In NLCS, starting pitchers playing lesser roles
Dangerous lineups factor into clubs going to bullpens early
MILWAUKEE -- You could be forgiven if you found yourself wondering when the National League Championship Series is supposed to start. The Cardinals and Brewers have played something that looks an awful lot like American League ball over the past week.
Two starting pitching staffs that were pretty good, if not great, during the regular season have been reduced to role players. Over four games, starters in this NLCS have averaged 4 2/3 innings per start while posting a composite 5.79 ERA.
Some of that is a factor of two dangerous lineups. Some of it has resulted from certain starters just not being sharp. But part of what's gone into that low innings total has nothing to do with the starters' success or failure. It's tactical.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, and to a lesser extent his Milwaukee counterpart Ron Roenicke, has been consistently aggressive with his bullpen in the NLCS. La Russa has eight relievers, at least six of whom have earned considerable trust from the manager.
La Russa argues that he has no set plan to go to his 'pen early. Roenicke meanwhile has acknowledged that his starters haven't been as effective at times as he would hope. The overall effect is the same: bullpen matchups that start flying as early as the fifth inning.
Don't dismiss the offenses, though. The Cardinals led the NL in on-base percentage this year. The Brewers led in slugging percentage. The Cardinals' lineup is deeper, but the Brewers' is more power-packed. They're both taxing to say the least.
"I think it's everything to do with [the offenses]," La Russa said. "If you look, every inning that these guys go out there, the offensive talent that they have to face, you don't have the luxury of throwing the ball down the middle. ... I think it's a heck of a challenge for the pitchers on both sides against these two lineups."
It may seem paradoxical, then, that St. Louis and Milwaukee finished 13th and 16th, respectively, in pitchers per plate appearance during the regular season.
It's not as out of whack as you might think. La Russa constantly hammers this point. He firmly believes that good at-bats are not strictly a matter of seeing a lot of pitches. It comes down to swinging at hitters' pitches, and laying off pitchers' pitches. Over the course of a season, that can translate into some quick counts, jumping on get-me-over strikes, and some long ones.
In the postseason, though, things change. With so much riding on every pitch, pitchers grow more cautious. When Kyle Lohse faces Prince Fielder in the fourth inning of a playoff game, he knows that the slightest mistake can kill. Don't call it nibbling, but be sure that the pressure to hit the corners rather than coming over the middle of the plate is increased in October.
And in that regard, it is very much like AL baseball. As La Russa so often reminds, that's the cat-and-mouse game that happens in a Red Sox or a Yankees (or Rangers, for that matter) game.
The hitter goes up looking to hit a good strike. The pitcher knows that if he throws that good strike, he's going to get hurt. So he aims for the corners. If he misses the corner, the hitter finds himself in an advantageous count, and then he's more likely to get that good strike. And on goes the cycle. When the starters hit the corners, and it can be done, you'll see longer outings. As long as they try and miss, five-and-dive could remain the norm.
"Our starters, anyway, haven't been happy with I think their command of their pitches," Roenicke said, "which only adds into what that offense, good offense, on the other side sees as far as mistakes. And so it's probably a combination of both. I don't think we have pitched that well, but I think a lot of it is because of the offense that you're facing."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.