Pitching has become a power game. High-octane is the new norm, so if you don’t pump gas, you better be able to change speeds and dot corners with the best of them. And if that’s what gets you to the big leagues, you better perform upon your arrival. There are guys with 95-plus arms standing in line behind you, waiting their own opportunities.
The Cleveland front office likes velocity as much as anyone — Indians starters averaged 92.8 mph with their fastballs this year, fourth highest among the 30 teams — but they’re not married to it. Recent outings are proof in the pudding. Ryan Merritt etched himself in Indians lore with mid-80s domination of the Blue Jays. Josh Tomlin baffled Boston and Toronto while barely topping 90.
Following the ALCS clincher, I asked GM Mike Chernoff to weigh in on the two hurlers, plus the club’s willingness to groom — and trust — what are tantamount to velocity-challenged control artists.
“It’s a huge organizational accomplishment,” said Chernoff. “Our scouts, our developmental system… In baseball, you can be really unconventional and still put a good team together. Those guys complement our team really well. They have tremendous mindsets.
“Both of those guys worked their way through the system, never as top prospects, never as top guys in the draft. They ended up trickling up to the major leagues and contributing in huge ways. You don’t have to [throw mid-90s]. All that matters is that you get it done. Those guys have taken advantage of their opportunities.”
Ben Zobrist is 1-for-13 in his career versus Corey Kluber. He’s 2-for-19 versus Josh Tomlin. None of the at-bats came this year, they but are fairly recent. He faced both of the right-handers in 2014 and 2015. I asked the experienced Cub if he sees meaning in those past matchups.
“Having had some tough at-bats against those guys, and knowing what they’re capable of, what it means is that I know what kind of approach I’m going to take,” answered Zobrist. “When you haven’t faced a guy before, you can end up defaulting to some of your old approaches against similar pitchers. Now that I have a specific mindset of what I feel helped me have a better quality at-bat, I can do that from the start. It takes pressure off my preparation.”
Zobrist has yet to look at video of his previous at-bats against Kluber and Tomlin. He’ll do so on the day he faces them, which is his normal routine. Bullpen pitchers are another story. He’s already looked at video of Cleveland’s relievers.
Mickey Callaway believes the bullpen game — a.k.a. the Bauer’s Bloody Finger game — was the key to Cleveland’s ALCS win. According to the club’s pitching coach, “It put us up 3-0, and we were able to relax and just play baseball.”
There haven’t been many chances to relax during the postseason. That’s especially true for Tribe starters.
“In the [eight] games, one guy pitched on the day he was supposed to,” explained Callaway. “That was Kluber in the first game of this series. Everybody else kind of pitched whenever, like, ‘Surprise! Tomlin, you’re going tomorrow.’”
Dexter Fowler is 0-for-7, with five strikeouts and a hit-by-pitch, against Corey Kluber. The Chicago outfielder isn’t concerned about that. He’s very aware of how good Kluber is.
“That’s in the past,” said Fowler. “Tomorrow’s a different day, and we’ll see. He won the Cy Young when I faced him [in 2014]. I don’t think anybody had success against him. When I faced him last year, I think he hit me.
“It’s Kluber. You never know what he’s going to do. You’ll figure it out when you get up there. You have to go up there with a plan. You have to get in the box and see what happens.”
“From a bullpen-guy standpoint, the biggest obstacle we jumped was the game where Carlos got hurt,” said Allen. “When we won that game, it was like, ‘If we can win that game, we can win any game. We can do anything, at any time, in any game.”
The overcoming of adversity has been an everyday storyline for the AL champs. As overdone as that’s become, it’s inescapable. The team isn’t shying away from its underdog label, either. Nor is it downplaying intangibles.
“We have high-character guys who have said, ‘You know what? Nobody is going to feel sorry for us,’” articulated Allen. “Bad luck, whatever it is, we still have a chance to do something special. We just moved on from it.
“When you have the group of leaders we do in this clubhouse, it brings a team together. Guys like Mike Napoli, Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller — they just grabbed everybody and said, ‘Hey, we’re going in this direction.’ There are a lot of leaders in this clubhouse. Francisco Lindor is 22 years old, and he’s a leader on this team.”
Cubs hitting coach John Mallee was asked about Kyle Schwarber, who is attempting to come back for the World Series after missing almost all of the season with an injury.
“His swing looks great,” Mallee said yesterday. “He didn’t skip a beat on his swing. It’s like riding a bike for him, I guess. That doesn’t mean he’s going to perform, and it doesn’t mean he’s not going to perform.”
Mallee called Schwarber’s swing “low maintenance” and the slugger himself a “low-maintenance guy.” He added that you don’t have to tell him, “Hey, you’ll be OK buddy,” because Schwarber’s response would be “I know.”
Per Joe Maddon, the Schwarber situation was to be addressed following last night’s Arizona Fall League game. Rosters need to be turned in at 10 o’clock this morning.
UPDATE: Per Mark Gonzalez at the Chicago Tribune, Schwarber has been added to the World Series.
