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If He’s “Under the Weather,” Stephen Strasburg Shouldn’t Pitch

Pitchers have typically produced poor numbers when ill. (Photo: Lorie Shaull)

The Nationals have created quite a mess — or, at the very least, exhibited a failure to communicate.

As you’re probably aware, Stephen Strasburg was originally not scheduled to pitch Game 4 of the NLDS. Following the postponement of Tuesday’s game to Wednesday, however, circumstances appeared to change for the Nationals. Facing elimination, they could throw Strasburg — who’s been pitching as well as anyone on the planet — on his normal rest.

Strasburg appeared at the ballpark and played catch on Tuesday. He wasn’t 100%, though. He was feeling “under the weather,” according to manager Dusty Baker. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell reported on the situation:

The Nats, knowing that Game 4 might be rained out, asked Strasburg whether he could pitch Wednesday.

“I’ll give you what I’ve got,” Strasburg said, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, who was in the meeting.

Those are the words you want to hear, in one sense, because it means your $175 million star will suck it up and perform. On the other hand, they’re exactly the words you don’t want to hear because Strasburg has, in recent years, shown such a high tolerance for pain that he has touched [sic] it out until he ended up on the disabled list. So, “I’ll give you what I’ve got” means the guy is sick as a dog.

Perhaps unconvinced that they’d get the best version of Strasburg on Wednesday, the Nationals’ decided to save him for a potential Game 5 on Thursday and let Tanner Roark take Game 4.

Still, other Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga articulated thoughts that many seemed to share inside and outside the Beltway on Wednesday morning.

If Strasburg is truly sick and if he actually wanted to pitch, let’s make sure the public gets some details about this illness. What was his temperature? What are his symptoms? How are the Nationals treating him? He threw a bullpen session Monday, was in the dugout for Game 3 that night, returned to the ballpark Tuesday. It’s nothing for a pitcher — never mind a pitcher who wouldn’t pitch Monday or Tuesday — to remain back at the hotel to recuperate. Why wasn’t Strasburg, so ill he can’t pitch, recuperating?

That leads to another possibility: Strasburg had been preparing all along to take the ball in a Game 5 on Thursday. When the weather altered the schedule for all of baseball, Strasburg declined to alter his own schedule. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that Strasburg refused to pitch Wednesday. The Nationals deny that report.

Baker even mentioned something about mold affecting players in Chicago:

And then this breaking news from Jon Morosi appeared late Wednesday morning:

Quite a turn of events! This author even had to re-write the current post.

And a number of questions remain unanswered. Like, is Strasburg feeling better? And: are the Nationals and Strasburg wilting before public opinion?

Whatever’s going on, the Nationals could have communicated this much more clearly and offered much more transparency — unless, in fact, there’s actually something to hide. Baker couldn’t even get the day right when Strasburg threw his bullpen, which was cut short. (It was Monday, not Tuesday.)

Svrluga shared some insights offered by two former major-league players on Tuesday evening. Said Mark Teixeira via ESPN: “Unless this guy is in the hospital and getting fluids and can’t even go to the ballpark, he’s gotta be on the mound.” Said David Ross during the ESPN tonight telecast: “If I’m his teammate… I can’t look him in the eye.”

Strasburg has developed a reputation, fairly or unfairly, as something like a high-maintenance, high-performance automobile.

There was, of course, the infamous innings limit of 2012, when the Nationals publicly revealed they had set a hard cap on Strasburg’s playing time for the season following Tommy John surgery late in 2010. They didn’t permit him to pitch in the postseason. While the intent was to protect Strasburg, we really have no idea if pitch and innings limits are doing much good with regard to injury prevention. Moreover, by refusing to play Strasburg, the Nationals failed to give themselves their best chance of succeeding in the playoffs. (And perhaps there was a way not to cross that innings mark and have Strasburg available later in the season.)

Strasburg has made a number of trips to the disabled list. His competitive zeal has been questioned. He’s also perhaps misunderstood as one of the game’s less outspoken of players.

Wrote Svrluga on Wednesday morning:

“So whatever Strasburg says now, his rep is in flames… Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, has said out loud that it’s the time of year for heroes.

‘Be John Wayne,’ Rizzo said Sunday at Wrigley, in between Games 2 and 3.”

The American public likes to see their stars perform even if ill, and perform well even if dealing with illness. It can lend a legendary quality to already talented performers. Michael Jordan’s excellence in the NBA Finals with the flu, Willis Reed’s dramatic return to the court after suffering a torn muscle, Kirk Gibson‘s walk-off home run with zero healthy legs: these are career-defining moments.

If he’s healthy, if Strasburg is feeling much better, that’s one thing. But if he’s not, if he’s ill, if this is about trying to prove bravery and and play hero ball… is that a good idea?

Should the Nats really want him pitching Wednesday afternoon? (And if Strasburg isn’t sick — why would he have wanted to take a PR hit like this?)

Because this piece has required a quick turnaround, I haven’t had time to perform an exhaustive study of pitchers working through illness in 2017.

