ATLANTA – Watch a blockbuster action movie on your phone. Drive a well tuned sports car with a donut spare tire. Listen to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with inexpensive headphones. Watch what happened to baseball and its starting pitchers.
The thrill is gone.
We are the kings of convenience. The Braves beat the Astros in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night, 2-0, in what could have been an all-time classic, with a draw in place for seven innings on a wet Dickensian night. Instead, two points scored. Eleven pitchers were used. No story has been written. Unless you are infamy.
It was the 47th regulation game of the World Series in which only one or two points were scored. It took the longest time (3:24) of all who did not have a ninth grade background.
There have been 681 World Series games played. It was the first with so many pitchers and so few leads.
Braves manager Brian Snitker retired starting pitcher Ian Anderson after just five innings and 76 shots with a World Series hitter in place. Anderson is not a starter or opener on the back of the spin. He’s a gifted ace-level pitcher with a 1.26 playoff ERA in eight starts. In another time, it would be Eddie Plank (1.32) or Madison Bumgarner (2.11), an October legend.
Baseball no longer allows such legends. Even a lifelong baseball player like Snitker, who is 66 and spent 28 years paying underage dues, knows how the game is played today. Snitker was right to take Anderson out and hand the ball to AJ Minter, then Luke Jackson then Tyler Matzek then Will Smith.
It’s just that the right way to play today is wrong for the baseball of tomorrow. Soon, players and owners will renew their usual bickering over economic issues as they attempt to reach a new collective agreement. Meanwhile, the real threat to baseball is the aesthetics of the game – the pace of the game, including the huge influence of pitch changes on attack drop and game length. This is the issue of climate change in baseball.
Once upon a time, starting pitchers were stars who generated interest and attendance. Attendance at Shea Stadium surged when the morning paper said Dwight Gooden was throwing that evening. But you don’t have to tell stories that go back to Old Hoss Radbourn or Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Jack Morris when you mourn the loss of baseball’s main men.
You just have to come back to Stephen Strasburg in 2019. Exactly two years ago from Friday night, Strasbourg took the ball in the ninth round of match 6 of the World Series for the Nationals. None of the last 20 World Series starters since then have even pitched Seven sleeves.
It happened so fast. Baseball’s bullpen blew the shark last year when Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash pulled out an effective Blake Snell just because the roster flipped a third time. The Rays have lost. Snitker knocked out Anderson at the same time, after two laps in the lineup. This time it worked, otherwise Snitker would have been cashed.
“He always had it,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said of Anderson. “He only ordered twice and I don’t think [leadoff batter Jose] Altuve had a good strike at batting, no more [Michael] Brantley, neither [Alex] Bregman, either [Yordan] Alvarez… I don’t know what his number of throws was.
“In any case,” says d’Arnaud. “I trust our bullpen box so either way that’s good.”
If it wasn’t the playoffs that killed the starting shots, it was the one that made them less interesting. The NFL thrives on quarterbacks. The league is constantly changing its rules to suit their health and pass rate, making it easier to come back – the real draw of the sport – and turning quarterbacks into stars.
Baseball has taken the stars of the starting pitchers and turned them into game managers. Their task is not to lose the game. Here are the late vital signs from those playoffs:
• The starters are 13-20 in 34 games with an average of 3.97 innings per start.
• The starters only threw 100 shots three times out of 68 starts.
• Relief pitchers account for 62% of wins and 55% of innings.
• The pitching duel is dead. Not once in 34 games has each starter pitched seven innings.
Let’s be clear once again: Snitker handled Game 3 well. It’s not his job to worry about aesthetics. It’s his job to win. The managers are not the problem. These are the relief throwers. There are too many that are too good. Pitching labs have understood that rotation and speed can be taught and designed.
