Going into the Astros-Red Sox game series, it was mentioned that the two teams were evenly matched except for the bullpens. This is where the Astros had a distinct advantage.
Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow knew the ’pen needed help’ after the 2017 World Series.
The Astros won it because Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton — all starters earlier in the year — pitched well out of the bullpen.
What to do?
Luhnow picked up reinforcements Joe Smith and Hector Rondon over the winter. By obtaining starter Gerrit Cole, the team was able to move Peacock to the bullpen permanently.
On paper, over the course of the season, it was a Rembrandt — except for Ken Giles, who could be unhittable, or hittable and wild. When the latter became the case, Luhnow traded Giles for Roberto Osuna, who had a much better record as a closer than Giles, but who also had legal problems.
At least for the moment, the Astros’ bullpen was set.
In the playoffs, the final brushstrokes would be laid. The Red Sox won 108 games in a tough division; even without a lock-down bullpen, they could be formidable. Using starters Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez in relief made their bullpen better. Matt Barnes, pine tar notwithstanding, was as good a setup man as the Astros had. And Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel had a veteran’s edge on Osuna.
Whatever advantage the Astros had was slight, especially when the starters were added to the mix.
Over the long haul, statistical advantages win out. But the postseason isn’t really baseball. Baseball is a game that is played almost every day for six months. Postseason baseball is contrived to get the best TV ratings and the biggest stars on center stage.
That’s what happens when you play every other day. And that’s what the networks insist upon to maximize their ratings. They want stars on the field, and most often one game per day. Perfect.
Just not baseball.
It Would Be Real Baseball
Whitey Herzog said that the playoffs ought to be a war of attrition, just like the season. Teams should have to play every day, except when there was an East Coast game following a West Coast game. That way, you would have to use your fourth starter, and maybe your fifth, and keep all of your relievers on the postseason roster. That way, postseason would mimic the regular season. That would be real baseball.
With managers lifting their starters after 100 pitches, more than a few shaky relievers would have to pitch in many of the games. That wasn’t such a concern when starters usually lasted seven innings or more when they were sharp. They were better tired than the lesser relievers were when they were fresh.
These days, playoff rosters are different. Most teams drop a reliever, or two, and use starters in relief. We saw that in 2017 when Justin Verlander and Chris Sale pitched meaningful games out of the bullpen. Charlie Morton closed out Game Seven of the World Series.
When you evaluate bullpens for 162 games, you have the averaging effect of time. But for a week or two, the worst bullpens may outperform the best.
That’s why it’s tough to favor any team because of the of its regular-season bullpen. The Red Sox team that won 108 games is different than the team they are fielding now. The same holds true for the Astros.
For Astros fans, the outlook is grim. Why? Because they don’t understand. They forget that their team limped home after being swept at Yankee Stadium last year, one game from elimination. Given that perspective, things are just unsettled – not desperate.
Another Early Exit
Once again, I was dismayed when the Astros lifted Dallas Keuchel after five innings of work. Sure, he was not at his best. He had no strikeouts and two walks after five innings. But he had only thrown 84 pitches, and he had retired the last six batters he faced. If he had been able to pitch one more inning, the whole parade of relievers could have changed.
What seems to be missing from pitching theory these days is the idea of going along. It all boils down to contingency planning.
You ask your pitcher how he feels. If he tells you he’s good to go, you ask the catcher. If neither equivocates, you send him back out there. But just in case, you have a lefty and a righthander going along in the bullpen.
Those relievers usually get up and start throwing lightly during the commercial break. They have plenty of time to get “almost ready.” But they don’t extend themselves until someone gets on base.
If a hitter gets on, one or both start throwing harder. The lefty knows which hitter he will come in against, and so does the righthander. If you send a guy out there you’re concerned about, and he falters, you can switch almost immediately.
But you never know when three hitters will just make outs, even against mediocre stuff. If they do, you gain an inning. For me, the trade-out was often worth it. I had to go the bullpen more often than not — but not always.
And as a pitcher, I remember saying, “I’m losing it, but if they keep making outs, I’m willing to let them.”
Many times, I think a pitching change stimulates the hitting team. Whether or not the starter is tired isn’t their concern. They just know they haven’t been scoring against him.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Now that the Red Sox have turned the tables, the Astros must meet the same kind of challenges they overcame last year. They can do it, but they may not. That’s why every team in the playoffs is an underdog in Vegas when the postseason begins.
They’re celebrating now in Red Sox Nation. But they will be concerned if they lose tonight. I’ll be concerned if they play another four-hour game.
The problem with the playoffs is that they aren’t really baseball. The beauty of the playoffs is that anyone can win.
I suppose that’s the beauty of all sports. No matter how many pundits write scripts in advance, the veterans know that the forecasts are all palaver.
Larry Dierker was born September 22, 1946, in Hollywood California. Larry is a former Major League Baseball pitcher, manager, broadcaster, and he is also an accomplished American novelist, blogger, essayist, playwright, motivational speaker, and digital entrepreneur.