A Resurgence of Young Postseason Starters

With the exception of the return of the Pittsburgh Pirates to playoff contention, perhaps the biggest story of this postseason is the cavalcade of young starters taking the mound. There have been 46 postseason starts so far (23 games at two starters a piece), and 18 of those 46 were started by someone 25 years old or younger. That list includes the likes of Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, Danny Salazar, and Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, Mike Minor and Joe Kelly are all 25, while Wacha and Julio Teheran are the babies at 22. Almost 40% of the postseason starts were from young talent this year, though that number will go down now that Kershaw, Kelly, and Wacha are the only young starters left. Still, the 2013 postseason is another indicator that the trend of young starters is making a comeback.

under25psstartsgraph

With the addition of the first wild card in the 90’s, and the recent addition of the second wild card, this graph almost seems counter-intuitive, since more teams and more games should mean a need for more (younger) pitching talent. But that’s not the case. In fact, there is a long tradition of throwing green pitchers on the mound in the most important games of a team’s season.

The playoffs of the 1960s saw good performances by young starters like Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Mel Stottlemyre. Jim Bouton averaged a 1.51 ERA for the Yankees in the 1963 and 1964 World Series. In 1967, the Red Sox used Jim Lonborg on three days rest, hoping he could win them Game 7 of the World Series, as he’d pitched very well in Games 2 and 5. The Cardinals bats were too much for him, however, and the Red Sox lost 7-2. The next year, the Tigers used Denny McLain in practically the same way. The 24-year-old, who had already started 41 games in the regular season, was asked to start Games 1, 4, and 6 for Detroit in the Series. The Tigers actually lost his first two starts, but he came through in Game 7, on three days rest, pitching a complete game and allowing only one run as the Tigers beat Bob Gibson and took the series. McLain would eventually win the Cy Young that year.

The early 1970s saw two AL powerhouses, the Orioles and the Athletics, lean heavily on young arms in the playoffs. Jim Palmer pitched twice in the 1970 World Series, while Doyle Alexander got his first sniff of the playoffs at 23 in the ’73 ALCS. The Oakland A’s of the early ’70s were a force to be reckoned with, thanks in part to the performance of one young stud — Vida Blue. Blue pitched nine postseason games between 1971 and 1974, and with the help of his slightly-older co-ace Catfish Hunter, helped the A’s win back-to-back-to-back titles in ’72,’73, and ’74. Blue didn’t log the most postseason starts for under-25ers in the ’70s, however. That honor belongs to Cincinnati’s Don Gullett. While much has been made of the offensive prowess of the 1970’s-era Reds, Gullett was a one-man Big Red Machine, pitching ten postseason starts before he turned 26, owning a 2.99 ERA over that span and helping the Reds win their back-to-back titles in 1975 and ’76.

While 1986 saw the first (and fairly ineffective) postseason appearances of a young Roger Clemens, one can’t talk about young postseason arms in the 1980s without two three four-syllable names — Saberhagen and Valenzuela. The two combined for 13 under-25 starts in the ’80s. Saberhagen got a peek at the playoffs in ’84, when the Tigers swept the Royals in the ALCS. But he came back with a vengeance the next year, his age-21 season. He had two shaky starts in the ALCS, but he pitched well in Games 3 and 7 of the World Series, allowing only one run over 18 innings. The Royals won the Series, and Saberhagen would end up winning the AL Cy Young. Valenzuela was at the ripe age of 20 when he saw postseason action with the Dodgers in 1981. Manager Tommy Lasorda showed faith in the rookie sensation, sending him out twice in the NLDS, twice in the NLCS, and in Game 3 of the World Series. Valenzuela would average eight innings a start over the 1981 postseason, along with a 1.61 ERA. He would win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards that season, to go along with this World Series ring.

This is the part where I need to talk about Livan Hernandez. I know, but I need to. Because in the 1997 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, a 22-year-old Livan Hernandez pitched nine innings, allowed three hits (one was a solo home run), walked two and struck out 15. It took him 143 pitches, but the Marlins won the game, and eventually won the series. Hernandez’s performance wasn’t just great for a young pitcher, it was one of the best 20 or so performances by ANY pitcher in the postseason. Save for the random postseason heroics of Livan Hernandez, the rest of the 1990s belonged to — you guessed it — the Atlanta Braves. There were 78 under-25 starts in the 1990s, 29 of them were by Atlanta pitchers. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and Kevin Millwood would be the core of the young rotations that helped the Braves make postseason appearances for eight years in the 1990s.

As good as Livan Hernandez’s performance was in 1997, Josh Beckett had an even bigger one for the Fish in 2003. In Game 5 of the NLCS (the game prior to the Bartman game), Beckett went the distance in a two-hit, one-walk, 11 strikeout shutout of the Cubs. Beckett would have a wonderful postseason in total in 2003, as his Marlins won the World Series. He posted a 2.72 for the postseason. The league ERA was 4.29 that year. Aside from Beckett, the 2000s are littered with mainstays like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester, as well as some lesser-knowns like Chad Billingsley, Kyle Kendrick, and Gavin Floyd. The title of youngest postseason starter of the 2000s belongs to none other than Rick Ankiel, who pitched Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS. He pitched to a 13.50 ERA over 2.2 innings.

The youth movement in the postseason is nothing new, but It’s having a bit of a renaissance, it seems. Pitchers like Wacha, Gray, and Cole performed quite well this year. Shelby Miller could still make a start this postseason, and almost certainly will should the Cardinals make it back in 2014. The numbers are trending in the way of the young arms, and if future matchups are anything like Kershaw/Wacha was on Saturday, baseball is in for some intense entertainment in the years to come.



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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


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