Take Phil Maton, for example. He was not drafted out of high school and was not drafted after three years at Louisiana Tech. The Padres eventually drafted him in the 20th round in 2015 as a senior varsity. Maton had always learned to keep his ball fast. After being drafted, the Padres sent him to their short-season team, the Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Wash. It was there that he first heard about the turnover rate. The Dust Devils measured his fastball with TrackMan technology. They found that 20th round pick who was told to keep his ball fast had major league turnover.
“Throw your fastball high into the crease,” said pitching coach Nelson Cruz.
Maton quickly skyrocketed the system, reaching the major leagues two years after being drafted in the 20th round. The Padres traded him to Cleveland, who traded him to the Astros this year. His fastball generates the third highest puff rate in baseball, even at 91.5 mph.
These Maton stories happen with every team at all levels every year. Inventory is what changed baseball. Managers were once reluctant to go more than two or three arms into their pen with a lead. Now they happily go to five or six depths.
The enclosures kill the legends of the starting throwers and they kill the returns. The team that scores first is 3-0 in this World Series and 27-7 in the playoffs. Score first and you win almost 80% of the time in this new playoff world. Where is the drama in there?
The offense disappears when the best weapons form their relay race at the end of the round. This World Series batters hit 0.182 after the sixth inning.
Two years ago, Anderson is sticking with the game and phones are buzzing everywhere with news that he has a chance to join Don Larsen as the only pitcher to pitch a no-hitter at the World Series. Televisions that were turned off are turned on. This time Snitker didn’t want to hear anything.
The Astros had seemed taken aback by Anderson’s change. In the fourth, Anderson tripled his change to Michael Brantley. Even though Brantley saw three in a row at about the same spot, he swung and missed the third for a strikeout. Anderson got nine of his 15 strikeouts on the switch.
In his career, which started last year (he’s technically still a rookie), Anderson allowed a .157 batting average on his substitution. If you take all the pitchers and all the shots they’ve pitched in the past two years (at least 1,000 shots, playoffs included), Anderson’s change is the fourth toughest pitch to hit in MLB, behind only the curves of Framber Valdez (.128) and Charlie Morton (.148) and the splitter of Kevin Gausman (.130).
Even more impressively, future October legend Anderson held back hitters as he changed his playoff career to a .074 batting average.
“Yeah, I knew I had good things,” Anderson says. “[Martin] Maldonado hit that ball in the middle [for a groundout], but other than that, there wasn’t a lot of hard contact.
I ask Anderson, “You had a draw in the World Series, with 76 shots. Honestly, how did you feel about being taken out?
“I fought it,” he says.
At what level did you fight him?
“I just held his hand pretty tight in that handshake,” Anderson said, “You have to trust these [bullpen] guys. These guys are so good.
Specialization is the name of the game. Minter these playoffs awarded his cutter a 0.100 batting average (0-for-3 in Game 3). Jackson has the most moves on any slider in the game (0-for-3 in Game 3). Matzek has allowed a hit on his slider since June 24 (0-for-1 in Game 3). Smith allowed a batting average of .188 on his two breakout shots (0-for-2 in Game 3).
Sorry, once Anderson was up, the idea of a hit lost its appeal. A combined no-hit is to baseball fame what “Four Dogs Playing Poker” is to the art world: quirky, but there is no prestige in the property.
On Thursday, animal rights group PETA released a statement, on behalf of the cow kingdom, calling for the banning of the term “lifters’ pens”. PETA, with all apparent gravity, suggested “arm barn” as a replacement. We could go to “Kings of Convenience” to designate the relievers if it was not already the property of a Norwegian indie folk-pop duo. Kings of Convenience released an album in 2009 titled “Declaration of Dependence”. When it comes to how managers deal with relief throws, that may also be the title of those playoffs.
More MLB coverage:
• How is Atlanta handling its launch going forward?
• Jose Altuve resolves collapse with help from playoff legend
• The Braves stopped baseball’s best offense to gain the World Series advantage
• Why does MLB still allow synchronized, team-sanctioned racism in Atlanta?