In 1952, Brooklyn pitcher Joe Black relieved 52 times in winning the Rookie of the Year award; in the World Series, he started more games (three, including Game 7) than the regular season (two).
In 1950, Jim Konstanty relieved 74 times to win the MVP award and the pennant for the Phillies, who then took him out of the bullpen and started him in Game 1 of the World Series.
Today the trend is moving in an opposite direction — the Rangers took their second-best starting pitcher and put him in the bullpen for the postseason — and it’s not always about who pitches the most innings, but who pitches the most important innings.
The World Series begins Wednesday with two teams — St. Louis and Texas — who have combined for four quality starts in 21 postseason games; each won their championship series without a single quality start. In six games, the Cardinals didn’t have a starting pitcher record an out in the sixth inning. As you might have surmised, that’s never happened before.
It’s indicative, yes, of the two teams’ mediocre starting pitching, strong bullpens and managerial acumen, but also how the game has evolved. Perhaps a quality start should no longer be finishing six innings and surrendering three runs or less, but reaching the fifth inning with a lead (doing the former requires only a 4.50 ERA; that might be quality, but not high quality).
There was a time when the setup man was a novel concept; today teams have setup men on top of setup men. There was a time when multi-inning saves were common (Rich Gossage got the last eight outs for the Yankees in their 1978 playoff at Boston); today a four-out save is considered extreme.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had eight relievers on his roster for the NLCS, and he used them all. He’s made 45 pitching changes in 11 postseason games (and one of those was a complete game); the Rangers’ Ron Washington has made 40 in 10. Both World Series teams have bullpen phones that need call waiting.
(Almost 30 years ago in our playback league, a manager had such mediocre starters and great relievers, he would remove the former as soon as he could. He was so quick to take his starter out — A.J. Burnett’s leadoff walk to Austin Jackson would have sufficed, for example — we legislated against it on the grounds it wasn’t realistic. Turns out, it is now; he wasn’t radical, just prophetic.)
La Russa and Washington did what they’re supposed to — they gave their teams their best chance to win, even if it’s entirely opposite how Brooklyn’s Charlie Dressen and Philadelphia’s Eddie Sawyer thought to do it 60 years ago.
For the record, Konstanty lost 1-0 in 1950’s Game 1, then came back to relieve in Games 3 and 4, including a 6.2 inning stint in the latter; he pitched 15 of the 35.2 innings the Yankees batted. Today, the Red Sox can’t get their pitchers to watch that many innings.
In 1952, Black won Game 1, but lost Game 4 2-0 and Game 7 4-2; he threw 21.1 postseason innings after 142.1 in the regular season — 163.2 innings total with just five starts. Alexi Ogando, the starting pitcher the Rangers moved to the bullpen for the playoffs, has made 29 starts in 2011 — 24 more than Black in 1952 — and pitched 179.1 innings, just 15.2 more than Black.
And before someone bemoans the change in philosophy, consider this: Black was never again an effective pitcher and retired in 1957; Konstanty, who was 33 in 1950, pitched seven more seasons and had only one other good one. There’s a reason Tigers manager Jim Leyland declared Justin Verlander off-limits every time he was tempted to bring him back on one- or two-days rest.
You can decry the specialization in today’s game if it offends you, but here’s why teams do it: it works.
Take Arthur Rhodes — which, ironically enough, is what the Rangers said to 29 other major league teams in August. The Cardinals did, even though Rhodes was a 41-year-old lefty reliever (42 next week) with a 4.81 ERA.
La Russa crafted a narrow but defined role for Rhodes: he gets the opposition’s most dangerous left-handed hitters in the middle innings. Rhodes has faced eight batters in five postseason games, and the closest La Russa has come to letting Rhodes see a righty is in the on-deck circle.
We can assume Josh Hamilton’s World Series preparation includes watching lots of tape of Rhodes (and Marc Rzepczynski). Hamilton will offer more resistance than Ryan Howard did — he was nearly 200 points of OPS better vs. lefties this year — but Rhodes has allowed only a walk to Prince Fielder this postseason. It’s a courageous manager who’s going to send up John Mayberry to bat for Ryan Howard in the sixth inning just because a 41-year-old lefty is in.
In years past, of course, this wasn’t how games were managed. From 1962-71, every deciding game of the World Series was won by a complete game; in the last quarter-century, that’s happened only twice (Josh Beckett, Florida, 2003; Jack Morris, Minnesota, 1991).
The Cardinals’ and Rangers’ success doesn’t mean this is the only way to win — the Giants won last fall with starting pitchers going deep into Games 4 and 5. The Phillies’ starting pitching staggered, but they lost more because the offense only scored 10 runs in the last four games. And lest we forget, the Cardinals won Game 5 of the NLDS this year with a Chris Carpenter complete game. We know Zack Greinke remembers.
But there was probably no more important moment in the NLCS than the fifth inning of another Game 5: two on, two out, Cardinals leading 4-1, Ryan Braun batting. Jamie Garcia was one out short of a potential win, and La Russa pulled him. Why shouldn’t he? If Garcia couldn’t get Jerry Hairston out, why should La Russa entrust him to retire the Brewers’ best hitter? Who offered the Cardinals a better chance to win: Garcia or Octavio Dotel? We’ll never know about the former, but the latter fanned Braun, and the Brewers’ chance to win the series was never as good.
It’s irrelevant, of course, if all the pitching changes and matchups and platooning are good for baseball. As the Cardinals and Rangers have shown, they can be good for winning.