Having no love for the Dodgers (I was threatened with far too many stabbings in the Dodger Stadium upper deck at an impressionable age to get over it), I certainly am gleaning at least a modicum of joy over their fans’ wailing about seeing a 111-win team eat it at the first hurdle in the postseason. Yeah, the playoffs are unfair, baseball doesn’t make sense and never has, but that’s a good thing when it happens to teams you don’t want to see win. And now that I no longer have any horse in the race, that’s basically every team to me. It’s a sweet spot.
However, if there are baseball cranks out there (is there anyone who watches baseball regularly who isn’t a crank?) who just need to quench their jonesing for something to complain about, there’s an easy target. And it’s relievers. It’s bullpens.
On consecutive Saturdays in the postseason, we’ve seen an extended scoreless game. The Guardians and Rays went 15 innings. The Mariners and Astros then saw that and raised to 18 innings. And in neither game were either team all that close to scoring before a decisive home run. It’s not like any of the four bullpens had to dance through the raindrops and get out of jam after jam and have those big moments of a key strikeout or double play with the bases loaded that we remember. It was just a pile of strikeouts that turned it all into an unrecognizable blob.
On Saturday, after Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. exited, six relievers from the Astros pen threw seven innings (usual starter Yimi Garcia tossed the last five) with nine strikeouts, one walk, and three hits. Once Mariners starter George Kirby exited after seven shutout innings, the Mariners pen threw 10 innings via eight relievers, striking out 14, walking one, and only giving up two hits before Penn Murfee — and his lack of a first name or correctly spelled last name — gave it all up.
Going back a week, the Rays pen had five relievers come in after Peter Fairbanks left due to injury, and they threw seven shutout innings with 13 strikeouts, one walk, and two hits. The Guardians pen struck out 15 over nine innings. And trust me when I tell you that any reliever out of four of these bullpens could have shown up at your door stark naked and holding a wolverine and you wouldn’t have had any idea who they were.
The Padres were able to oust the Dodgers mostly because their bullpen was lights out in a way it had only been sporadically during the season, and the Dodgers pen was bad. This is the game now, and we understand that, but it doesn’t make for the most galvanizing viewing to watch guys you’ve barely heard of strike out all the hitters you have while barely straining to do so thanks to their velocity and spin. The fact that a playoff game went 18 innings is a funny quirk or anomaly, but the actual viewing of it was pretty punishing. You were treated to a series of guys essentially playing catch.
This isn’t to squash what has always been playoff lore, and that is the unsung hero. MLB playoffs specialize in this, because everyone gets an at-bat and a crucial one might just land on your 7th or 8th hitters. Starters don’t go long anymore, which is fine and something of a natural evolution of the game, so the biggest moments are going to be pitched by relievers. Tyler Matzek, Will Smith, and Luke Jackson are some of the biggest reasons the Braves won last year. It’s the nature of the thing, even though you couldn’t pick any of them out of a police lineup if they were in there with four wookies.
But the fact remains that any jackass trotting out of the pen is more likely to strike out two or three of the three or four hitters they see, and it’s just not great viewing. We also like chaotic comebacks in playoff games, and the Padres got to have theirs in Game 4, but those are rarer and rarer. Even the Phillies, who had a middling pen all season, were able to smother the Braves just because baseball occasionally dictates a bunch of relievers turn into Dennis Eckersley for a week.
Quite simply, too many guys throw too hard and with too much spin for the best hitters in the world to do much. Perhaps a pitch clock will help next year, but that remains to be seen. The only answer to truly counter velocity is to move the mound back, but a bitch-fest filled and underwhelming results of the faulty experiment with it in the Atlantic League last year has probably pushed that back for years, if not completely off the table.
So instead, baseball’s postseason will continue to be determined by the most faceless members of the team. That used to be a bug, now it’s a feature. Maybe that’s your thing, maybe it’s not. But as we get more games that death march into the deep extra innings without any runners getting a sniff of third base as yet another whosit trots in from the outfield to start another inning, my guess is it’ll be more not people’s thing.