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Behind Max Fried, Braves Even NLDS as Brewers Can’t Find Offense

For both the Braves and Brewers, postseason success shares a similar blueprint: length from the starters, timely hits from the lineup, hope for the best with the bullpen (albeit at different times). Milwaukee executed that to perfection in Game 1 of this NLDS; in Game 2, it was Atlanta’s turn, with the Braves drawing the series even with a 3–0 win.

The difference on Saturday was Max Fried, who out-dueled Brandon Woodruff with six shutout innings, striking out nine against just three hits and zero walks. The lefty needed only 81 pitches to record his 18 outs before giving way to three relievers, who dodged plenty of trouble but managed to secure the final three frames with no damage. Like Corbin Burnes in Game 1, Fried didn’t so much beat opposing batters as brush them aside; Willy Adames was the lone Brewer to make it as far as second base against him on a sixth-inning double. Most of his outing was whiffs and soft contact, with Adames’ double the only ball in play he allowed to crack the 100 mph exit velocity mark. At-bats and innings were over in flashes.

The explanation for Fried’s success is simple: He threw strikes. Of his 81 pitches, 58 were in the zone, a 71.6% rate, which he pounded with his four-seamer — humming in at 95 mph on average — before busting out his slider and curve to finish things. Not normally a big swing-and-miss pitcher, he racked up a dozen whiffs on the day, six on the slider, to go with a CSW (called strikes + whiffs) rate of 40%; of his nine strikeouts, seven were swinging. By the time the middle innings rolled around, he’d found a groove: The final 10 Brewers hitters he faced all started their at-bats with a strike, and just two of them reached base. Read the rest of this entry »

On Optics and Doing the Right Thing

I come here not to bury MLB, and not really to praise it, but to wonder what else it could have done. On Friday, the league announced that it would be pulling this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta in the wake of Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature passing a law that would, among other things, impose burdensome new ID requirements on voters, limit absentee voting, and give the legislature wide latitude to intervene on state and county election boards. It was a move both correct and frustratingly limited, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise both doing the least and also the most it realistically could in the moment.

Argue if you’d like that MLB’s decision is as much about optics as doing the right thing. (You’d be correct.) Feel free to think that, regardless of the reasoning, a good decision remains a good decision. (You’d once again be right.) MLB had no choice here; holding a marquee, vote-driven event in a state where voting itself is under attack would be tone deaf and wrong. Nor should a league set to celebrate the life and career of Henry Aaron at the Midsummer Classic do so in a state whose new voter law disproportionately affects Black voters. That’s how you look both stupid and wrong, and for as much as MLB has been both in the past, stepping in this particular mess was a mistake easily avoided.

The Braves, meanwhile, put out a statement saying they were “deeply disappointed” in MLB’s decision, claiming that by moving the game, it was robbing the team of a chance to “use this event as a platform to enhance the discussion.” Before we examine the league’s actions further, it’s perhaps worth digging into that particular nugget of PR babble for a second. How exactly does an All-Star Game lead to a “discussion” about voter suppression? What is there even to discuss? Were the Braves planning on turning the home run derby into a TED talk about whether it’s bad when a state decides to make it harder for people of color to exercise their rights? The whole thing reads rather callously coming from a team that abandoned a perfectly functional stadium in a majority-Black city for a brand-new one, built at great expense to local taxpayers in one of Atlanta’s white suburbs, and yet claims that Atlanta is “our city.” It’s worth mentioning that the Braves didn’t make a statement about SB 202, as this Jim Crow-aping bill is called, when it was conceived, debated or passed. It all suggests that fans in Atlanta and Georgia can count on their baseball team speaking out only when it is directly impacted. Read the rest of this entry »

As Theo Epstein Departs, What Will Become of the Cubs?

After nine seasons, three division titles, a pennant and an historic World Series championship, Theo Epstein is saying goodbye to the Cubs. That surprising news came Tuesday afternoon, announced jointly by the team and its outgoing president of baseball operations. “I believe this is the right decision for me even if it’s a difficult one,” Epstein wrote in a statement released to the press. “And now is the right time.” Chicago will now be under the control of Jed Hoyer, the team’s general manager and Epstein’s long-time second in command, but the fate of both the franchise and its departing boss is less clear.

