Playoffs point to game's evolution and possible future
This was the postseason possessed by Big Papi, who now has three rings to pad his Cooperstown credentials. It was the postseason of the Boston beards and the bullpen cop and the Green Monster actually getting less attention than the "green rosin." It was an October that ultimately belonged to Boston, a team and a town that proved stronger than ever.
But it was also the postseason of Jim Leyland's Detroit adieu and Dusty Baker's Cincinnati swan song. Of Torii Hunter's tumble and Sonny Gray's curve and David Price's impatience with the "nerds." Of Michael Wacha's changeup and Carlos Beltran's rib-rattling catch. Of Hanley Ramirez's heroics and health (or lack thereof) and Yasiel Puig's standout standup triple. Of the Indians waiting until next year and Craig Kimbel waiting in the wings and a packed PNC Park looking like it was worth the wait.
So much is shoved into the month of October that it always feels like a season unto itself. And as we begin to look ahead to the 2014 season, it's instructive to parse through October's participants and outcomes to see what lingering lessons we might have learned or what issues might arise on the agenda.
Here are just a few:
The chemistry commodity
We were barraged with the tales of the Red Sox chemistry and how it was the key component to what turned out to be a worst-to-first World Series championship run.
Now, there is no question that a happy working environment is a more productive one, so the Boston storyline is instructive, in that sense. But the truth of the matter is that a change in coaching staffs and a bounceback year for a talented starting staff (the Red Sox rotation ERA went from 5.19 in '12 to 3.84 in '13) were far more impactful than any facial-hair growth or team dinner.
Still, on the heels of Boston's brilliance, don't be shocked to see some clubs attempt to embrace the chemistry concept with cold, hard cash. The Red Sox were roundly criticized for giving Jonny Gomes a two-year, $10 million contract last winter, and the ugly truth is that he hit .167 in this postseason. But one of his seven October hits was a World Series-shifter, and his contribution to the Red Sox clubhouse culture is well documented.
"WAR is a stat in baseball," Gomes said in the wake of Game 6, "but if you want to go to war, take me."
If teams try to buy chemistry -- a murky concept, no doubt -- guys with Gomes-like qualities will certainly reap the benefits.
The shift is on
Defensive shifts for pull-happy hitters have been a part of the game for decades. But in recent years, shifts built on advanced data and spray charts that allow teams to adjust and account for just about every type of hitter have become more and more of a fixture on the Major League field.
The Pirates' stunning success this season, which led to a win in the NL Wild Card Game and an NL Division Series against the Cards that went the distance, might move the needle even further, for it was in large part attributable to the Buccos' regular reliance on the shift strategy. The Pirates ranked third in defensive runs saved this season in large part due to their shifts, which, thanks to the input of analyst Dan Fox and the adaptation by Clint Hurdle and his staff, more than quadrupled in quantity from 2012 to 2013.
Not everybody is buying into the concept (Cards manager Mike Matheny has said he's seen it make his pitchers feel uncomfortable), but the trend is rising. And this is one way in which front-office input is having a more profound impact on in-game strategizing. Just another way in which the job of the Major League manager is evolving.
The collision course
One takeaway from the ALCS was the beating taken by catchers Alex Avila and David Ross in successive innings in Game 5. Ross was plowed by the 240-pound Miguel Cabrera, who ran through a stop sign and was meat by miles, but tried to jar the bar loose. The next inning, Ross was the runner, and he bulldozed Avila, straining the catcher's patellar tendon.
All this led to increased conversation about the state of home-plate collisions and the expected outcries from those who view them as a no-win proposition, particularly given the heightened awareness of concussion complications. Expect this conversation to continue at the upcoming General Managers Meetings, and a rule change -- in which runners would essentially be granted an avenue to the plate, a la college ball -- could be considered by owners and the Players Union in the near future.
Of course, implementing such a rule could prove more difficult than advocates for a change are admitting, as I wrote here last spring. It could open the door to more judgment calls on the part of the umpires and, ergo, more controversy.
The pitching prominence
You naturally expect the pitching to pick it up a notch in the postseason, when teams aren't relying nearly as much (or at all) on their fifth starters and middle relievers, advanced scouting reports are increasingly intricate and days off favor rested arms.
But even in the wake of a regular season that saw the fewest average runs per game since 1992, the lowest league-wide batting average since 1972 and the highest strikeout rate in history, the absence of offense (generally, from people not named David Ortiz ) this October was incredible.
Not since 1989 have we seen such a high percentage of swings and misses (25.4 percent) on the postseason stage, and never in postseason history have we seen a lower percentage of pitches put in play (17.3). Maybe there were so many defensive miscues in the World Series because fielders were simply shocked to have the ball hit to them.
Many factors -- the increasing number of high-velocity arms, the sophistication of scouting reports, the lack of stigma attached to striking out, etc. -- have contributed to the recession we've seen from Major League bats in recent years. Will that trend continue unabated or eventually influence rules or procedure changes meant to increase the action?
The DH dilemma
Ortiz illustrated, in grand fashion, the inherent advantage AL teams possess when it comes to roster construction, as they have the ability to take their chances on aging sluggers past their positional expiration dates.
But how long will that advantage exist?
Fans of NL teams, by and large, despise the notion, but the game certainly seems to be trending toward the same rules for each side, an arrangement that would only make sense in this newfound era of everyday Interleague Play.
Though nothing appears to be on the immediate horizon, Commissioner Bud Selig's "never say never" attitude toward the NL adoption of the DH rule in his annual October session with the Baseball Writers' Association of America speaks to the turning tide.
"I did say three or four years ago that I had strong feelings on [expanded] instant replay," Selig said, "and, like everything else in life, you make adjustments and I now have somewhat different feelings. So, I'm never going to say never to anything. But, at the moment, is there anything going on? No. If somebody has something to say, I'm glad to listen."
Nobody's listening to me, but the AL rules brought us one of the greatest October outputs in history, while the NL rules brought us an intentional walk to Daniel Descalso (to get to the pitcher) in a World Series game. I think you know where I stand.