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Tribe-Astros features old-school rotation matchup

With bullpens becoming bigger part of baseball, ALDS series features strong starters
MLB.com @castrovince

HOUSTON -- Invention is interesting. Innovation is imperative. The world changes, and baseball changes, and, even in the very small window of time that is this first week of the 2018 postseason, we've seen that with the lines between starting pitchers and relievers becoming more and more blurred by teams like the Brewers and A's, that the sport has changed in a dramatic way.

And then, on the other hand, you have this American League Division Series between the Astros and Indians.

HOUSTON -- Invention is interesting. Innovation is imperative. The world changes, and baseball changes, and, even in the very small window of time that is this first week of the 2018 postseason, we've seen that with the lines between starting pitchers and relievers becoming more and more blurred by teams like the Brewers and A's, that the sport has changed in a dramatic way.

And then, on the other hand, you have this American League Division Series between the Astros and Indians.

Don't get me wrong. These are two analytically advanced clubs. AJ Hinch and Terry Francona are two open-minded managers who undoubtedly have a few tricks up their sleeves in the best-of-five that begins Friday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. Things will evolve, as they tend to do.

:: ALDS schedule and results ::

But to peer at the probable starters is to be taken back to a long-ago era when, well, starting pitchers started games … and in some cases even finished them.

Justin Verlander vs. Corey Kluber in Game 1? That is the exact opposite of "the opener."

"Sometimes you have to think outside the box to get where you're going," Francona said. "Not [Friday]."

It's Gerrit Cole vs. Carlos Carrasco in Game 2. It's Dallas Keuchel vs. Mike Clevinger in Game 3.

Every starter listed above finished in the top 20 in the Majors in innings pitched and in the top 30 in ERA this season. Five of them (Kluber, Verlander, Keuchel, Cole and Clevinger) reached the vaunted 200-inning mark, which is something only eight other starters across the Majors can say.

Toss in potential Game 4 starters Charlie Morton and Trevor Bauer (who, as part of the potential evolution mentioned above, could wind up being utilized out of the bullpen beforehand), and you've got seven of the AL's top 10 adjusted ERA+ leaders from 2018.

Video: CLE@HOU Gm1: Kluber, Verlander to duel in Houston

In other words, these are the two best rotations in baseball, and it's not particularly close.

"However you like to slice it, us and them, them and us," Verlander said. "Pick your poison. We both have very defined starters who have a great track record and have good stuff. This should be a really fun series."

Indians-Astros: Lineups, matchups, FAQs

With the definition of "starter" changing by the day, these teams are evidence that there remain outliers to the industry trend of shying away from starters once the top of the opposing lineup comes to bat a third time. Major League pitchers faced just 25,241 batters a third time in 2018, down from 27,692 a year ago and 32,153 a decade ago.

Why this occurs is no state secret. In the last 10 seasons, opponent OPS is .656 the first time through the order, .714 the second and .733 the third. As pitchers tire and are more exposed to opposing lineups, batters thrive.

Heck, Blake Snell (1.89 ERA in 180 2/3 innings) might win the AL Cy Young Award over Verlander (2.52 ERA in 214 innings) precisely because of the way Rays manager Kevin Cash proactively managed him. Snell's opponent OPS the third time through the order (.729) was almost identical to Verlander's (.725), but he faced 67 fewer batters in those situations. That explains some of the ERA difference right there.

Video: HOU@BAL: Verlander K's 10 across 6 scoreless innings

We've come to expect horses like Verlander and Kluber to get a longer leash, but it's notable that in 2018, a guy like Clevinger can still earn that level of trust in just his first full season. He hit the 200-inning mark on the nose in his final start of the season.

"First, you have to have the weapons to be able to do that, to attack both lefty and right-handed hitters a couple times through the order," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. "But you also have to condition yourself to be strong and durable so there's not a degradation of stuff. Our staff deserves a lot of credit for helping guys prepare for their starts."

And that leads to one of the most fascinating question of this fascinating matchup of AL powers: How much will the trust that was accrued over the course of 162 matter in a tournament that is becoming more bullpen-oriented every year?

Video: CLE@HOU Gm1: Francona on Kluber taking the mound

Relievers accounted for 46.5 percent of all innings pitched in last year's postseason, in part because the importance of maximizing matchup strengths is heightened, and in part because of the extra off-days in the schedule. In a short series like this, Bauer might actually have more value as a long reliever in Games 1, 2 or 3 than as a starter in Game 4. There might not be as much incentive to ride a guy that third time through the order in this series as there is in the regular season.

"You lean on the numbers but also what you're seeing and the feeling from everybody involved," Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis said.

But the Indians and Astros are in the increasingly rare position of actually having starters for whom the third time through the order is even an option on this stage.

"It's significant," said Hinch, "because you'll see the most starter innings -- you know, if things play out as people expect."

Video: CLE@HOU Gm1: Hinch praises Verlander before start

Ah, there's the rub. The heightened aggression of a best-of-five is quite likely to lead to earlier-than-usual hooks for some of these horses, because it's not as if either club is short on bullpen weapons.

But for now, Astros-Indians stands as an outlier in an evolving industry. A series in which the starting pitching probables actually maintain their old-school allure.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Justin Verlander