The overriding picture in my head from this year’s postseason is of Jim Leyland, hunched in his Tigers jacket in his last days as a manager, wearily walking his 68-year-old body out to a mound in Detroit or Oakland or Boston. He takes the ball from a pitcher a third his age and gives the kid a perfunctory pat.
Several minutes, several TV commercials and a batter or two later, the scene repeats.
Such is the case in Boston the night of Oct. 13, eighth inning, Tigers ahead 5-1. With left-handed hitter Jacoby Ellsbury coming up, Leyland brings in lefty Drew Smyly to replace reliever Jose Veras. Smyly walks Ellsbury, loading the bases. Out comes Leyland again. How’s that Sunday night football doing? Switch back. Al Albuquerque is the new pitcher; he strikes out Shane Victorino, then gives up a hit to Dustin Pedroia, loading the bases. Leyland enters from from stage right, Joaquin Benoit from the bullpen. We’ll be back.
And we are, just in time to see David Ortiz grandly slam Benoit, the Tigers, and Leyland’s moves.
It feels like it’s happened a lot in October baseball, 2013. The manager makes a pitching change, and it explodes. Has it really been that bad? The examples abound:
—Leyland brings in Rick Porcello, relieving Albuquerque, in the ninth inning of Game Two of the ALDS. The first batter he faces is Stephen Vogt. The last batter he faces is Stephen Vogt, who singles in the winning run for Oakland.
—Same series, other team: Oakland manager Bob Melvin replaces Ryan Cook with Brett Anderson, eighth inning, Game Five. Anderson walks Alex Avila, wild pitches in a run, gives up a two-run double to Omar Infante. Ball game.
—Tigers again, this time against Boston. Smyly comes out, Veras comes in to pitch to Victorino with the bases full. Home run, series to the Red Sox in six.
—Let’s go to the other league. It’s the 13th inning of the NLCS opener, and finally a crucial enough time in a tie game for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to go to his closer. With two on, one out, Kenley Jansen, the 13th pitcher of the night, relieves Chris Withrow. Carlos Beltran ends the almost-five-hour game with a single and the game-winning RBI.
—And then there was the third game of the World Series Saturday night. Five times Mike Matheny or John Farrell walked out to replace the man on the mound. The first batters the five new pitchers faced went single, single, double, RBI-producing out, double.
I know we tend to remember those dramatic displays of unfortunate pitching changes more than routine displays of competence, so I perused this year’s postseason play-by-plays. I was looking at pitchers inserted mid-inning, presumably because the manager felt the new guy had a better shot at the next batter than the incumbent.
The fact is, the success-to-failure ratio of relievers in those circumstances has come down on the side of failure this fall. Starting with the Tampa Bay-Texas play-in game for the last Wild Card, pitchers coming in during an inning have allowed 27 hits (nine for extra bases) in 93 at-bats—a .290 average. Hitters have touched them for an on-base percentage of .336.
On the other hand, they’ve struck out 27 of the 106 first batters they’ve faced and induced five double plays.
(I have no idea how pitchers called on mid-inning do over a whole season, but for purposes of comparison, the major-league-wide batting average this year was .253, and the OBP was .318.)
As for the two teams still alive:
The Red Sox have changed horses midstream 28 times in the postseason and put out the next batter 18 times. Their relievers are just 50-50 in such situations in the World Series.
The Cardinals? Over the whole postseason, they’ve given up seven first-batter hits and a walk in 21 plate appearances. In the Series, Matheny has called for help in the midst of an inning eight times. The result: three batters retired, two singles, a walk and two homers.
Sometimes, when you go to the fireman, you’re playing with fire.