In American sport, the playoffs are always a time for heroes. I should amend that. The playoffs are the time for heroes. A tremendous player can be cast as somehow deficient if he never meets his usual standard of performance during the postseason. A player with no business getting anywhere near the Hall of Fame can come within a breath of enshrinement if they become the focal point of a truly memorable playoff contest.
In European soccer, the most popular sports leagues on Earth, there are no playoffs. The champion of each league is simply the one who wins the most during the season. There is a wholly separate set of knockout tournaments to satiate the appetite of fans for an unpredictable, do-or-die dynamic, but those are considered separately. In the United States, it seems, fans are uninterested in differentiating teams and players who prove their superiority over a long season from those who win under the artificial (or arbitrary, at least) pressure of a very short sequence of contests. The former do not capture the national imagination unless they also, somehow, become the latter.
It’s important to note, though, that playoff hero status is not available on an equal or open-ended basis to all players in all games. Many playoff games are forgettable, and even if one’s team wins thanks in large part to them performing well, the margin of victory or the identity of the clubs or one of a dozen other possible factors will wash that heroic showing from the collective memory.
Worse, perhaps, is this: Even games that are well-remembered—even some of the most famous games of all time—tend to be remembered for one or two huge moments. There are no end of possible twists and turns in a great game, but attention is lavished onto just a single hero, sometimes two. The best example of this is Game Six of the 1975 World Series, maybe the most famous and greatest baseball game of all time. It included a three-run, pinch-hit, game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, for a team (the Boston Red Sox) fending off elimination, by a player (Bernie Carbo) the opposing team had cast aside a year earlier; a dazzling catch, maybe the second- or third-greatest catch in World Series history, certainly top-five, by an underrated star (Dwight Evans), to preserve an 11th-inning tie for the Red Sox; and a walk-off home run by the team’s third-best player (Carlton Fisk). If you’re like 90 percent of baseball fans, only Fisk’s name rings a bell, and if I showed you video of each moment, you would recognize only Fisk’s moment immediately. Fisk is a deserving Hall of Famer. He was inducted on his second ballot. Evans is an equally deserving Hall of Famer. He fell off the ballot due to a lack of support the year before Fisk was inducted.
That’s the elusiveness and the power of playoff heroism. This stuff matters. Statistics matter, and a thorough and analytic approach to baseball, especially, is rewarding and fun, but story lines are what make the playoffs go. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So let’s look at Games One and Two of the stirring (so far, at least) National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals through the prism of a quest for heroes.
Game One: Country Hardball
I don’t want to create artificial suspense about Game One. It was hardly one-sided, with a final score of 3-0 and the Giants offense seeming to spin its wheels in a way those three runs might not convey. Even so, the hero of the game came from precisely the source one should most expect the hero of every game to be, if forced to bet: it was a starting pitcher.
Madison Bumgarner is a throwback, in a sense. Roger Angell surely recognizes Bumgarner; David Halberstam would, too, if he were alive. Born in a tiny town in North Carolina, Bumgarner is a hyper-competitive but fun-loving hick, a wacky lefty with an edge, the very picture of most every old-time ace hurler. This is what great playoff pitchers used to look like, what they used to sound like, where they used to come from.
America has moved miles past the point at which we should expect those pitchers to come from those places, anymore. More people live in cities and suburbs; fewer live in small communities. Year-round baseball systems have become assembly lines for Major Leaguers, giving players nearer large population centers in Florida and California and Texas the advantage. The international market is wide-open. Hell, don’t forget, most of the years dominated by those Southern farm boys were years in which minorities were barred from competing.
Still, here’s Bumgarner, not only dominating the postseason but doing it for a third time by age 25, the clear ace of a team in search of its third World Series title in five years. He reached the Major Leagues not long after his 20th birthday, and if you include the postseason, his previous start (against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS) pushed him over 1,000 innings in MLB. One thing about playoff heroes is that, while the games themselves are crucibles for it, hero status usually is conferred upon those with some regular-season pedigree or previous narrative that makes their heroism especially interesting. Bumgarner has been a champion and a key part of playoff glory, and that makes him a very good candidate to wear the hero’s crown when he pitches well in October.
He blends four pitches masterfully, with one of the least varied release points of anyone in baseball. As for the efficacy and intensity of that repertoire, there’s a funny story here. Most pitchers throw as hard when they first crack into professional baseball as they ever will. Some guys have some filling out to do, some need to clean up their mechanics, and those things can muddy the water, but in general, gains in velocity don’t happen, and losses are permanent. More pitching prospects than you can possibly imagine flame out not because they get hurt or fail to develop a second pitch of lack poise, but because their stuff softens instead of progressing, or even holding firm.
