New­fan­gled vs. old school: MLB playo≠s a test of wills and ideas

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell. THOMAS BOSWELL

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 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 righthander 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 bull pen 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, strike out ig­nor­ing lineup thats eta 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-and­miss slug­gers meets the kind of pitch­ing that can pro­duce a 108win 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. Oned­i­men­sional 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-per­nine-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 hard­worked, some­times shaky­look­ing 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.

Thomas Boswell

TIM BRAD­BURY/GETTY IM­AGES

Gian­carlo Stan­ton and Aaron Judge were mon­sters at the plate for the Yan­kees this sea­son, but they were si­lenced by the Red Sox.

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