Double-A to playoffs: Rookies to be tested

September 28th, 2020

The Royals had already accomplished the seemingly impossible barley an hour earlier, coming back from a late four-run deficit against the Athletics to force the 2014 American League Wild Card Game into extra innings.

Now, Kansas City’s fate rested on the inexperienced left arm of Brandon Finnegan, a 21-year-old rookie who had been pitching in the College World Series just four months earlier.

Finnegan recorded seven crucial outs between the 10th and 12th innings, helping the Royals stun Oakland to spark Kansas City’s big postseason run.

“Without him, we wouldn't have made it to the World Series,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We probably wouldn't have got through that Wild Card Game.”

Entrusting such high-leverage innings to inexperienced players isn’t always a comfortable feeling for big league managers, but the 2020 postseason will see no shortage of neophytes being thrust into key roles for teams around the Majors.

“If we put pressure on them like, ‘We’ve got to win today, we’ve got to win tomorrow’ -- no,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Just play the way they have been playing. It feels like it’s been a playoff game every day for a while now, probably the last few weeks. They’ve been playing good like that, so we’re going to continue the same way.”

The Marlins could hand the ball to Sixto Sánchez for their postseason opener. Dane Dunning could start for the White Sox in the Wild Card Series, while Codi Heuer will be asked to get high-leverage outs for Chicago. Triston McKenzie will open the playoffs in the Indians’ bullpen, but he could be asked to start if Cleveland advances deep into October.

What do all four pitchers have in common? None of them has thrown a single inning at Triple-A before making the jump to the Majors this season. The same goes for Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm, Marlins infielder Jazz Chisholm and a number of others with no experience at the Minors’ highest level.

“Some guys are able to make that leap quickly and make those adjustments here,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Some guys are able to pass right by [Triple-A]. Most guys need a little bit of it. … The experience that you get here is really invaluable.”

“I feel prepared; I’ve learned so much just in the little amount of time I’ve been here and the experience that I’ve got,” said Heuer, whose fastball, which averages 97.6 mph, is in the 98th percentile in MLB. “I don’t see why we would treat it any different. It’s just another day.”

Without fans in the stands, it’s conceivable that a rookie could convince himself that a crucial October matchup is no different than a game in mid-August.

“When you don't have 30,000 or 40,000 people in the stands, the pressure perhaps is relieved somewhat,” Moore said. “You don't have the fans cheering or booing, it certainly has less of an effect, perhaps on heartbeat and emotion.”

The empty seats may have helped this green batch of rookies ease into their first foray in the Majors, but even in a vacant ballpark, the October lights could feel a little hotter.

“When you're talking postseason, it's totally different,” Indians acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “You're asking a young kid who doesn't have experience in the big leagues to perform in the postseason at that level, it remains to be seen.”

“There are obviously guys out there that are talented enough to come up and be able to succeed,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti added. “But it's yet another obstacle for them in trying to transition to the Major Leagues.”

Enoli Paredes, who has pitched a grand total of 50 innings at Double-A, is one of six players to suit up for the Astros this season without the benefit of a day at Triple-A. The right-hander, who turns 25 on Monday, will be one of the relievers Houston leans on in the late innings next month despite his career total of 20 1/3 big-league innings through Wednesday.

Heuer has even less experience than Paredes, compiling 29 1/3 innings at Double-A in 2019 before throwing 22 2/3 innings this season. Yet he’s a grizzled veteran compared to fellow hard-throwing teammate Garrett Crochet, who was selected 11th overall by Chicago in this June’s MLB Draft.

Crochet made his debut on Sept. 18 and his triple-digit fastball has garnered plenty of attention, already giving manager Rick Renteria the confidence to use him in important spots.

“More than anything, I think that we are very excited about the mound presence he carries with him,” Renteria said. “He has a good sense of who he is, and sometimes when things speed up he can understand what's happening and he can slow it down, so he's certainly showing us that he's capable – and it just so happens to be in a pennant race.”

Come October, being a relatively unknown quantity could have its advantages. Opponents from other divisions will not have faced them, while the advance scouting reports clubs often rely on in the postseason won’t be there to lean on.

“There’s no replacement for that experience,” Moore said, even if exceptions seem to emerge annually. This year more than any other, those exceptions could reveal themselves in a very impactful way.

“It's sometimes very helpful to know what you don't know; just go out there and compete,” Moore said. “There's something to be said for innocence; it can help with a fearless attitude. Sometimes when you look around like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I really here? I'm facing this guy? He's done this in the game. I'm not supposed to be here. I haven't been in Triple-A’ -- you start thinking like that, you can create feelings of doubt in your mind.”

Could those feelings of doubt surface for these youngsters next month? How might that inexperience show itself on the game’s biggest stage? Moore wondered the same thing back in 2014 each time Finnegan took the ball in October.

“There's no Major League model in the Minor Leagues; just because they've had great success in the Minor Leagues, once they get on the stage, it's hard to predict,” Moore said. “When you look at pitchers through the judgment of an experienced eye and you combine that with the data, it gives you a very good indicator or predictor of what's going to play and what's going to be successful in the Major Leagues.

“It's just a matter of, ‘OK, how does he execute pitches with runners in scoring position? When they face Nelson Cruz for the first time, is their heart rate going to speed up, slow down or stay the same? When the umpire misses a call, are they going to try to do too much? Is it going to upset them emotionally if somebody makes an error? Do they have what it takes to get that fourth out when necessary? Those are the things that you’ve got to find out by going out and playing.”

If the answers to those questions are yes, we could find ourselves with some new – and young – October heroes.

“You never know until you get there,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You can expect all you want. Guys say, ‘I can handle this, I can handle that.’ The least and the smallest might end up being the most brave and the biggest. They wouldn’t have picked David to [slay] Goliath.”