Judging the Royals

The Cleveland Indians, Andrew Miller and playoff baseball

Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Andrew Miller
Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Andrew Miller AP

Write it down. On Sept. 17, the Indians were eliminated from serious postseason advancement before they even got there.”

Those words were written by Paul Hoynes, a Cleveland Plain Dealer baseball beat writer who covers the Indians. The team had suffered injuries to pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco and catcher Yan Gomes, and Hoynes didn’t think they’d overcome those setbacks.

I wrote about Hoyne’s prediction a while back, but as of Monday morning the Cleveland Indians are 6-0 in the playoffs; two wins away from the American League championship and a trip to the World Series. Hoynes has taken a pretty good beating from Indians players and fans for his postseason prediction and has since admitted he got it wrong.

Paul Hoynes does not need somebody else kicking him when he’s down and that’s not the point of this piece, but the 2016 Cleveland Indians provide an excellent example of what’s different about playoff baseball. When Hoynes tried to explain why he was down on Cleveland’s postseason chances, he had this to say:

“The postseason is about starting pitching. It always has been and always will be.”

If you believe that and a team loses two of its starting pitchers it might also be reasonable to believe that team will not do well in the postseason — but the postseason is played and managed differently than the regular season. The finish line is in sight and that means managers will ask more from pitchers who are pitching well and less from those who are pitching poorly.

For example:

During the entire 2016 regular season, reliever Andrew Miller threw two innings four times and when he threw more than one inning he almost always got the next day off. In the Indians’ five playoff games Miller has already been asked to throw two innings three times and he’s also been asked to throw more than one inning on back-to-back days.

Manager Terry Francona couldn’t use Miller this way during the regular season; he’d burn him out. But in the postseason with extra days off and not much baseball left to play, Francona can ask Miller and any other pitcher who’s throwing well to do more.

As Royals fans saw last year, the postseason isn’t always about starting pitching; if you’re starter is scuffling and your bullpen is lights out, go to the relievers as early as possible.

What happened to the Blue Jays’ power?

During the regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays had six players with at least 20 home runs: Edwin Encarnacion (42), Josh Donaldson (37), Michael Saunders (24), Troy Tulowitzki (24), Jose Bautista (22) and Russell Martin (20). In the first two games against the Cleveland Indians, the Jays have managed just two extra-base hits; both doubles.

So what happened?

First, eliminate the weaker teams and then second, eliminate the weaker pitchers off the better teams (managers will try to avoid throwing those guys in a playoff game) and pitching in the postseason can get a whole lot tougher.

The Cleveland game plan against the Toronto power hitters looks pretty simple; don’t throw strikes middle-in. If I counted correctly (always a big if) in Game 2, those six hitters saw a total of six middle-in strikes and those pitches were most likely to be thrown to the left-handed hitting Saunders; lefties tend to have longer swings which means they often hit down-and-in well, up-and-in not so much.

If the Cleveland pitchers keep doing what they’re doing, the Toronto hitters have two choices; hit the ball the other way and try to beat Cleveland with singles or move closer to the plate and make that outside pitch feel like it’s down the middle. If the Jays take option two, look for the Indians to start knocking Toronto hitters on their backsides.

Afternoon starts make it more difficult to hit

Game 2 between the Indians and Blue Jays started at 4:09 Eastern Time and that means both teams had to deal with afternoon shadows. All the scoring in the game happened in the first three innings. In fact, between both teams there was there was only one hit after the third inning.

During the regular season teams try to minimize the lighting problems by starting the games early in the day or later in the evening. But in the playoffs games are started when it’s convenient for the TV networks. Just when it matters most, teams are asked to play games under difficult conditions.

Why umpires might miss calls at first base

In one of the Dodgers-Cubs game a call at first base was overturned and there’s a very logical reason umpires sometimes miss these calls at first base. Umpires make calls at first base by watching the base and seeing the runner’s foot hit it and listening for the ball to hit the first baseman’s mitt. If the sound comes first the runner’s out; if the foot hits first the runner’s safe.

But if the toss to first base is a soft one (say the first baseman under-hands the ball to the pitcher covering) or the crowd is loud (like in postseason play) the umpire may never hear the ball hit the mitt and make the wrong call.

OK, that’s all I got for today; I hope you’re enjoying the playoffs as much as I am. Although I’d probably enjoy them a little more if I had a soft-serve ice cream machine in my family room. Working in the press box does have its advantages.

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