Someday, someone must do an academic lifelong study to find out how many years it takes off the life of the average Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees player to be part of a postseason series against each other. Probably worse than smoking three packs a day.
On Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, Boston closer Craig Kimbrel looked just as menacing as usual, posing like a bird of prey about to take flight as he glared in for his signs while protecting a 4-1 lead. Unfortunately, he still had to throw the ball. That’s when his meltdown, his big ballpark implosion, became obvious. He couldn’t throw a strike with any pitch. Walk, walk, hit batter, fall behind ’em all.
Luckily for Boston, Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton matched his anxiety attack. Stanton struck himself out by chasing two low-and-away breaking balls — the same kind that Kimbrel was yanking to his glove side to everybody. Even the game’s final play — bang-bang at first base on a dribbler to third — caused heart palpitations in both cities. The Yankees were “replayed off” — by inches.
Thus ended a series that pitted a Yankees team constructed almost entirely along new-school lines against a Red Sox club that, while totally plugged into contemporary analytics, would have looked like a balanced power in almost any era in a century. The contrast cast a harsh light on the peril of thinking that nothing awful can happen in the early innings, before you get to your bullpen, even if your rotation lacks multiple proven playoff dominators. If you start humble J.A. Happ, flighty right-hander Luis Severino and old CC Sabathia, it just may not be enough.
The two league championship series will continue this laboratory experiment. Boston faces the World Series champion Houston Astros, who are the epitome of an all-around monster but with the kind of relief pitching depth the Red Sox lack. The homers-plus-juggernaut-bullpen Milwaukee Brewers confront the classically built Los Angeles Dodgers, with their pair of aces in veteran Clayton Kershaw and rookie prodigy Walker Buehler.
The only thing more fun than finding out that radical new ideas work in an old game is discovering that some of the ancient notions still apply, too. You can win — and win big — either way. It’s how well you apply those methods that matters.
The Yankees epitomized the game’s latest thinking with a launch-angle-loving, strikeout-ignoring lineup that set a Major League Baseball record with 267 home runs, plus a ridiculously fabulous bullpen with five qualified closers. You need a whip and a chair to control the wild beats the Yankees can summon: Aroldis Chapman (16.3 strikeouts per nine innings), Dellin Betances (15.5), Zach Britton, David Robertson and Chad Green, whose 2.16 ERA the past two years barely gets him noticed.
Yet the Yankees lost to Boston, in the American League East by eight games and in the AL Division Series in four, because they lacked what the Red Sox had: some of everything.
When a lineup of swing-and-miss sluggers meets the kind of pitching that can produce a 108-win season, the result can be humiliating. Early on Sunday, with their series tied a game apiece, the Yankees’ Aaron Judge left Fenway Park carrying his stereo, playing “New York, New York.” Did the Red Sox notice?
“They know it happened,” Boston rookie Manager Alex Cora said. “They talked about it. I don’t know if they took it personal.”
In two games in New York, the Yankees were outscored 20-4, hit .154 with runners in scoring position and plated their runs with two sacrifice flies, a fielder’s choice and a hit batter. For the first time in six months, they went back-to-back games at home without hitting a home run. One-dimensional offense didn’t work.
The Red Sox believe in blending all the baseball virtues. They hit 208 homers, only ninth in the majors. But Boston led baseball in runs because it was also No. 1 in batting average — Mookie Betts (.346) and J.D. Martinez (.330) were the game’s top average hitters — and doubles. The Red Sox were even third in the majors in that supposed extraneous art of stealing bases in quantity and with efficiency (125 for 156), the third-best big league total. The Red Sox even had a hit-and-run!
Boston can thump. But the Red Sox also can manufacture runs. They will need to when they face baseball’s best pitching staff in Houston. Seldom does the same team lead the majors in ERA for both starters and relievers. The Astros do. Even tougher, the pitchers at the top of the Houston rotation strike out men at the same rates as the Yankees’ feared bullpen. Gerrit Cole (12.4 Ks-per-nine-innings) and Justin Verlander (12.2) top the 11.4 rate of the Yankees’ bullpen, while Charlie Morton, who will be a free agent, is close (10.8).
Before this season, it was almost unthinkable that the Yankees, who had just paired two enormous 50-homer-plus sluggers in Judge and Stanton, both taller than 6-foot-6 with about 500 combined pounds of muscle, could be beaten decisively by anybody. Preseason predictions read like concession speeches.
Now it seems almost as ludicrous to say that this Red Sox team, with the most wins in franchise history, could be a clear underdog in the ALCS. But the Boston bullpen — with a hard-worked, sometimes shaky-looking Kimbrel at the back but useful no-names in the other roles — can’t match the depth of the Astros. Fortunately for drama, Houston, despite the excellent recent work of Roberto Osuna, lacks any one superb reliever with Kimbrel’s pedigree for the ninth inning. Nobody’s perfect, though the Astros sometimes look close.
The Brewers-Dodgers series mirrors what we just saw with the Yankees and Red Sox. All four teams love the cool modern stuff — lots of defensive shifts, “optimized lineups” and scads of calls to the bullpen for situational matchups. But the Brewers, by financial necessity, have built a powerful but lopsided team that resembles a poor-person’s version of the Yankees.
The Brewers have tons of homers as well as strikeout-stuff relievers led by multi-inning lefty Josh Hader, who has 143 strikeouts in 81 innings, and closer Jeremy Jeffress (1.29 ERA). Cubs Manager Joe Maddon muttered about how tough that Milwaukee bullpen was, right into the cold Chicago offseason. But the Brewers’ rotation is such a worry that ex-Washington National Gio Gonzalez has stabilized it.
This postseason shows that if franchises are flexible, they can use theories from almost any period to help them mold a total team. For example, Milwaukee must focus its resources, so the Brewers platoon at three positions up the middle — catcher, second base and shortstop — sacrificing offense for added speed and defense. But the Brewers get tons of homers everywhere else, including 103 from Christian Yelich, Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar.
The Dodgers, like the Red Sox, have lots of almost everything — 235-homer power, a deep bench for late-inning matchups and so many solid starting pitchers that some of them must head to the bullpen to get work. The main Los Angeles worry, just like the Red Sox, is the bullpen. Kenley Jansen just isn’t the lockdown closer he was for years. And the Dodgers, despite enormous talent, haven’t clicked at any point this year while the Brewers now run on underdog inspiration.
The playoffs always bring excitement. But they don’t always coincide with an era that’s full of change, sometimes bordering on revolution. Baseball can go many years without fundamental questions about how to build a team, how to run in-game strategy, where to position defensive players, whether to risk outs to steal bases and whether a “starting” pitcher is a creature who should throw 100 pitches or be on a leash so short that he may get the hook in the third inning.
It’s reassuring to know that old ways still work, that a balance of abilities can win 108 or 103 games. But it’s even more invigorating to realize that, in recent Octobers, we’re watching a battle of ideas as well as a struggle between players. Nothing is too novel to attempt. And a Yankees team that many thought might be the scariest ever assembled is gone before the party really gets rolling.
Here’s hoping that the tension of Tuesday night’s collision between the Red Sox and Yankees was just the beginning of our anxiety attacks.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.