Every MLB team searches for a formula to succeed in the playoffs. While teams have tried many different methods to win a World Series, one adage everyone holds to is that pitching helps you win in October. But what kind of pitching, specifically? While the popular opinion seems to have turned one way in recent years, the 2019 MLB postseason reveals that a more traditional approach may be just as effective as ever.
What teams have been successful this year
The NLDS and ALDS provided plenty of excitement this MLB postseason. The league championship series haven’t been quite as exciting, but a memorable World Series could be on the horizon. The makeup of the three remaining teams is rather telling about what strategies are most successful this season. Those teams (and their strengths) include:
- The Houston Astros. The Astros have excelled behind Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and a versatile lineup led by Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve.
- The New York Yankees. With less starting pitching proficiency than the Astros, the Yankees have nonetheless succeeded with near-record-setting home run hitting ability as well as a bullpen for the ages.
- The Washington Nationals. The Nats could give the Houston Astros a run for their money with regards to starting pitching. Their top three include Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin.
When looking at the three teams, one trend emerges: two have superior starting pitching compared to the rest of the league, while the Yankees have a superior bullpen.
Popular trends in previous postseasons
In recent years, it seems as though playoff teams relied more and more on their bullpens in the postseason. Bruce Bochy masterfully managed the San Francisco Giants’ pen during three World Series wins, but two teams popularized the tactic: the 2015 Kansas City Royals and the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Both teams shirked the traditional methods and leaned on their bullpens for an increased workload in October. That obviously paid off, as both teams won the World Series.
Other teams have turned to the bullpen in the regular season. The Tampa Bay Rays used the concept of “bullpenning” this year, and it mostly worked. It involved having the bullpen pitch the entire game. The first pitcher would only throw an inning or two and be known as an “opener” rather than a starter. The Rays qualified for the Wild Card game, win it, and push the heavily favored Houston Astros to the brink of elimination in a five-game series in the ALDS.
ESPN wrote a piece on the phenomenon of using bullpens in the playoffs after the Royals’ World Series win. One interesting item they noted? The Royals, who have seemingly served as the blueprint for teams looking to their bullpens in October, didn’t set out to manage their pitching staff that way.
“Yes, it’s true. It was never the Royals’ 2015 master plan to build a staff in which the relievers devoured 539-1/3 innings, no matter how unhittable those innings may have turned out to be. It just happened — because they wound up with a rotation that didn’t digest enough innings.”
In other words, the Royals coasting off the backs of their bullpen was more out of necessity than anything else.
The way the 2019 MLB postseason is different
Despite the popularity of using bullpens in the playoffs, the website FanGraphs made the argument that starting pitching is making a comeback during this MLB postseason. When looking at the results of the NLDS and ALDS, it appears as though they’re onto something.
They point out that in the 2018 postseason, teams only allowed a starting pitcher to throw 100 pitches four times (Walker Buehler twice, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Justin Verlander).
In this year’s division series, seven pitchers have thrown 100 pitches, including Justin Verlander, Walker Buehler, Patrick Corbin, Gerrit Cole, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, and Max Scherzer.
Data also shows that the prevailing notion was that starters were less effective facing a lineup for a third go-around than relievers were facing them for the first time. Last season, the data showed the opposite for the first time in awhile — relievers were less effective than starters in that scenario. According to the piece, regular season workloads for starting pitchers have gone down, which in turn has lead to an increased ability to pitch in October.
That is good news for teams like the Astros and Nationals, with their power pitching in the starting rotation.