Taking over the Cubs in October 2011 after leaving the Red Sox under a cloud (and disguised as a gorilla), Epstein helped transform Chicago from National League also-ran and frequent cellar dweller into a juggernaut, culminating in the 2016 World Series win that ended a century-long title drought. He and his lieutenants drafted, developed or acquired virtually every important piece of that ‘16 roster, from Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo to Kyle Schwarber to Jon Lester to Jake Arrieta, and set the stage for what looked to be a dynasty. But diminishing returns and short postseason stays have left the Cubs in the championship cold over the last four seasons, and now their architect is moving on.

Those recent struggles may be part of Epstein’s decision to leave, though in a letter he sent to team employees and acquired by The Athletic, he claims that a decade at the helm was all he had in mind from the start. “Bill Walsh’s theory that in the sports industry a change in leadership after about a decade can be beneficial for both the organization and the individual has always resonated with me,” Epstein writes. Those of you blessed with the gift of being able to do basic math will note that 2020 minus 2011 equals nine, not 10. But per Epstein’s letter, a number of factors came into cutting his reign short by a year, including the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the team’s finances; the presence of Hoyer, who joined the club as GM when Epstein arrived; and, as Epstein put it, “decisions this winter that carry long-term consequences … best made by someone who will be here for a long period.” Read the rest of this entry »

Dave Roberts Pushes All the Right Buttons as Dodgers Take Game 5 and Series Lead

The pivotal and most crucial decision of Game 5 of the World Series was attended by a wave of boos, even as Dave Roberts got it right.

Amid the carnage and chaos at the end of Game 4 a scant 20 hours prior was the realization that the fulcrum of the series was now the left arm of Clayton Kershaw. That he would be the man on the mound was already known, as he’d been announced as the scheduled starter for Game 5 well before then, but the circumstances surrounding his turn swung as sharply as Game 4 itself. In the moments before Brett Phillips overturned the world, Kershaw was going to take the mound as the man to end Los Angeles’ three-decade run without a title. In the moments after, he became the man who would have to overcome his checkered postseason past to break the deadlock and put the Dodgers on the doorstep of a championship. If he couldn’t, Los Angeles would be facing the end of the road in Game 6.

It’s both unfair and tiresome that the playoffs always seem to swing around Kershaw, but he warps the series around him, a gravity well that sucks up matter and turns it into white-hot takes. There’s also the fact that the Clayton Kershaw Postseason Narrative™ has, for the most part, accurately reflected his October body of work, full of struggles and heartbreaking losses. The irony of these playoffs is that, one weak NLCS start aside, Kershaw has looked more like his regular-season self. Coming into Game 5, his 2020 postseason body of work consisted of eight runs allowed in 25 innings — a 2.88 ERA — and 31 strikeouts, and he was superb in Game 1, holding the Rays to one run in six innings. This is the Kershaw we all know and love. Read the rest of this entry »

Astros’ Luck Deserts Them Again in Game 3 Loss as Rays Take 3–0 Series Lead

In Game 1 of the ALCS, the Astros out-hit the Rays, struck out eight fewer times, watched Framber Valdez whiff eight batters in six innings, put 13 runners on, and threatened in nearly every inning. They lost. In Game 2 of the ALCS, the Astros out-hit the Rays, struck out five fewer times, watched Lance McCullers Jr. whiff 11 batters in seven innings, put 16 balls into play at 95 mph or harder and 13 runners on base, and threatened in nearly every inning. They lost.

Game 3 of the ALCS, though, would be different. Jose Urquidy hit a season-high 98 mph with his fastball, striking out four through five innings. A first-inning homer from Jose Altuve gave the Astros an early lead. They out-hit the Rays yet again and put 11 runners on and threatened in nearly every inning.

They lost.

The battle for the American League is, barring a miracle comeback, over. In beating Houston 5–2, Tampa Bay took a 3–0 series lead in the best-of-seven matchup and can both clinch its first pennant in 12 years and deny the Astros their third of the last four seasons with a victory on Wednesday. The best team in the Junior Circuit during the truncated 2020 campaign has gone 8–2 this postseason and looked virtually unbeatable in every facet of the game. The pitching has been crisp, the defense has been perfect, the offense has kept the line moving. Throughout October, the Rays have been a well-oiled machine. Read the rest of this entry »

With Super-Subs and Unlikely Stars Leading the Way, Rays Take ALCS Game 1

When you lose to the Rays, sometimes you get beat by top prospects and players with first-round pedigrees and the kinds of hyper-talented physical freaks who make up the majority of major league rosters. And sometimes you get beat by the back of a bullpen and a light-hitting catcher and a Cuban outfielder who before September was such an unknown that he probably could’ve walked through Ybor City on a Saturday night in full uniform to the attention and recognition of no one.

