WASHINGTON, D.C. - With the New York Yankees ahead 3-1 in Game 5 of their division series Wednesday night, CC Sabathia gave up a run-scoring single to Cleveland Indians third baseman Giovanny Urshela with his 69th pitch of the game with one out in the fourth inning.
That was the end of Sabathia's night. After all, he had already matched the average start in these playoffs.
Sabathia's removal after striking out nine and walking none, while not atypical for an elimination game, nonetheless represented the latest instance of a starting pitcher getting a quick hook in an October bereft of workhorse performances.
In this, the sixth season featuring a wild card game in the postseason format, pitchers are getting lifted sooner and performing worse than ever: Through 36 postseason starts, the average starter is lasting just 4 1/3 innings and pitching to a 4.61 ERA.
That's a 26% drop from a similar sample just two years ago, when the median playoff start was six innings.
Postseason baseball has a long, rich history of starters taking over and virtually willing their teams to victory, and it doesn’t take looking back to the days of Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich or even Randy Johnson, Josh Beckett and Cole Hamels to find examples.
Corey Kluber stands out as the dominant figure of the 2016 postseason, even when his Cleveland Indians fell just short of the championship, and Madison Bumgarner’s heroics for the San Francisco Giants in 2014 still resonate.
Yet even those recent performances seem from a different era, and both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest the game is once again changing, and fast.
So far, only the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg has pitched like anything resembling an ace in these playoffs, which have featured some quality pitchers getting rocked early as well as managers all too ready to turn to their loaded, rested bullpens.
In the first 36 starts of this postseason, only four pitchers – the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino, the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks and Strasburg, twice – have completed as many as seven innings. No one has gone a single out beyond that.
“I’m certainly more aggressive going to the pen, even though we have a strong rotation,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, reflecting what has been a common approach among his colleagues. “With eight guys in the pen and the off days … I’m very matchups-driven and aware of that.’’
The trend is not entirely new, though certainly more notable this year. The average number of innings by postseason starters through the Division Series round was six as recently as 2014, when they posted a collective 3.31 ERA. The outings have been getting shorter - and less effective - every year since.
Some of that might be explained by the increased influence of statistics-driven front offices, which can provide chapter and verse – or line item – on how starters’ effectiveness diminishes the third time through a lineup.
With each game carrying so much significance, teams are pulling out all the stops to increase their chances of registering every precious out.
“You get into games where they're so meaningful, have so much impact, sometimes it's hard to (let the starter find his way),’’ said Indians manager Terry Francona, who relied heavily on his bullpen during last year’s World Series run partly because his rotation was beset by injuries.
“But the one thing to remember is once you go to your bullpen, you're committed, and you've got to fill those innings. If you're asking your bullpen to go seven or 7 1/3, it's hard for them to go the entire way without somebody getting nicked up.’’
Indeed, the strategy can come with diminishing returns. Indians reliever Andrew Miller was the talk of the 2016 playoffs, untouchable through the ALDS and ALCS as he faced 41 batters, struck out 21 of them, allowed no runs and just five hits in 15 1/3 innings.
But the ALCS MVP was more human in the World Series, allowing three runs and 10 baserunners in 7 2/3 innings. He gave up a home run in the Indians' Game 7 loss to Cubs catcher David Ross, whose next hit would be on Dancing With the Stars.
In 2017, "bullpening," as the term goes, has been almost equally by necessity as choice, as the early rounds of the playoffs revealed the vulnerability of even some of the game’s most powerful arms.
Young starters Severino, Taijuan Walker and Jon Gray, all 25 and under, combined to give up 11 runs in 2 2/3 innings in making their playoff debuts. Gray was the only one to get to the second inning.
And it wasn’t only the newbies getting shelled. AL Cy Young Award favorite Kluber gave up six runs in 2 2/3 innings in his first start, and was chased after just 3 2/3 innings in Wednesday's do-or-die Game 5.
Drew Pomeranz, a 17-game winner, allowed four runs in two innings. Same for 13-year veteran Ervin Santana.
Yu Darvish, the Los Angeles Dodgers' prize trade acquisition, was sharp in his Game 3 start against Arizona and certainly has the stamina to go well over 100 pitches. But asked twice about coming out in the sixth inning, after giving up just one run over 74 pitches, he voiced no objections.
“I felt like when I got off the mound the team's ready to use all the bullpen to get almost like one pitcher for one out,’’ Darvish said through an interpreter. “We're going to do everything we can to win this game, so I support his (Roberts’) decision.’’
Rotation mate Rich Hill said starters accept a shorter leash in the playoffs because of the enhanced importance of every game.
Hill gave up a two-run homer to Paul Goldschmidt in the first inning of Game 2, then threw three scoreless frames but was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the fourth as the Dodgers rallied back from the early deficit.
In the 2016 NLDS, Hill had outings of 4 1/3 innings and 2 2/3 innings against the Washington Nationals. The latter outing was on three days' rest and part of a carefully scripted plan by the Dodgers staff to limit Hill to 13 batters faced.
The Dodgers won that game, and the series, in five games.
“It’s the playoffs and you have to look at it objectively from the standpoint of every game is a must-win situation,’’ Hill said. “At the end of the day, it’s getting wins. It doesn’t matter how you get there. We just need to get the win.’’
So if shut-down bullpens pave the road to those wins, it seems to follow that the importance of starters has diminished. The Kansas City Royals first raised that notion when they rode a nearly impenetrable bullpen to World Series appearances in 2014 and ’15, the second one culminating in a championship. Last year’s Indians nearly duplicated the same formula.
Has the paradigm shifted to where most starters serve as mere place holders until the relievers can assume control?
Veteran catcher Jeff Mathis is not ready to make that leap. Mathis and the Diamondbacks were swept by the Dodgers largely because Arizona’s starters gave up 11 runs in 10 1/3 innings, and none of them completed more than five.
“You need a good balance, definitely,’’ Mathis said. “You want to have guys in your rotation that can go deep, and not necessarily depend on maybe getting five (innings) and seeing what happens after that. The starters are really, really valuable in my eyes too.’’
They just seem to be getting less valuable in the postseason picture.
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