Zach McAllister is aware that Terry Francona’s postseason bullpen strategy has been a big story. He also knows that analytics are involved in its implementation. As to the extent to which it will carry forward across the game, he sees limitations.
“Is it changing? It might be,” said the Indians reliever. “But at the same time, you have to have starters who can give you length. Throughout the course of the season, if you don’t have starters giving you innings, your bullpen — regardless of how you use it — is going be tired. It’s going to be worn out.”
Despite a deep bullpen, Cleveland starters ranked seventh in innings pitched during the regular season. In McAllister’s view, they made the relievers better.
“Our starters have given us length,” said McAllister. “That’s made it easier to be in a situation where we can have guys doing stuff they haven’t done all year. Our starters deserve a lot of credit for what our bullpen is doing right now.”
As Craig Edwards wrote yesterday, Jason Heyward has reached base just four times in 30 postseason plate appearances. One of those was via intentional walk. To say the Cubs outfielder is scuffling would be an understatement.
It’s a shame he won’t be facing Jon Lester in the World Series. Heyward is 11-for-27 versus his current teammate. Why the high level of success against a lefty of Lester’s caliber?
“He’s somebody I’ve felt comfortable against,” Heyward. told me “You just know you have to get ready to try to hit him. He’s coming at you. He’s a big guy; he’s coming at you.”
Panaceas are hard to come by when you’re having Heyward’s season — he slashed .230/.306/.325 in the regular season, but facing a pitcher you’ve had success against can’t hurt. It can only help.
“Hitting is very mental,” said Heyward. “This game is very mental. When you know you see the ball well off somebody, you may be less tentative. You may be less tense. You won’t be as stiff, so you go up there and get in the right slot, at the right time, early enough. That’s what you want to try to repeat.”
Heyward hasn’t faced Josh Tomlin. He’s 0-for-3 against Corey Kluber, and 0-for-9 against Trevor Bauer. Those are relatively meaningless sample sizes. At the same time, they aren’t exactly going to trigger positive thoughts.
Tyler Naquin has had a good rookie season with the Indians. The 25-year-old outfielder slashed .296/.372/.514, in 365 plate appearances, in the regular season. He’s just 3-for-16 in the postseason, but his base hits are a two-run single in the ALDS and a pair of ALCS doubles. There have been adjustments to make along the way.
“That’s part of being in your first year, man,” Naquin said yesterday. “You’re learning different pitchers and how you’re going to be attacked. You have to know how to make the adjustment without pressing and overthinking it. They’re going to learn your strengths, and they’re going to learn your weaknesses. How do you bounce back from that?”
High fastballs have been a problem. That doesn’t mean he can’t hit the pitch. At least when it’s a strike. Chasing up and and out of the zone has been the problem.
“You have to make them come to where you want,” explained Naquin. “A lot of the high fastballs I’ve been missing have been balls. Complete balls. I’ve hit the high-zone heater many a time. I’ve hit it low, I’ve hit it outside. Sometimes you just get in a little… I wouldn’t call it a funk. I’d call it more of a mental state that you have to pass. Your swing is your swing. What you don’t want is to swing at balls.”
Rob Zastryzny has played a bit role for the 2016 Cubs. The 24-year-old lefty appeared in just nine games, eight of them out of the bullpen. He threw 16 innings and got a win in his only decision. He hasn’t seen action in the postseason.
The contributions have been small, but that’s not for lack of want.
“When I first got here [in August], I walked into Joe Maddon’s office to introduce myself,” said Zatryzny. “I told him I’d do anything he needs. If he needs me to come in in long relief, if he needs me to start, if he needs me throw at the end of games. I even told him if he needs me to pinch hit, I’m ready.”
Edmonton, Alberta-born, Corpus Christi, Texas-raised, Zastryzny pitched at the University of Missouri, but he had other options. When I talked to him yesterday, he said he would have been a center fielder had he gone to Texas State. His travel-ball coach was of the opinion that he’d be “a pretty good college hitter,” but advised him go the pitching route.
Zastryzny sits 88-92 with his fastball, so while his stuff is solid, he’s by no means a power pitcher. Not surprisingly, he was watching when fellow lefty Ryan Merritt helped pitch the Indians to the World Series.
“He went to junior college in Texas, which is where I’m from,” said Zastryzny. “So when I found out he was starting, I knew I was going to watch. He controlled the zone with everything. He was throwing strikes. He was throwing down in the zone. He was throwing up when he needed to. You can learn from that, from watching Ryan Merritt pitch, from watching Kyle Hendricks pitch. You can beat people in the mid-80s and high-80s. Josh Tomlin, too. You don’t have to throw 95.”
The fact that a pitcher with 11 innings of big-league experience showed nerves of steel in playoff game didn’t go unnoticed. The lefty has an idea of where that came from.
“He’s from Texas,” said Zastryzny. “A lot of the guys I’ve played with from Texas are like that. Since we’ve been 11 years old, we’ve played in big games. In high-school football, we drew 10,000 to our games. My high-school baseball team played at Hooks Stadium, and we’ve had 8,000-10,000. We’re bred in those environments. I wasn’t surprised that he went out there and just did his thing. I was happy for him.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.