Many years ago now, baseball pundits and fans tried to come up with a “secret sauce” for success in the playoffs. It can be pretty infuriating to simply accept that the sport’s biggest prize is handed out at the conclusion of a tournament that is essentially random. There had to be a reason these things happened, otherwise what did we just spend six months doing? Surely MLB didn’t just have 10 teams “graduate” from one form of baseball in the regular season, throw them in a blender for another in October, and then watch one pop out like a lottery ball.
Anyway, like a lot of the things Nate Silver does, this one curdled like milk in the sun, and we don’t really reference it anymore.
Every other sport seems to have pillars of playoff success. In hockey, you’re not going anywhere without a goalie who can produce basically a .920 save-percentage for the playoffs, and you probably better have a genuine No. 1 D-man and center depth to go along with it. The NBA seems even simpler, two or three superstars and enough bench depth. Football… basically you need a quarterback and you can make the rest up.
But baseball… it gets harder and harder to pin down what it takes, which probably means there are many ways to win a World Series. You just have to do it your way better than the other guy does it their way, and you have to do that through three series, one of which is only five games. And maybe a coin-flip game before that. Which isn’t all that reassuring, because nothing in baseball is repeatable as a given in the stretch of just one week.
It’s become accepted baseball dogma that in the playoffs, you can only let the very top echelon of starters go through a lineup a third time, or even attempt it. Max Scherzer can, Alex Wood can’t, extend that out however and to whoever you need.
The Rays have held staunchly onto this ethos, and it’s led to some success, but no parades. They’re even tetchy about letting pitchers see a lineup for a second time in a game. J.P. Feyereisen took the loss for Game 4 last night, and it was the third time he’s appeared in the series. He’d seen Christian Arroyo and Christian Vasquez in all of his appearances. Now, that doesn’t mean that’s why Vasquez started the winning rally off of him, as his single was just through the hole. And Feyereisen was a botched grounder away from getting out of it. But it does make one wonder if there’s a lessened advantage in bringing out a reliever that not only had the Sox seen two previous times in the series, but also one they’d seen five different times in the regular season, too.
Shane McLanahan is the one who truly got lit up, after throwing five innings in Game 1 and making three starts against the Red Sox in the regular season. The Rays went through something like this in the World Series last year, where the more they went to relievers the more they kept moving back toward that “third time through the order” black hole, just separated out through different games. And I’ve always wondered if the more relievers you go to, if you aren’t just increasing the chances you’ll land on one that’s going to have a bad day because they’re relievers, after all. They’re the most volatile part of a roster.
But that doesn’t mean their method is wrong. It just hasn’t worked yet. And no one’s been able to hit on something that works repeatedly. I say that knowing the Giants fan in my life is going to come screaming and running soon with another t-shirt I don’t want. But the Giants, through their three World Series championships in the last decade, were actually made up very differently from Title No. 1 to Title No. 3. The first one was the doomsday pitching staff you remember where no one could hit Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum. The second one added Madison Bumgarner to the front as Lincecum’s influence waned. The third one involved Bumgarner throwing nearly a third of the innings in a seven-game series and then a hodge-podge of relievers getting through the rest.
And other than that, no one’s been able to claim multiple titles since the Yankees at the turn of the century, and no one’s been able to repeat (and the Dodgers are nine innings from extending that streak). The Royals had a great pen and caught everything in the field. Financial “constraints” prevented them from trying it more than the two times they did, but considering how each of their starters declined, that was about it for them. The Red Sox have had enough distance between each of their titles that they’ve essentially done it with new rosters each time. Their 2018 triumph saw them recycle starters from the bullpen in the playoffs a lot. Which is what the Nationals did too, the next year, and they’ve never really recovered from doing so. The Cubs did it with four solid to great starters and, like, two relievers, but only once did a starter appear out of the pen (Jon Lester in Game 7). The Astros went more the Red Sox’s and Nationals’ route, but they also had Justin Verlander to give everyone a break. They also mashed the shit out of the ball.
And perhaps that’s where, if there is some sort of secret, it’s in the offense. You’ve seen the #BallGoFar by now, which essentially is the shorthand for whatever team hits more homers generally wins (coined by Joe Sheehan). The Red Sox outhomered the Rays, 9-7, with all nine Sox homers coming in their three wins. The Giants have hit four homers in their series, all in their two wins. The White Sox didn’t win a game against the Astros until they hit dingers. The Braves yesterday. Much like the regular season, you have to bunch your runs given the strikeout nature of both pitchers and hitters. Best way to do that is all at once with hitting one over a wall.
That’s probably the only rule, and you can make the pitching stuff up however it best fits your team. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens along the way.