Aces alone won’t win you the World Series

Teams can no longer simply depend on top starters to carry them

October 2nd, 2019

Whenever you’re sitting down to decide who might or might not have the edge in a particular postseason series, it is human nature to look at the starting pitchers first. This has long been a maxim in baseball -- that you can ride a hot starting pitcher in the playoffs all the way. Whether it was Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax or Jack Morris, the sense has always been that if you have the right guy (or right two guys) atop your rotation, you have an instant and obvious edge over every team you play.

This crystallized in two modern-day performances. In 2001, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling essentially won the World Series by themselves, pitching 38 2/3 of the 65 total D-backs innings and giving up only six earned runs. And in 2014, Madison Bumgarner was a one-man wrecking crew, pitching 21 of the 61 Giants' inning himself, giving up one silly run and finishing off Game 7 out of the bullpen three days after he’d thrown a shutout. We all want that one guy who puts the whole team on his back.

Thus, when you preview this year’s Division Series, your eyes immediately go to the Astros, with their Verlander/Cole/Greinke triumvirate, or the Nationals’ Scherzer/Strasburg/Corbin, or even the incredible second half by the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty. And maybe that’s how this will turn out. But the idea that one dominant starter can do everything for you, that you can Bret Saberhagen your way to a World Series, is a myth. And it’s particularly untrue today.

First off, pitchers rarely just throw a whole postseason game by themselves anymore. The last nine-inning complete game in the playoffs was pitched by Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2017 American League Championship Series, and there hasn’t been a postseason with more than two nine-inning outings since '15. Even those seem like complete relics, and they weren’t even that long ago.

No matter how dominant and tough Verlander might be, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where AJ Hinch lets him throw nine full innings against a postseason lineup. You’re going to need some help.

But more to the point: Starters are barely even starters anymore. We have seen openers in the postseason. We have seen starters pulled while throwing a shutout in the fourth inning. In Tuesday’s National League Wild Card Game we even saw a team’s two best starters used in the same game … and have the team still be losing when they were both pulled.

Baseball has stopped trying to ride top-shelf starters in the regular season for years now. They’re sure not going to start up again now that they’re in the postseason.

Actually, Tuesday’s night’s Wild Card Game is particularly instructive in this regard. The Nationals had a deeply intimidating one-two punch of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg geared up and ready to go against an injury-depleted Brewers lineup and their starting pitcher ... Brandon Woodruff.

Woodruff was first-time All-Star this season, but there isn’t a human being who looked at this matchup and thought, “Wow, the Brewers have a huge leg up here.” If you subscribe to the Ride The Dominant Starter Theory, this is your platonic ideal situation. It’s a no-brainer.

But we all watched and saw what happened. Scherzer gave up three early runs, Woodruff gave up one in four innings before handing it off to the bullpen, and the Brewers had a 3-1 lead to hand off to Josh Hader, generally considered one of the best closers in all of baseball. (And a breathtaking force last postseason.)

The Nationals had two of the best three starters in the NL against a guy who missed most of the second half with an oblique injury and was going to be limited to three or four innings no matter what, and the two Nats aces left the matchup trailing.

That Washington had that incredible comeback in the eighth off Hader is even more disproving of the Dominant Starter concept: It required an otherworldly reliever having an off night for the Nationals to even have a chance -- against Woodruff, Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz.

"You Can’t Predict Baseball" is hardly breaking news; one never knows what’s going to go down in these games, and that’s why they’re so purely enjoyable. (And exhausting. The Nationals-Brewers game was a blast, but wow, that was just the first night. Drink coffee, kids.)

But even those who recognize that -- as baseball writer Joe Sheehan says, “variance swamps everything” in the postseason, because strange things happen and one, three, five or seven baseball games is too small of a sample to figure out anything -- still feel like the team with top starters is going to win. Teams build their rosters around it, too, trying to get that one top guy for the postseason, even as the starter is losing influence and power throughout the game generally.

No starter has earned a win in a Wild Card Game since Madison Bumgarner’s shutout against the Mets in 2016. But we still all thought Scherzer was going to get one last night.

Who was the last team to win the World Series behind one or two dominant starting pitchers? The 2014 Giants had Bumgarner, a black swan event if there ever were one. Then … it’s probably those 2001 D-backs, right?

Those Phillies teams of recent vintage are remembered for the Cliff Lee/Roy Halladay/Cole Hamels/Roy Oswalt rotation, but the only Philly team that won the World Series, the 2008 squad, was fronted by Hamels and saw the likes of Brett Myers and Joe Blanton get starts in the World Series. And even those old Braves teams … they never did really just overwhelm everyone the way they were supposed to, did they?

It is our instinct to assume that the team with the best rotation is going to succeed in October. That instinct is wrong. It never works out that way.