Thankfully, Ben Lindbergh did such a study back in 2012 for Baseball Prospectus. Lindbergh found 10 starts made by nine pitchers — Matt Harrison, Vance Worley, Chris Tillman, Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, (twice and left to toil for 14.1 innings), Josh Beckett, Anthony Swarzak, Jon Niese and Clayton Kershaw — who were known, publicly, to have performed despite illness.

Of those 10 starts, seven produced box-score lines worse than their individual seasonal performance — and only two met the criteria for a “quality start”

They combined for a 5.84 ERA over 42.1 innings, allowing 68 hits and 18 walks against 50 strikeouts. While we should perhaps revisit this with a more exhaustive study, it would make sense that pitchers don’t perform as well when feeling sick (or on short rest). Think about trying to complete a work day, or to parent effectively, or just get up to go the refrigerator when feeling ill.

Assuming Strasburg really is sick — and is ill in such a way that it impacts his ability to perform — he should be saved for Game 5. It’s a smart, tactical retreat. After all, the Nationals still have to win two consecutive games. Their best bet to win one of those two is to have an ace-level pitcher at, or nearer to, 100%.

If he’s feeling better, if he’s prepared, he ought to pitch. He should be adaptable enough to change routines if relatively healthy to help a team facing elimination. But if he’s sick? The precedent isn’t great.

Consider the start by Matt Harrison (flu-like symptoms) included in Lindbergh’s research. He allowed five runs, four earned in 4.2 innings. Said then-Rangers manager Ron Washington:

“He’s under the weather a little bit, but he still went out there and left it all on the mound. He gave us everything he had. He took the ball and battled.”

Said Worley (four runs, 3.2 innings) of the appearance he made while dealing with a stomach ailment:

“I felt like I was going to see Earl* a few times today. You know, I just couldn’t get it out. And then I went out there, and it seemed like every time I tried to let loose today, it didn’t go where I wanted. And neither did my stomach. Everything arm-wise felt fine. I came out with good action. It just wasn’t going where I wanted because I couldn’t control my stomach.”

Said Tillman (five runs allowed in five innings):

“I was kind of out there fighting stuff on the mound, just trying to get through.”

Strasburg is a more talented pitcher than those cited above, but Kershaw couldn’t get through the fourth inning on April 5, 2012, and his fastball velocity sat at 89.3 mph, well below his seasonal average. On Wednesday evening, is Strasburg going to talk to reporters about hoping to have performed better but not having been at 100%?

Discretion is the better part of valor. Bravery can be misguided.

Starting CC Sabathia Tonight is Perfectly Reasonable

In July, the Yankees sent a significant package of talent to the Oakland A’s in order to acquire Sonny Gray, hoping to improve their rotation for both the stretch run and the postseason. But now that they’re in the postseason, and their season is on the line, Joe Girardi has chosen to hand the ball to CC Sabathia instead.

On the surface, this looks like another example of one of Girardi’s primary weaknesses; overreacting to recent performances. We saw him do this with Luis Severino, bumping him to Game 4 of the ALDS after he was bombed in the Wild Card game, despite Severino being pretty clearly the Yankees best starter right now. And while Gray has a clear edge over Sabathia in track record, he didn’t finish the season very well, allowing a season-worst .330 wOBA in September, and he wasn’t good in his first outing in this series either.

Despite his struggles of late, though, Gray is pretty clearly a better pitcher than Sabathia at this point. I’d generally suggest that a team is better off relying on projections than on what-have-you-done-for-me-lately reactions, and so from a process standpoint, I don’t think picking Sabathia over Gray is a great choice.

But Girardi’s recency bias aside, there’s actually a pretty good case to be made for starting Sabathia tonight.

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The Death of a Fastball, with CC Sabathia

The last time I saw Dan Haren in the clubhouse, I wanted to hug him. He was a part of a young Cubs team that was about to enter the postseason ahead of schedule. He was also about to retire, though, and I didn’t peg him for one who’d work in the game after he was done. I didn’t know when I’d see him next, and he’d been a go-to source for many of my pieces. This happens more often than we might imagine, this bit of deflation right in the middle of so much elation. For many players, their last appearance in a major-league game also represents their last day in baseball.

The effort to be here now, to be fully present in the moment, is an ongoing one — and a difficult one when it comes to baseball. For example: as much as I’m in love with the present version of Bartolo Colon, I sometimes remember fondly the days when he threw gas — and threw something other than a fastball. I’ve had the opposite experience with Rafael Devers recently: as impressed as I am by his abilities right now, I can’t help but think of his future whenever I watch him.

Contemplating CC Sabathia in this context yields a slightly different experience. The left-hander debuted as a 20-year-old and began producing above-average numbers right away. Over the course of his age-35 and -36 seasons, meanwhile, he’s recorded nearly seven wins. In terms of his capacity to prevent runs, the Sabathia of 2017 isn’t much different than the Sabathia of 2001. As such, Sabathia offers a unique means by which to experience nostalgia for yesterday, the immediacy of today, and the hope for tomorrow all at once.

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The Yankees Have Shown Us the Future

The Yankees gave us a glimpse of the future on Monday night, demonstrating how a game of ever-increasing extremes is only likely to continue trending in that direction.

