MLB postseason always sees pitching and defense rise to the top
October 24, 2017 3:00 AM
by Jim Feist
October memories glare the brightest in baseball lore.
Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the ‘56 Series, Bob Gibson’s 17-strikeouts in Game 1, 1968, Carlton Fisk’s home run in ‘75, Kirk Gibson’s blast in ‘88, Joe Carter’s Series-ending three-run homer in 1993.
While home runs mostly dot the top of the memorial landscape, October baseball can also feature memorable defensive plays and great pitching performances from starters and relievers.
The Cubs had a remarkable 2016 run during the regular season. The pitching was tops in baseball, but they finished No. 22 in errors made. They had a slight edge in the World Series, with the Indians making six errors and the Cubs five in the seven game series. Though in Game 7 Chicago made three errors but managed to hang on in an 8-7 thriller.
Airtight defense is a key cog along with pitching, especially in October when lower scoring battles and one-run games crop up. The top pitching teams in baseball as far as ERA this season were the Indians, Dodgers, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Yankees, Nationals and Cardinals.
The Tigers and Reds were last in pitching, off train wreck seasons. The Indians, Dodgers, Rockies and Nationals all finished in the Top 10 in fewest errors allowed. Two years ago Kansas City ranked 10th in fielding and pitching – and they won the whole thing. The team they beat, the Mets, was also in the Top 10 in pitching and 12th in fielding.
Three years ago the champion Giants were Top 10 team in ERA. The year before Boston rode a strong defense and pitching staff to a worst-to-first title, but slipped to last place in 2014 with a team ERA ranked 23rd, and bottomed out again in 2015 with awful pitching and worse defense in the field.
The Big Four who reached the 2013 League Champion Series were no flukes during the regular season. The Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers all had star power on offense and some dominant aces on the mound to help anchor the pitching staffs and end losing skids.
Pitching and defense shine in October. You need both to get here and managers are more inclined to go with their best arms, which isn’t always the case during the long regular season.
The Giants won the World Series in 2012 and the final scores of the last three games against Detroit: 2-0, 2-0 and 4-3 in 10 innings. The Cardinals stunned the Texas Rangers in October of 2012 with a miracle comeback in Game 6, a 10-9 thriller. But five of those seven World Series games went under the total, with scores of 3-2, 2-1, 4-0, 4-2 and 6-2.
The 2010 Giants were a poor hitting team all season, ranked 17th in runs and 19th in on-base percentage, yet won it all. Taking a content analysis of the last 18 years of the World Series, you’ll notice pitching and defense shine a bit more on the October stage than offense. Over that time there have been 64 unders, 31 overs and 2 pushes in World Series play.
Is this a fluke or are there reasons for more low scoring games? Since the World Series is the last battle of the season, managers aren’t going to go with their worst pitchers, but the best of their best.
This is why you see three- and four-man rotations in the World Series, whereas in the regular season teams employ a five- and sometimes six-man rotation.
Simply put, the No. 4, 5 and 6 starters during the regular season aren’t going to see much (if any) important action in late October. The same is true for relief pitchers: A team generally has two or three quality relievers and three or four marginal/below average arms. Naturally, a manager is going to use his best often and go to his weakest arms only if necessary.
Teams constructed solely around offense are built for the regular season. Teams stocked with a balanced lineup and excess pitching, both starting and in the bullpen, are built for October.
In addition, defense is a subtle, often overlooked aspect of baseball. There’s an old adage that teams win with pitching, hitting and defense, and that’s true. This is why you often see teams with outstanding center fielders, shortstops and catchers in the World Series because a team needs to be strong up the middle. Good defense helps your pitchers, turning double plays and keeping the other team from scoring.
Finally, the weather is far colder in October than in July and August, and it’s tougher to hit a baseball when it’s cold. When the World Series takes place in northern cities (Boston, New York, Cleveland) it can be very cold in late October and early November.
In 2006 the A’s and Tigers hooked up for Game 3 in Detroit. It was 42 degrees at game time, the lowest for a postseason affair since it was 38 in Cleveland at the 1997 World Series. The final score was 3-0 Tigers, way under the total. Fans were bundled in parkas and blankets in Philly during the World Series in recent years.
So don’t be surprised if pitching and defense shine a bit more than offense as temperatures dip – along with batting averages.