So we may think we know what to expect from October 2019 — more creativity, more relievers as starters, more starters as relievers, more scripting of games from back to front. Outs will continue to be precious as runs become scarcer than they were during the regular season.
“I think you’ll see something very similar to what was seen the last couple years, as far as how pitching is used,” said Brian Snitker, manager of the National League East champion Atlanta Braves. “The biggest thing you see in October is with the pitching, how it’s used strategically and mapped out.”
But there is a difference this time: Each of the past few postseasons followed a regular season that was more or less recognizable as the same version of baseball that had been played the previous year and the year before that. The same cannot be said for 2019.
This regular season, put simply, was unlike any the sport had ever seen. This was evidenced most vividly by the unprecedented explosion in home runs, which — aided by a ball found to have reduced drag, as well as a continued emphasis on hitting the ball in the air — were up about 21 percent over last season and about 11 percent over the previous record in 2017.
Eight playoff teams — the Braves, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins and A’s — set franchise records for homers this season. And four — the Yankees, Twins, Astros and Dodgers — bashed more homers in 2019 than any previous team in history.
In the Year of the Home Run, don’t expect the bashing to stop just because the calendar turns to October and the pitching gets better. It’s not as if some of these high-powered offenses are all of a sudden going to start playing 1980s-style small ball just to push across a measly run. More than at any other time in baseball history, offense and home runs are basically the same thing.
Before this season, only four teams (the 2018 Yankees, 2017 Toronto Blue Jays, 2016 Baltimore Orioles and 2016 New York Mets) had scored more than half of their runs on homers, but this year seven teams (the Blue Jays, Brewers, Yankees, Twins, Chicago Cubs, Astros and Dodgers) did so. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone has already preemptively fired back against critics who might claim his team is “too reliant” on the homer.
“I think that’s silly, and it will be [argued] if we don’t win the World Series — we rely too much on the homer,” Boone said. “In reality, you need to pitch well, prevent runs, control the strike zone, and when you get a mistake, knock the you-know-what out of it. … The bottom line is, the team that wins the World Series will do a good job of holding offenses down and will probably hit a lot of balls in the seats when they have traffic [on the base paths], to create some big innings against elite pitchers. It’s hard to really string hits together, game in and game out in the postseason.”
This was also the most heavily stratified season in modern baseball history. Four teams — the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees and Twins — notched 100 or more wins, breaking the record for a single season.
The brilliance atop the standings was matched by an equal amount of futility at the bottom, with four 100-loss teams (the Detroit Tigers, Orioles, Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals) matching a record set in 2002.
This stratification, with “super” teams on one end and “tankers” on the other, has had real-world effects on the playoff field that make it difficult, in some regards, to evaluate individual contenders.
Before 2019, no team had ever won 18 games against a single opponent, but this season, the Astros went 18-1 against the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians went 18-1 against the Tigers. Maybe the Brewers were the hottest team in baseball entering the postseason — a fantastic story, given the loss of superstar Christian Yelich to a broken kneecap — or maybe they were just feasting down the stretch on a bunch of wretched teams (Marlins, Padres, Pirates, Reds) that had packed it in for the season.
But it is in the deployment of pitching that the trends from the regular season might make for a fascinating postseason. This year saw reliever usage increase for a sixth straight year, with teams using on average 3.41 relievers per game, with relievers accounting for a record 42.1 percent of innings pitched. But that will undoubtedly go up significantly in October; last postseason, the World Series champion Red Sox got 47 percent of their innings from relievers.
It wasn’t just your favorite team struggling to piece together those last nine or so outs. Across baseball, the collective ERA of bullpens shot up from 4.08 in 2018 (and 3.58 as recently as 2014) to 4.43.
The 2019 regular season saw more teams try openers and “piggybacks” — a pair of quasi-starters pairing up to throw two or three innings each, in place of a traditional starter throwing those five or six innings — than ever before. Those creative deployments will almost certainly increase in October, especially with so many good teams struggling to piece together effective bullpen options for the middle innings.
Among the teams that figure to be most creative with their pitching are the Rays, Yankees, Brewers and Twins. At the other end of the spectrum are teams such as the Astros and Nationals with three aces that might deploy their pitching in a more traditional manner (at least until they need a fourth starter).
After the wildest, tankiest, juggernautiest, homer-happiest season anyone has ever seen, it’s impossible to know what to expect out of this October. But in this atmosphere, let’s figure home-field advantage is more important than ever — not because of the familiarity of the surroundings or the energy of the fans but because, as long as there has been baseball, the home team gets to bat last. With all these home run hitters and all these questionable bullpens, that matters.
With that in mind, there is a lot of chalk — and home-field advantage — in our postseason picks: Dodgers over Braves in the NL Championship Series, Astros over Yankees in the ALCS and Astros over Dodgers in the World Series.