No, this isn’t about bullpenning, a strategy that the club almost accidentally employed in the Wild Card game against Minnesota and that they ought to use again in Game 5 tonight. Rather, this is about fastball velocity.

The Yankees’ average fastball in Game 4 against Cleveland traveled at 98 mph. Ninety-eight! New York pitchers failed to throw a single fastball under 96 mph.

That’s kind of terrifying.

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Try to Tell the Difference Between Jake Arrieta and Tanner Roark

I have to admit to a bias. I’ve been aware of Tanner Roark since he entered the major leagues a few years ago, but my evaluation failed to evolve. In my head, Roark was still the guy he was when he made his first impression, as a strike-throwing and hittable sort who seemed to pitch with the intent of beating his peripherals. It is my job to try to know as much as I can, and I concede that this is my own failing, but in my partial defense, Roark hasn’t been close to the most interesting member of the Nationals’ pitching staff. Why would I choose to concentrate on Roark, when I could focus instead on Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg?

I have to admit to another bias. I find it tempting to believe that the larger population perceives things in the same way that I do. I haven’t kept up with Roark; therefore, I bet no one has kept up with Roark. Sometimes this gut feeling is correct. Sometimes, I’m just out of the loop. In any case, I’m about to put you all to the test. This isn’t going to be about me anymore.

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In Defense of Dusty Baker

Yesterday, the Nationals lost Game 3 of their division series to the Cubs 2-1, and now trail by the same margin in the series. Despite a brilliant outing from Max Scherzer, the Cubs managed to plate a couple of runs against the team’s bullpen, putting the team on the brink of elimination in the first round once again. And because the Cubs got their runs with Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez on the mound, with Max Scherzer, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle all watching, Dusty Baker has come under fire for his bullpen management once again.

But on this one, I have to say that the criticism feels a bit unfair. If we look at the circumstances and what actually happened, it seems like Baker mostly made reasonable decisions.

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Astros-Red Sox ALDS Game 4 Notebook

This past Sunday’s Notes column led with Alex Bregman talking about how hitting the ball in the air became a priority once he’d signed with the Astros. That approach paid off in spades yesterday. With his team down a run, the 2015 draft pick took a Chris Sale pitch over Fenway Park’s Green Monster to tie the game in the eighth inning. Houston went on to win 5-4 and advance to the ALCS.

When I approached Bregman after the game, his first words were, “How was the launch angle on that?” (I hadn’t looked it up yet, but it was 32 degrees.) Asked if he liked whatever the launch angle was, he smiled and said that he loved it.

Needless to say, the youngster was in seventh heaven.

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The Worst Called Ball of the Playoffs

In Monday’s pivotal Game 3, the Cubs beat the Nationals because Anthony Rizzo hit a stupid little doink. The inning before, the game was tied up when Albert Almora came off the bench to rip an RBI single. Almora hit for Kyle Schwarber, who had opened the door for the Nationals in the top of the sixth when two errors on the same play gave Daniel Murphy three bases. Almora hit for Schwarber because Dusty Baker relieved Max Scherzer with Sammy Solis for some reason. Scherzer was relieved immediately after allowing his first hit of his entire game, which was 19 outs old.

For a game that had only seven hits and three runs, there’s an awful lot there for people to talk about. The Cubs now find themselves in a commanding position, after coming uncomfortably close to getting shut out. There’s resiliency to discuss. Baseball luck. Managerial second-guessing. There’s almost everything you could possibly want. I’d like to discuss a called ball in the top of the fifth inning that didn’t matter for beans.

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The Eighth Pitch to Josh Reddick

In the wild and remote southeast corner of Oregon, tucked near to the eastern side of the Owyhee River, there’s a canyon that used to be known as Dugout Gulch. It was renamed Leslie Gulch in remembrance of Hiram E. Leslie, an area rancher who, in 1882, was struck by lightning. It wouldn’t be fair to say that getting struck by lightning was a habit of Leslie’s. He was no more likely to get struck than any other rancher in the region. Yet get struck by lightning, Leslie did. Well past a century later, it’s how we recall him today.

Josh Reddick has spent a career being unclutch. Greatly unclutch, incredibly unclutch, almost unfathomably unclutch. Ben Lindbergh wrote about it at the end of June. We have a win-expectancy-based Clutch metric on our leaderboards, and, since Reddick debuted, no hitter has a lower Clutch score. We actually have this stuff going back to 1974, and, since then, on a per-600-plate-appearance basis, Reddick currently stands as the least-clutch hitter out of everyone. He just edges out Ron Kittle and Richard Hidalgo. If you think that this is somehow misleading, it’s not. When Reddick has batted with the leverage low, he’s posted a 121 wRC+. When he’s batted with medium leverage, he’s posted a 99 wRC+. When he’s batted with the leverage high, his wRC+ has been 70. The history is all right there, inarguable. Josh Reddick has not exactly risen to the occasion.

