The Mariners knocked on the postseason door this year, and may finally be on the verge of kicking the SOB in, to paraphrase the late, great Bum Phillips.
So it seems like a good time to take a gander at what might be waiting for them if and when they end their interminable drought, now 20 seasons and counting. Considering that Wednesday was the 20-year anniversary of the Mariners’ last postseason victory, it would be understandable if many casual fans in these parts have stopped paying attention to October baseball.
Let me catch you up.
Those who are watching the MLB playoffs know that the potential is there for riveting, stomach-churning games in which you’re guaranteed to experience the gamut of emotions. The baseball postseason always delivers blockbuster games, and this year is no exception, with a steady succession of walk-off wins and captivating drama.
But you also know that somewhere along the line, MLB has lost control of the postseason. Games also tend to be interminable and choppy, with far too much dead time between the thrills. In other words, the same affliction that is marring the regular season, only magnified and expanded.
One of the most entertaining games I ever covered was Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, a 15-14 victory by Toronto over Philadelphia with about a zillion turning points. But part of the buzz was the fact it took four hours and 14 minutes, the first nine-inning postseason game ever to exceed four hours.
That was called shocking. Now it’s called “Monday.” Already this year, there have been eight postseason games over four hours, and several others that have pushed close to that mark. One went over five hours, but that was 13 innings, so we’ll cut some slack. The average game this postseason has been 3 hours and 42 minutes. And we haven’t even gotten to the World Series, when games tend to really get extended.
I don’t want to make this an “old man yells at cloud” rant. I’m no John Smoltz, constantly lamenting that baseball isn’t the same game it was in the golden era, roughly defined as “when I played.”
No, I genuinely believe today’s players are better than they have ever been, skill-wise. But it is out of a lifetime love of baseball that I would like to see the postseason get back to a semblance of the crisp, fast-moving games that would make the experience just about perfection. And I don’t think I’m alone. I’m seeing the hardest-core of analytical types who are coming around to the fact that the playoff games are too long, with too much inactivity and too many pitching changes.
Ah, the pitching changes. It has become depressingly rare to see starters go deep into games in October — even if they’re capable. More often than not, managers have decided that it’s a better route to turn each contest into a “bullpen game,” with a steady succession of hard-throwing relievers.
And they’re probably right about that. A lot of very smart people have come to that conclusion, which was inevitable once Cleveland manager Terry Francona gave a hint of the power of a deep and well-deployed bullpen in the 2016 postseason.
But now it’s routine to see 12, 13, 14, even 15 (Game 2 of the NLCS) or, heaven help us, 16 (Game 1 of the ALCS) pitchers a night between the two teams. It slows down the game immensely, disrupts the rhythm, and takes away one of the time-honored pleasures of the postseason: A lengthy duel between two accomplished starting pitchers.
The best game I ever witnessed in person was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, an epic pitching duel between the aforementioned Smoltz of Atlanta and Minnesota’s Jack Morris. Smoltz took a shutout into the eighth inning. Morris blanked the Braves for all 10 innings and earned the 1-0 victory that probably clinched the Hall of Fame for him.
It’s almost impossible to envision that happening today. On the rare occasion you do get to see a starter allowed to do his thing (Framber Valdez of the Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS, Logan Webb and Max Scherzer in the NLDS), it’s a thing of wonder.
ESPN’s Buster Olney recently wrote on Twitter: “There is a desperate need for the MLB, the Players Association to talk about all the pitching changes, and restoring the preeminence of the starting pitchers. It’d be better for the product, it’d be better for the union, given the importance of starters in setting market prices.”
Olney’s suggestion? “Limit the managers to the use of 5 pitchers per nine innings, with obvious exceptions for blowouts and injuries.”
You could have lots of spirited debate on that proposal, but it’s a starting point. As for getting the postseason games under four hours, that’s a tricky one. For starters, you’re working from a 14-minute disadvantage right off the top, because commercial breaks are 50 seconds longer per inning in the postseason. It’s unrealistic to expect MLB to turn away one of its biggest moneymakers.
The paramount issue, as always, is not length of game, but pace of play (though they go hand in hand). With the import of every game, indeed every pitch, pitchers and hitters are that much more deliberate.
I don’t have any magic answers, though I was intrigued by the dramatic success of a pitch clock in the Low A minor league this year. The average game time dropped a full 21 minutes when a 15-second pitch clock (17 seconds with runners on base) was instituted in June, from 3:02 before the clock to 2:41 after. Batters were required to be in the batter’s box attentive to the pitcher with eight seconds left on the clock or be charged with an automatic strike.
Guess what? Offense shot up across the board, the theory being that with better rhythm and less dead time, hitters were more attuned to the action and performed better. It requires more study, and current MLBers will have to be dissuaded from their rote opposition to a pitch clock, but The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, who delved into this more deeply than anyone, suggests that this single rule change could be one-stop shopping to solve all of baseball’s pace-of-play ills.
Sign me up for that. And maybe by the time the Mariners hit the postseason again, the product will be that much more compelling than it has been in recent Octobers.