and then pitched 19 innings in the World Series, winning Game 7 on three days' rest.

2010: Tim Lincecum, 37 innings (6 G, 5 GS). He had a 1-0 shutout with 14 strikeouts in Game 1 of the NLDS and won clinching Game 5 of the World Series with one run in eight innings.

The point here: You're probably not going to win the World Series if you're just getting five innings a start. We know how vital bullpens are, and the postseason skippers are going to keep churning through those relievers throwing 98 mph, but you need that ace to step up.

How it's playing out this postseason: Only time will tell who keeps it up, but some early candidates have emerged here. Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu combined for 15 scoreless innings in the NLDS and should get the ball on regular rest in L.A.'s first two NLCS contests. Gerrit Cole was lights-out in a 12-strikeout, zero-walk ALDS outing, and Nathan Eovaldi provided seven much-needed innings for a Boston team that's going to look to take the pressure off its bullpen anyway it can as the postseason continues.