This always seems to lead to the same conversation, about how clutch performance isn’t predictive. That’s true — it’s not. Or at least, it’s not easy to spot when it is. Possibly, or even probably, Reddick isn’t an unclutch hitter. But Hiram E. Leslie probably wasn’t lightning-prone. At some point, you’re just defined by what’s happened. It’s not easy for Reddick to erase his own record.

Yet days like Monday can help. Monday, in Boston, Reddick drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth. The Astros went ahead by one, and the Astros finished ahead by one, having eliminated the Red Sox in four games. A number of different players all helped the cause, but in the eighth, with baseball’s most unhittable pitcher on the mound with two outs, the least-clutch hitter in decades knocked an RBI single the other way. The Astros found themselves on the verge of advance.

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The Dodgers Are Frightening Again

Kenta Maeda has helped resuscitate the bullpen after a tough September. (Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

The Dodgers have had one of the weirdest seasons I’ve ever seen. Through August 25th, they were 91-36. And then, out of nowhere, they proceeded to lose 16 of 17, looking like one of the worst teams in baseball for almost three weeks. Their spot in the postseason was already secure, but their late-season collapse created an easy narrative that the Dodgers were headed for another playoff disappointment.

And when they drew the Diamondbacks — a club that had beaten them 11 of 19 times during the regular season, including six losses late in the year — in the first round, the narrative got even easier. The upstart team that wasn’t supposed to be here, the one that made the big left-field upgrade in July, would take down their division rival. The Dodgers might have been the better team in the first half of the year, but the Diamondbacks were ready to prove by way of their stronger finish that they were more equipped for October.

Well, so much for all that. Last night, the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the team that supposedly had their number. Once again, they look like the hottest team in baseball.

With these three victories, the Dodgers have now won nine of their last 10 — or 11 of their last 13, if that sounds more impressive to you. For the last two weeks, the Dodgers have again looked like the juggernaut that was in pursuit of the all-time win record at one point. And thanks to a few key changes, they look like a very scary NLCS or potential World Series opponent.

Yu Darvish Looks Fixed

When the Dodgers acquired Yu Darvish at the deadline, there were some legitimate concerns about his season to that point. His strikeout rate was trending down, and in July, he posted his worst monthly totals of his career. After a dominant debut in Dodger blue and a decent follow-up, his next four starts were even worse than the end of his Rangers run.

Over the course of four starts from August 16th through September 8th, opposing batters hit .346/.414/.679 against Darvish. That’s a .450 wOBA allowed; Mike Trout‘s career wOBA is .412, for reference. Darvish’s walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and his home-run rate was through the roof. He looked nothing like the second ace for which the Dodgers were hoping.

But as quickly as he turned into a batting-practice machine, Darvish has snapped out of his slump, and last night was the culmination of a four-start run that has basically been the exact opposite of the stretch that preceded it.

In his final three starts of the regular season, Darvish allowed just two runs in 19.1 innings pitched, running a nifty 21/1 K/BB ratio in the process. He didn’t allow a single home run in any of those three starts after allowing at least one in each of his five previous starts.

Darvish did finally give up another home run last night — to Daniel Descalso of all people — but he was otherwise completely dominant, striking out seven of 18 batters. Though his night ended with a scary hit-by-pitch, he pushed his K/BB ratio over his last four starts up to 28/1. Opposing batters have hit .132/.163/.181 against Darvish over that stretch.

This Darvish looks like the guy the Dodgers thought they were acquiring. And having another dominant starter like Darvish makes this the scariest rotation left.

The Bullpen Got Sorted Out

One of the main reasons for their late-season losing streak was the inability to hold a lead, as nearly every pitcher tasked with getting the ball to Kenley Jansen failed. If you watched the Dodgers in September only, you’d think Dave Roberts would be forced again to use Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning throughout the playoffs, lacking trust in any of his middle relievers to bridge the gap after the starters were pulled.

This group, though, not only looks like they can be trusted; they actually look like a strength.

The big addition for October was Kenta Maeda‘s move to the bullpen, since the team decided they’d be better off with him there than potentially just starting Game 4. And he couldn’t have looked better in the NLDS. In two outings, he faced six batters, retiring them on four strikeouts and two ground outs. A guy who averaged 91.5 mph with his fastball as a starter sat at 94 and topped out at 96 in his inning of relief, and his swing-and-miss slider rolled through the heart of the Diamondbacks order in his first outing.

This entire postseason, we’ve seen what good starters can do in shorter relief outings, and adding Maeda as a hard-throwing strikeout guy gives the team a quality bullpen option it didn’t have in the regular season. And paired with Brandon Morrow‘s 100 mph fastball and an apparently fixed Tony Cingrani, the Dodgers now have three reliable middle relievers to get the ball to Jansen.

For all the talk of the dominance of the Yankee relievers this week, it’s actually LA’s relievers who’ve posted the lowest OPS allowed of any relief corps in the postseason so far, having held the Diamondbacks to just a .507 OPS in their 11.2 innings of work.

Pedro Baez might be on the roster, but the NLDS made it clear how Roberts is going to manage his bullpen when he has a lead. And with Morrow, Cingrani, Maeda, and Jansen, the Dodgers look like they have enough bullpen arms to keep it from being just the Kershaw and Jansen show again.