In taking Game 1 of the ALCS, 2–1, against Houston, Tampa Bay leaned on the parts of its roster that collectively should amount to nothing but ended up making the difference against a team in its fourth pennant series. Blake Snell, the former AL Cy Young winner, started, but given how he wobbled and weaved his way through five difficult innings, he wasn’t the star of this one. (His last inning of work, though, was crucial: Already at 83 pitches and clearly laboring, he was tasked with facing George Springer, Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley for a third time and did so perfectly, sparing Kevin Cash from having to lean even harder on an already exhausted bullpen.) Instead, it was the Rays’ chest full of misfit toys that gave them a 1–0 series lead in this best-of-seven battle.

Case in point: the man who put Tampa Bay on the board, Randy Arozarena. Coming into this series, he’d hit .444/.500/.926 in 30 postseason plate appearances, including three homers in seven games. He treated Yankees pitching like a piñata in the ALDS, and he did the same to Framber Valdez in Game 1, poking a belt-high sinker to right-center in the fourth to make a 1–0 Houston lead vanish. Getting a fastball by Arozarena has proven virtually impossible all month; Valdez learned that the hard way. Read the rest of this entry »

Yankees’ Pitching Comes Through, Saves New York’s Season and Forces Game 5

Beyond Giancarlo Stanton going electric and Gerrit Cole proving that investing $315 million in him was one of Brian Cashman’s better decisions, not a whole lot else has gone right for the Yankees against the Rays. Going into Game 4 needing a win to stay alive, they’d found no answer to the Ruth and Gehrig cosplay of Randy Arozarena and Ji-Man Choi. They’d struggled to do much of anything when faced with Tampa Bay’s best relievers. Most of the lineup aside from Stanton, Aaron Hicks, DJ LeMahieu and (unexpectedly enough) backup catcher turned starter Kyle Higashioka hadn’t shown up. New York had come by its series deficit and a potential trip home fairly.

But the biggest problem for the Yankees in this series is the one that was the biggest problem in the 2019 playoffs and the biggest problem in the 2018 playoffs and the biggest problem in the 2017 playoffs: a pitching staff that hasn’t performed consistently. Granted, that’s a small sample, with only six starts so far and two of those belonging to Cole. But Masahiro Tanaka, normally the postseason stalwart, has been bludgeoned in his two turns, including Game 3. Aaron Boone’s attempt at a Rays-style opener gambit in Game 2 quickly went pear-shaped. Game 4 rested on Jordan Montgomery, who hadn’t pitched in over two weeks and could at best provide three or four innings in what would be his postseason debut. If he went south early, making it to Game 5 was highly unlikely.

Yet for the first time this month, Boone got a capable start from a non-Cole pitcher, and his bullpen was able to hold it together for a 5–1 win. Even better, Game 5 will be in the hands of Cole, who held the Rays in check in Game 1, bulldozed the Indians in the Wild Card round, and would be a popular pick league-wide for “man you most want on the mound in an elimination game.” Read the rest of this entry »

For Clayton Kershaw, Doom Threatens but Never Arrives in Dodgers’ Game 2 Win

There’s a moment in almost every Clayton Kershaw postseason start where the entire enterprise threatens to swing completely off its axis — where the boulder, finally nearing the top of the hill, begins its inexorable roll back down, leaving the three-time Cy Young winner flattened underneath it. It never happened in the Wild Card round, when Kershaw sliced and diced a punchless Brewers lineup over eight scoreless innings, but it arrived in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Padres in the sixth inning, when two pitches and two swings seemed like they would undo all of the veteran lefty’s hard work.

Clayton Kershaw is not Clayton Kershaw™ any more. At the same time, he is neither bad nor finished, and his 2020 was a resurgence previously hard to imagine for a 32-year-old man with 2,300-plus innings on his arm and a wobbly back that shifts and grinds like tectonic plates. He made 10 starts and threw 58.1 innings and struck out 62 batters and posted a 2.16 ERA, a hair off his 2.13 mark in 2016, the last year when he was really, truly the best pitcher in baseball. Since then he’s been more passable imitation of himself than the genuine thing, but this season was proof that he could adjust and thrive despite a fastball that’s past its peak.

