The first National League playoff game of the 2010s was a nine-inning no-hitter by a Hall of Fame ace. Brian Anderson, the lead television broadcaster for the Milwaukee Brewers, called the game on TBS and relished it — Roy Halladay, the stalwart Philadelphia Phillies’ ace, dominating from first pitch to last.
Now, at the end of the decade, the playoffs arrive again with a much different pitching plan en vogue. While aces still abound, teams like the Brewers increasingly spread their innings among several pitchers in shorter bursts. Even traditionalists concede it has merits.
“I’m kind of into it now, I am,” Anderson said. “I wasn’t a few years ago, but now I’ve seen it, and everybody’s engaged, everybody plays. In a National League setting, everybody’s involved in the game. It’s a true team concept.
“There are alpha dogs, but it’s not the gap that there’s always been in baseball. It’s now about bringing in depth and developing depth, which the Brewers can do — and any small-market team can do.”
Money still matters, of course, and teams need it to afford those rare veteran starters who can throw 200 innings. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke of the Houston Astros combined to earn more than $73 million this season, and Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin of the Washington Nationals made more than $78 million.
But four of the 10 playoff teams rank among the lower half of major league payrolls, including the Minnesota Twins, the Oakland Athletics, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Brewers. Those teams almost certainly will be creative with their pitching plans this month — but they might be joined by high-payroll teams like the Yankees, the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Once it hits October, you do it however you think is the best way to win,” said the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff, an All-Star starter who now works only in two- or three-inning stints because of a midsummer oblique strain. “That’s what we thought last year, and luckily it went pretty well. That’s kind of the way the game’s changing, with the whole analytical type thing. You’ve got your pros and cons, but I think it helps out in setting the lineup for a certain guy. Teams are obviously picking up on it.”
The Brewers, who will visit the Nationals for the N.L. wild card game on Tuesday, reached Game 7 of the N.L. Championship Series last fall before losing to the Dodgers. In their 10 playoff games, the Brewers averaged less than three and one-third innings from their starters, usually by design.
The Brewers will use the same kind of strategy this postseason. It helped them blitz through September with a 20-7 record despite losing Christian Yelich, the reigning N.L. most valuable player, to a fractured right knee.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” said Ryan Braun, the longtime Brewers left fielder. “That’s what we do, that’s what enables us to have success. We’d love to have Brandon Woodruff fully healthy and build his pitch count back up; he matches up with anybody at the front of the rotation. But if you look at the success we’ve had, it comes from mixing and matching, playing matchups throughout the game and really utilizing the depth we have in our bullpen.”
The Yankees may be able to boast the deepest bullpen in the postseason field, and they have not lost this season when Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zach Britton and Aroldis Chapman all appear in the same game. They are also 11-4 when using Chad Green as an opener, and Manager Aaron Boone has already pledged to use his staff in a variety of roles this month.
The Dodgers, too, have been trying various relay-team options lately. They have three reliable starters — Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu — but their fourth, Rich Hill, has been limited by a recent knee injury.
The Astros’ fourth starter, Wade Miley, struggled down the stretch, complicating Houston’s blueprint for handling the fourth game of a series. And while the Twins won 101 games with two starters making the All-Star Game, their chief baseball officer, Derek Falvey, said in early September that the Brewers’ model intrigued him — and that was before Minnesota lost its third starter, Michael Pineda, to a failed drug test.
“I think each team evaluates its own unique situation,” said David Stearns, the Brewers’ general manager. “Teams that feel like they have a strength-in-numbers approach may trend toward the type of strategy we’ve used from time to time, and teams that see that they have a couple of defined horses, I think, will continue to lean on those horses.”
“It really depends on what your personnel is and how you want to use them. I don’t know if we’ve started a trend, but maybe we just demonstrated that this particular strategy, with the right personnel, can work.”
No Brewers pitcher reached 160 innings this season, but as the year went on, Manager Craig Counsell found more and more dependable arms. Now he essentially has a staff full of pitchers who can go multiple innings if they are rolling, but can also be replaced at any moment for a different matchup. With the home run a constant threat in this slugging era, playoff managers will not hesitate to follow Counsell’s example.
“You can’t keep many secrets with that stuff,” Counsell said. “We’re going to use a bunch of pitching, and I actually think in a lot of ways we’re better situated this year, pitching-wise. I think we’re a little deeper. But you can’t sneak up on people in the playoffs and you can’t surprise people. That’s not how you win.”
There is no one way to win, of course, and perhaps the Astros, the Nationals or others will revive the old tradition of efficiency and effectiveness from a stable of starters. But the networks will keep a camera trained on the bullpens, just in case.
“It’s fun to broadcast, from an entertainment perspective,” Anderson said. “It’s fun to show the bullpen in the third or fourth inning.”