They’re Resting Up

The Dodgers won their division series last year, too, but to do it, they required 101 pitches from Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, 110 pitches on three days’ rest in Game 4, and then a memorable bullpen appearance in Game 5. Jansen’s totals are almost as absurd; he went 27 pitches in Game 1, 16 in Game 3, 13 in Game 4, and then 51 more pitches in Game 5, on his third consecutive day of work.

By the time the NLCS started, the Dodgers were running on fumes. They just couldn’t match a deeper Cubs team that had finished off the Giants in four games and got to rest before the showdown for the pennant. While no one can say definitively why Kershaw got lit up in the series clinching defeat in Game 6, it was unreasonable to expect Kershaw and Jansen to carry the team by themselves indefinitely. And if Kershaw just ran out of gas after handling a ridiculous workload, who could blame him?

That won’t be an issue this year. The first-round sweep means the Dodgers will get four days off before they play again, and Kershaw will have gone eight days between his Game 1 starts in the NLDS and NLCS. Jansen did pitch in all three games against Arizona, but he threw just 16, 18, and 16 pitches in those outings, and now he’ll get a nice break before being asked to take the mound again.

Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, and Pedro Baez didn’t even appear in the LDS, while Josh Fields faced two batters and threw all of eight pitches, so if the Dodgers run into a scenario where they have an early deficit in an NLCS game and just need to eat some innings while saving their best arms, they’ll have plenty of well-rested pitchers from which to choose.

For once, fatigue shouldn’t be an issue for the Dodgers in the NLCS. If either the Cubs or Nationals are going to get through them to advance to the World Series, they’re going to have to beat a fresh, rested group that is again firing on all cylinders.

As this weird season has shown, things can turn in a moment’s notice, and we should never assume that what just happened will continue going forward. But the idea that a big September slump showed that LA was going to be an easy elimination once the playoffs began? The Dodgers just put that idea in the ground, and once again, they look like the team to beat in the National League.

Letting Carl Edwards Face Bryce Harper

In Saturday’s game against the Washington Nationals, manager Joe Maddon allowed right-handed pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. to face left-handed dynamo Bryce Harper with a runner on first and one out, his Cubs leading by two in the bottom of the eighth inning. Harper hit a two-run shot to tie the game. Three batters later, lefty Mike Montgomery would allow a three-run homer to righty Ryan Zimmerman, giving the Nationals a decisive lead. Managerial decisions that lead to playoff losses tend to draw scrutiny, but this particular set of moves seems pretty defensible.

To briefly review, a few relevant facts:

  • In Game 1 on Friday, Kyle Hendricks pitched seven strong innings. Carl Edwards followed with a perfect eighth inning, striking out Trea Turner, inducing a weak blooper (for an out) from Bryce Harper, and then striking out Anthony Rendon. Wade Davis pitched the ninth.
  • The Cubs bullpen has four right-handers: Wade Davis, Carl Edwards, John Lackey, and Pedro Strop.
  • The Cubs bullpen has three left-handers: Brian Duensing, Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.
  • In Game 2, Jon Lester pitched six innings, and Pedro Strop pitched the seventh inning.

Based on both the first game and then the first seven innings of Game 2, it seems as though Joe Maddon had established a pretty clear pecking order for his bullpen, featuring Wade Davis at the top of the depth chart and Carl Edwards just below. One might place Pedro Strop third on that list, although an argument could be made for Mike Montgomery, too, depending on the matchup. In any case, if there was any doubt regarding Maddon’s feelings about Edwards, his decision to use the the right-hander in the eighth inning of Game 2 erased it.

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What the Dodgers Asked Yu to Do

Before his first start with the Dodgers, just after his trade from the Rangers, Yu Darvish sat down with general manager Farhan Zaidi for a conversation about that night’s game. Andy McCullough relayed some of the details:

At the team hotel in Manhattan, Darvish met with general manager Farhan Zaidi, who advised him on how to attack that night’s hitters. Zaidi opened a laptop and revealed how Darvish could optimize his arsenal, altering the locations and pitch sequences he utilized during five seasons with Texas.

What a fascinating moment! Where so many teams might have shied away from tinkering with a newly acquired, fully formed star, the Dodgers jumped right in with suggestions, and the player was all ears. The team came with so many adjustments in hand that, today, in a press conference, the starting pitcher joked that the only thing they didn’t ask him to change was his “beautiful face.”

So, what were those changes?

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Masahiro Tanaka Might One Day Kill the Fastball

A few years ago there existed a fun little game to play, brought to my attention by Sam Miller, I think it was. The instructions were simple: Follow a Justin Masterson start, and see if he’d go the duration without ever throwing anything other than a fastball. Masterson would live and die by his sinker, and while he wasn’t the only fastball-heavy starter around, he would sometimes take things near the one-note extreme. Depending on your perspective, it was a testament either to his talent or to his limitations.

I don’t remember if Masterson ever did it. It wasn’t the kind of game you’d play for the memories. But these days, you could play a very similar, if opposite game. You can follow a Masahiro Tanaka start, and see if he goes the duration without ever throwing anything other than a non-fastball. The odds are presumably slim, because every new start brings 90-some chances, yet Tanaka is trending in a certain direction. You could just ask the Indians last night.

