Defying the way the game is prepared for, the playoffs are a madhouse
The playoffs are, by their very nature, a world outside of normal baseball. Small sample sizes rule the day, and unlikely heroes emerge by virtue of good luck and just being in the right place at the right time. In a very real sense, this is the one place where it’s hard to look “Beyond the Box Score”. It’s a time where RBI totals can be an honest number that gives us a real idea of a player’s value in that moment, game, or series. For this alone, October baseball allows even the most forward-thinking of us to see the game as fans did for its first 100 years.
Not that the game is exactly the same as those old times. Watching the Astros manhandle the Indians in the first two games, or the Dodgers make relatively simple work of the young Braves, the obvious slant toward fly balls and home runs is plain as day. In the Astros you have a middle of the pack team in terms of home runs in the regular season suddenly hitting like the 2017 Astros. Their dinger problems were kind of related to injuries sapping the power of Carlos Correa and guys like Marwin Gonzalez or Jose Altuve having something less than a career-best year, but in the playoffs any semblance of “playing it safe” is just gone. They came into the ALDS facing a rotation many considered one of the best two or three staffs in baseball and made Corey Kluber look like a quad-A pitcher.
A year ago, Marwin Gonzalez put up a 144 wRC+ and knocked 23 home runs in 134 regular season games for the eventual champs. Only MVP Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa out-hit Gonzalez over the course of the season. He was vital to their winning 101 games. And yet, if you watched Gonzalez in the 2017 postseason you’d think him an anchor on their offense, not of the offense, as he collected a mere 11 hits in 69 plate appearances, scored seven runs and drove in just four runs.
Then this year, the same man had an almost perfectly mediocre offensive season, posting a 104 wRC+. Hardly horrible, but also not what you’re looking for from a first baseman, at least according to tradition. So of course Gonzalez went right ahead and went 7-for-13 with five RBI in three games against what’s supposed to be a good pitching staff on the Indians, and probably won Game 2 with his bat alone. The Indians’ uselessness at the plate helped certainly, but for 13 at-bats, Gonzalez was a god.
Which, in the grand scheme of things, is a simple blip. It was utterly untraceable, unknowable that this would be the guy to lead the Astros to the ALDS. I suppose that was actually done by Alex Bregman – 4-for-9 with 2 homers and a handful of walks – but Gonzalez was probably fourth or fifth in consideration for the key to the offense. That’s what the playoffs do, and that’s what makes them so painful and fun and weird and insane.
There’s real cause to these things. Cleveland players insinuated that the scouting and analytic department of the Astros might have had something to do with their trouncing of the Tribe. Just as in 2015 the advance scouting of the Royals was vital in, for instance, Eric Hosmer’s series-clinching race home. They wanted Lucas Duda to have to make a play, and that knowledge gave them an edge. So you can still find some small maneuver or trick to beat the other guy, but it’s finer, so much more dependent on chance as to almost seem imagined.
So we have no way of knowing who is going to be the ultimate champion. And that’s why we watch. It’s why Billy Beane probably gained a third ulcer last week. The regular season magic doesn’t work in October. We have an idea – the Astros are just too stacked all the way around – but the 2006 Cardinals happened. The 1997 and 2003 Marlins happened. The entire 2014 World Series happened. None of these teams were favorites, top flight or even considered dark horses in mid-September, and they flew pennants in April. I’m going to care about what a hitter or a pitcher did in the regular season, but I’ve been scarred and made to look the fool too many times to think it carries all the weight. Playoff baseball is about the moment, which after the long season is just hard to get used to. It’s strange to see something that is supposed to be so predictable and on-paper so immediately cast upon the winds of fate. But it couldn’t be any better.
Merritt Rohlfing writes on baseball at Beyond the Box Score and about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe, and can be found in other places all about the Internet. For instance, follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.