The trick to Kershaw’s success, as Ben Lindbergh noted over at The Ringer, is that he starts off with that fastball — which, after dipping to an average of 90.5 mph, a career low, in 2019, rose back up 91.6 this year and got up to 93–94 — and then goes to his slider. It’s a winning strategy for several reasons: Hitters tend to let the first pitch go, allowing Kershaw to pump in strikes and get ahead; and his slider is a monster of a pitch. None of that likely works without that four-seamer getting a little more life on it, but Kershaw also has smarts and savvy and spin on his side, and he can reach back and find his old self albeit without the heat.

So it was against Milwaukee and so it looked against San Diego. For the first five innings, Kershaw stuck to his plan: 19 first-pitch fastballs out of 24 offerings, 45 fastballs total averaging 91.7 mph and peaking at 93.6, lots of two-strike sliders. And for five innings it worked, aside from a Wil Myers RBI double in the second on a slider that caught too much of the plate; otherwise, weak contact and strikeouts abounded. Read the rest of this entry »

Astros’ Anonymous-Yet-Excellent Bullpen Helps Houston Take Game 1

If you’d been asked, before this postseason, to name as many Astros relievers as you could, how many would you have rattled off before you had to stop? Many fans could probably recall Ryan Pressly, the closer with the high-spin curveball who’s been an integral part of Houston’s bullpen the last three seasons. Maybe Josh James is a familiar face if you’d paid enough attention, a young right-hander with a powerful fastball and questionable command who’s bounced between the rotation and bullpen.

After that, though, it’s likely a lot of blank stares and silence. The relief corps that the Astros turned to throughout the 2020 season was as anonymous as it was unexceptional. Houston’s bullpen ranked 16th in the majors in WAR and ERA and 18th in strikeout rate. By Win Probability Added, they were a miserable 26th. The only stat they were near the top of the league in was walk rate — 12.4%, second-highest in the league. None of that should have come as a surprise: The Astros lost two of their better relievers from 2019 in Will Harris and Joe Smith to free agency, then they saw closer Roberto Osuna throw all of 4.1 innings this year before blowing out his elbow.

The bullpen then became a carousel, spinning constantly as new bodies jumped on seemingly every day. Twenty-two different pitchers trotted out in relief for the Astros, most of them rookies, trying their best to fill what increasingly looked like a bottomless hole. Some of the names cycled through were downright Pynchon-esque: Cy Sneed, Nivaldo Rodriguez, Humberto Castellanos. Some players were barely there for a few days before disappearing while others stuck. And although the bullpen on the whole was never anything more than average, a few of those pitchers managed to secure a spot in Dusty Baker’s circle of trust. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Call It an Upset: Marlins Blank Cubs, Move on To NLDS

There was a philosophical quandary after Miami’s 2–0 Game 2 win over Chicago: Is it really an upset loss if the higher seed never looked like the favorite? The Cubs — NL Central champs, No. 3 in the postseason field, blessed with talent — are gone. The Marlins — bottom feeders the last several years, season nearly ended by COVID before it got started, built out of spare parts and held together with string, in the postseason by virtue only of its expansion — are moving on. And after two games in an empty and chilly Wrigley Field, that result doesn’t feel like a fluke.

The numbers on Chicago’s side of things are grizzly: 18 innings played, one run scored, that coming on a single hit: Ian Happ’s solo homer off Sandy Alcantara in the fifth inning of Game 1. Since then, no runs in 13 straight innings, most of them quiet and all of them frustrating. You saw plenty of that in Game 2: After struggling to get the measure on rookie righty Sixto Sánchez and his booming fastball early on, Cubs hitters seemed to figure something out the second time through the order. In the fourth, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber drew back-to-back walks to open the frame. One out later, Jason Heyward cracked a broken-bat single to right, and perhaps feeling pressure to get on the board, third base coach Will Venable sent Contreras — not a glacier like most catchers, but no one’s idea of Billy Hamilton — from second. The play was close, but a strong throw from Matt Joyce and a nice tag by Chad Wallach got him at home to end the threat and keep things scoreless. Read the rest of this entry »