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The Case for Starting Chris Sale

Yesterday, the Red Sox offense finally woke up, rallying from an early deficit to score 10 unanswered runs, keeping their division series going for at least one more game. Thanks to the bats of Hanley Ramirez and Rafael Devers, David Price‘s four brilliant innings of relief work weren’t wasted this time, and now the Sox live to fight another day.

That day is today, and with the season on the line again, John Farrell will hand the ball to Rick Porcello, saving Chris Sale for a potential Game 5 rematch with Justin Verlander. And the logic behind that decision is pretty straight forward.

The Red Sox have to win both of the next two games to move on to the ALCS. Chris Sale can only pitch in one of those two games. Since they have to win both, their odds of advancing don’t increase by simply changing the date of the game he pitches, and in fact, their odds might very well go down if they move him up. Sale has started on three days’ rest just once in his career, back in 2012, and he wasn’t very good in that outing. Pitchers generally perform worse on short rest, even the great ones. And over his last six starts, Sale has allowed 12 home runs, so his most recent performances have created a bit more concern than the Red Sox would like to have about their ace right now.

So, yeah, throwing Rick Porcello for a few innings on Monday and saving Sale until Wednesday makes plenty of sense. However, I think the way the series has played out has created a specific set of circumstances that could make Sale-on-short-rest the right call anyway.

The Weather

Any discussion about Game 4 strategy has to begin with the weather, because, well, this is the Weather Underground forecast for Fenway Park today, beginning at the scheduled time of first pitch.

It might not be raining when the game begins, but barring a significant change in the forecast, everyone should expect to get rained on at some point this afternoon. And the later the game goes, the more confident the meteorologists are that things will be falling out of the sky. There’s a pretty decent chance that Game 4 involves some kind of rain delay, or at least messy conditions while everyone tries to get this thing in the books before a delay is necessary.

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Sunday Notes: The Astros Changed Alex Bregman for the Good

Alex Bregman slashed .337/.409/.514 in three seasons at Louisiana State University, twice earning All-American honors. Displaying outstanding bat-to-ball skills, he fanned just 68 times in 786 collegiate at bats. The Houston Astros rewarded his efforts by selecting him second overall in the 2015 draft.

And then they asked him to change.

“A ton,” answered Bregman, when asked how much he’s evolved as a hitter since signing. “In college, I tried to hit the ball on the ground and low line drives. Up here, there aren’t a lot of hits on the ground with guys like Carlos Correa and Andrelton Simmons playing shortstop. Now I try to not hit ground balls.”

The ink had barely dried on his contract when he was told to alter his approach. Organizations typically let first-year players finish the season before suggesting changes, but Bregman was told “right away” that something else was expected. Before he could get his feet wet at the professional level, he had to “learn on the fly how to drive a baseball.”

He proved to be a quick study. Two short years later, in his first full big-league season, the 23-year-old infielder put up a .284/.352/.475 slash line, and his 63 extra-base hits included 19 home runs. He strikes out more often than he used to — “I never used to swing and miss, and now I do occasionally” — but it’s not as though he’s become all or nothing. His K-rate was a wholly acceptable 15.5%.

The adjustments he made were both mental and mechanical in nature. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cubs Survived the World Series Hangover

Tonight, the Chicago Cubs begin their attempt to become the first team to repeat as champions since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. Since free agency really took hold about 40 years ago, the only other team to win consecutive titles has been Toronto in 1992 and 1993. Since integration, the A’s, Blue Jays, Reds, and Yankees are the only franchises to repeat — and the runs by Cincinnati, Oakland, and (in one case) New York all occurred in the 1970s. While parity seemingly drives the game, a repeat isn’t impossible, and the Cubs have passed the all-important first step of making the playoffs.

That’s not to say it was easy. The Cubs dug themselves a hole early this season, going 43-45 before the All-Star break, about eight wins shy of where the projections thought they’d be at that point. In the second half, however, they produced a 49-25 record, about six wins better than the projections called for. In the end, the club fell just a few games short of their preseason forecasts and made the playoffs without much trouble.

As I wrote in September, it’s hard to characterize this Cubs team as one that’s underachieved. While some have attributed the club’s early-season difficulties to a “hangover” effect from last year’s championship, there’s not much evidence that the club actually underperformed reasonable expectations, receiving strong campaigns from a number of their stars and good production from unexpected sources. There’s also little evidence that World Series hangovers exist in the first place.

More on that second point in a moment. First, let’s consider the team’s most important players. We begin with Kris Bryant. The Cubs’ third baseman might not be clutch, but he recorded his third consecutive season of six wins or better, finishing sixth in the majors by WAR. And about his clutch performance: while it might be fair to say he hasn’t been clutch, that’s obvious different than being clutch. Keep in mind that the 150 wRC+ Bryant has recorded in low- and medium-leverage situations has occurred over 1,801 plate appearances; the 87 wRC+ he’s produced in high-leverage situations, meanwhile, is the result of just 213 plate appearances.

A sample of 213 PAs is obviously subject to considerable variation. For example, did you notice when, in the 197 regular-season plate appearances between September 2 of last year and April 23 of this one, that Bryant recorded an 82 wRC+? Probably not. (Especially since he recorded a 148 wRC+ in the middle of it during last year’s postseason.) Those 197 PA where Bryant wasn’t so good obviously don’t represent his real talent level. They occurred over an interval of two different seasons and he actually played well in the middle of that span. So naturally, if those somehwat disjointed 200-or-so plate appearances don’t reflect the real Bryant, it’s possible that the other 200-or-so high-leverage plate appearances — spread out over three years and inclusive only of regular-season play — likely don’t, either. Probably best not to make a big deal over them.

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Jose Altuve’s Evolution to MVP Candidate

Perhaps we ought to have have written more about Jose Altuve at FanGraphs this season.

The last, and only, FanGraphs post dedicated solely to Altuve this year was published on Aug. 4, when the excellent Craig Edwards documented Altuve’s historic July and his MVP momentum.

Perhaps part of the reason there hasn’t been an avalanche of Altuve content is this: what more is there to say? Altuve is really good. We know he’s really good. One thing that has remained constant in this rapidly changing world is the sight of Altuve spraying line drives all over major-league outfields. He remains one of the best pure hitters in the sport, one who added power to his game beginning in 2015 and whose power spiked again in 2016 and 2017. Altuve is going to get his 200 hits, he’s going to make contact at an elite rate, and he’s going to defy the expectations created by his small stature.

Altuve has become so good, so steady, we — or, at least this author — generally turn our attention elsewhere to new trends, pop-up players, air-ball revolutionaries, etc.

But Altuve himself is evolving. He’s making gains as a power hitter (as you’re probably aware) and in other areas that are perhaps less obvious. And Altuve demanded our attention on Thursday afternoon in the Astros’ ALDS opener, recording three home runs, including two off of Chris Sale.

While the Astros and Altuve will obviously take the performance, it’s the kind of day that could have perhaps swayed MVP voters had it occurred a week earlier. It’s remarkable that the game’s largest man, Aaron Judge, and smallest, Altuve, are the AL MVP frontrunners and have produced nearly the same value despite occupying completely opposite ends of the physical spectrum.

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Michael Brantley’s Return Leaves Questions for the Indians

The recent history of players returning from injury to the postseason isn’t great. (Photo: Keith Allison)

On Tuesday, a couple of days ahead of the deadline, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona announced the Division Series roster that would take on either (at the time) the New York Yankees or Minnesota Twins. While the most surprising development was probably Francona’s choice to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1, there were plenty of other questions to ask. Should the team be worried about its bullpen after leaving three key relievers off the roster? Are six outfielders too many and 11 pitchers too few? And is carrying outfielder Michael Brantley so soon after his return from injury a good idea?

Michael Brantley has always offered a maddening combination of considerable talent and questionable durability. Selected in the seventh round of the 2005 draft by the Brewers, Brantley was sent to Cleveland as the player to be named later in the 2007 deal for CC Sabathia. After 2009, Baseball America ranked him fifth among the prospects in the Cleveland system, lauding his hit tool and control of the strike zone. After five poor-to-middling seasons to begin his career, Brantley broke out in 2014 with a six-win campaign, his first All-Star appearance, and a third-place finish in the MVP voting.

Despite his offensive outbursts, Brantley has spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list. In 2011, he missed the final month of the season with a wrist injury. The 2016 campaign saw him miss time due to his shoulder. This year, he lost nearly two months to a sprained ankle. With 274 days spent on the disabled list since the start of the 2016 season, Brantley’s availability seems to consistently be an open question.

Given his talents, the Indians clearly would like Brantley around. Moreover, teammates have described him as one of the team’s leaders. However, despite the progress Brantley has made in recovery and his miraculous at-bat this past Saturday, the playoff performances of players returning from injury should curb expectations for the club’s Opening Day left-fielder.

The most recent case of a player returning from injury for the playoffs came against these same Indians last year. Kyle Schwarber, who tore his ACL and LCL in the second game of the 2016 season, returned in the World Series to absolutely mash, slashing .412/.500/.471 in 20 plate appearances — including a key three singles in five at-bats in Game 7. While Schwarber was obviously integral to Chicago’s championship run, other players who’ve returned from injury to appear in the postseason have done so less successfully.

Since 2009, there have been 15 hitters who’ve resumed play in the last half of September from the disabled list and appeared in at least one playoff series. Some of their injuries were more serious than Brantley’s sprained ankle, others much less so; however, the performance of these players can best described, at best, as “middling.”

Players Returning from Injury for Postseason: 2009-2016
Year Player Team Regular Season PA Regular Season Postseason PA Postseason
2009 Greg Dobbs Philadelphia 169 .247/.296/.383 4 .000/.000/.000
2010 Laynce Nix Cincinnati 182 .291/.350/.455 3 .000/.000/.000
2012 Jim Thome Baltimore 163 .252/.344/.442 15 .133/.188/.133
2012 Brett Gardner New York (A) 37 .323/.417.387 8 .000/.000/.000
2013 Jason Heyward Atlanta 440 .254/.349/.420 18 .167/.167/.333
2014 Ryan Zimmerman Washington 240 .280/.342/.449 4 .250/.250/.250
2015 Jorge Soler Chicago (N) 404 .262/.324/.399 25 .474/.600/1.105
2015 Jason Castro Houston 375 .211/.283/.365 18 .063/.166/.063
2015 Kiké Hernandez Los Angeles (N) 218 .307/.346/.490 15 .308/.400/.308
2015 Howie Kendrick Los Angeles (N) 495 .295/.336/.409 22 .273/.273/.455
2015 Yasiel Puig Los Angeles (N) 368 .263/.323/.416 6 .000/.000/.000
2016 Kyle Schwarber Chicago (N) 5 .000/.000/.000 20 .412/.500/.471
2016 Yan Gomes Cleveland 264 .167/.201/.327 4 .000/.000/.000
2016 Gregor Blanco San Francisco 274 .224/.309/.311 10 .125/.222/.250
2016 Shin-Soo Choo Texas 210 .242/.357/.399 3 .000/.000/.000

Now, of course, the posteseason is a place of impossibly small sample sizes, making any resulting lines incredibly variable. That aside, a third of the players here performed poorly in their very few trips to the plate, many in the pinch-hitting role that Brantley is expected to assume. A little under a third performed well, some very much so. This is, of course, the best case for Brantley, and he clearly has the talent to do so. The remaining players fell well short of their season performance and have also tended to strike out at a higher rate than normal. Maybe their timing has been off from their missed time? That’s merely a guess, though. Even accounting for small sample sizes and the increased quality of playoff pitching and competition, something is still lacking in their performance.

Brantley’s inclusion creates further complications for the Indians beyond performance questions. Even with Brantley’s progress in playing the field, he will be unlikely to play anything other than pinch- or designated hitter, forcing the Indians to carry five additional outfielders. As a result, the pitching staff is limited to 11 pitchers, which may be a little short if they weren’t maybe the best pitching staff ever. However, the lack of flexibility created by including Brantley may make the Indians miss hitters such as Yandy Diaz or pitchers such Dan Otero and Nick Goody.

It’s important to remember that the Indians are clearly a better team with a healthy Brantley. However, Brantley’s presence isn’t essential, either: the Indians did go on possibly the most impressive streak in baseball history, becoming the hot team going into the postseason and passing the Dodgers as the Vegas favorite to win the World Series. It’s understandable that the Indians want their one of their leaders back, but the performance of players returning from an injury to the postseason with the added roster flexibility questions makes Brantley’s inclusion a risky one. They might indeed be good enough to overcome a lesser Brantley performance, but Terry Francona and the rest of Cleveland’s decision-makers are certainly hoping that this decision doesn’t come back to haunt them.

Archie Bradley’s Triple Was More Improbable Than You Think

Technically, in Wednesday’s NL wild-card game, the lead never changed hands. The Diamondbacks went up 3-0 on Paul Goldschmidt‘s early homer, and they won by an identical margin. Yet it still felt like something of a roller coaster, because the Rockies refused to go away. A 6-0 game narrowed to 6-5. An 8-5 game narrowed to 8-7. Even Fernando Rodney‘s ninth inning wasn’t clean, as the Rockies attempted to rally. The game, overall, delivered on its promise. We didn’t end up with a wild-card clunker.

It’s always fun to break these games down in retrospect. I like to take the win-expectancy angle. The game’s third-most important event was A.J. Pollock‘s triple in the bottom of the eighth. It moved the win expectancy by 11 percentage points. The game’s second-most important event was the first-inning Goldschmidt homer. It moved the win expectancy by 13 percentage points. And the game’s single most important event was Archie Bradley‘s triple in the bottom of the seventh. It moved the win expectancy by 16 percentage points. Bradley is a pitcher. Bradley is a relief pitcher.

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The Three Pitches That Matter for Chris Sale

Chris Sale, one of just two legitimate candidates for the American League’s Cy Young Award, will start for the Red Sox this afternoon against the Astros in Houston. Sale has produced a season nearly unprecedented in certain important ways. The Astros’ offense has produced a season nearly unprecedented in certain important ways. The former isn’t an unstoppable force, nor the latter an immovable object, mostly because humans are irretrievably fallible. Relative to other mortals, however, both parties acquit themselves very well.

Unsurprisingly, Houston manager A.J. Hinch has deployed a righty-heavy lineup against Sale. Only Brian McCann and Josh Reddick will lack the platoon advantage against Boston’s starter. Over the course of his career, Sale has conceded a wOBA nearly 50 points greater to right-handed batters than left-handed ones. But that’s mostly because he’s rendered left-handers existentially moot. Righties have still hit poorly against him, producing a collective batting line roughly equivalent to Yolmer Sanchez‘s own career mark.

So it’s clear that Sale has had success against right-handers. How, though? What specifically does he throw? The answer is likely relevant to his start against the Astros.

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