You can understand the alarm that went up, then, when a younger version of Madison Bumgarner suddenly saw his stuff go soft during his second year as a pro. It wasn’t enough to turn people off entirely, but there was a good deal of hand-wringing when Bumgarner went through a long stretch of struggling to get within five miles per hour of his previous levels. He made a brief MLB debut toward the end of the season, pitching in a few games, and his average fastball velocity in those games was 89.2 MPH.
On Saturday night, Bumgarner averaged 93.6 MPH with his four-seam fastballs. He touched 95. In the intervening years, Bumgarner has done nothing but ramp up his velocity, and his stuff has gotten more useful across the board as a result. He’s only getting better, and part of that, somehow, is that he’s only throwing harder every year.
His very good heat, his devastating breaking ball and his peculiar mechanics allowed Bumgarner to throw seven and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball at the Cardinals on Saturday. He was in control all night. St. Louis has great hitters who attempt to frustrate their opponents with foul balls in two-strike counts and tough takes in high-leverage spots, but they were at a loss. Only in the seventh inning did two Cardinals even reach base in the same inning, and Bumgarner deftly pitched around that.
It wasn’t the sort of start of which legends are made, but Madison Bumgarner was the clear hero of Game One. The Giants cruised to the win. Game Two would be much more interesting.
Game Two: Seesaw
Matt Carpenter’s face, with a dark beard creeping up prominent cheekbones, evokes the word “gaunt.” There was a time, though, when he was downright fat, or fat enough to threaten his future as a baseball player, anyway. He went off the rails as a player during his time at TCU, and wasn’t even drafted at the end of his junior year there (when most serious prospects are drafted, and leave school). He cleaned up his act, hit quite well as a senior and restored the faith of scouts that he could capably field third base in pro ball, but he still went in the 13th round of the 2009 draft. He signed with the Cardinals almost right away, and has scarcely stopped hitting since.
Carpenter has had to earn everything. He was too old for virtually every level at which he played, until he reached the Major Leagues. He lost his rookie eligibility in 2012, at age 26. He’s moved from his native third base over to second, and back. He had terrific gap power in 2013, his breakout star turn, and although that power was harder to come by in 2014, he remained a very productive player.
Then he reached the 2014 postseason, and he became a slugger. He homered off Clayton Kershaw in Game One of the NLDS. He homered twice more en route to St. Louis’s knocking the Dodgers out of October. Then, on Sunday night, he homered again, this time off Jake Peavy, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 third-inning lead. Carpenter is going to be the MVP of the Cardinals’ postseason, and the biggest reason for them advancing however far they advance. But Matt Carpenter was not destined to be the hero of Game Two.
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Jake Peavy was on a Hall of Fame track at one point in his career. He won the 2007 NL Cy Young Award, and that year, he also won the pitching Triple Crown—he led the NL in wins, ERA and strikeouts. It was his second ERA title and his second strikeout title. From ages 23-27, Peavy had a sub-3.00 ERA in four out of five seasons. He was pitching in one of the league’s best pitchers’ parks, but the league itself was very friendly to offense.
That was a long time ago. This Jake Peavy is not that one. His lowest ERA since that heyday was a 3.37 mark in 2012, and that against a league in which many fewer runs were scored. Peavy remains a sturdy workhorse, racking up innings, but he’d flashed no dominance in 2013 or the first half of 2014. The Giants traded for him out of desperation, with attrition claiming two stalwarts from their regular starting rotation.
Thereupon, Peavy rediscovered his old self. His strikeout rate spiked again. He kept the ball in the park. He posted a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts with San Francisco, proving the ace inside him was not fully dead.
After Carpenter’s blow Sunday night, Peavy might have fallen apart, but he didn’t. He pitched into and out of a jam in the bottom of the fourth, allowing a second run to St. Louis, but he did fine damage control and kept San Francisco in the game. He’s a crucial cog for the Giants, and he gave the team the best innings he could. But Jake Peavy is not the hero of Game Two.
* * *
Lance Lynn outpitched Peavy Sunday night, mostly with the same simple approach he used all season. He throws two different fastballs, and his idea of mixing things up is mostly just moving those offerings around the plate. Big and strong, Lynn gets his heat easily, which allows him to manipulate it without losing command. He throws a two-seamer and a four-seamer, and each can eat up a hitter so long as Lynn sets it up correctly and locates it well. For two straight seasons, he’s labored as a wildly underrated starter, overshadowed by Adam Wainwright, out-hyped by Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, but quietly better than either of the latter two.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a stat that takes a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and home-run rates, puts them into a formula and spits out a number, scaled to ERA, that estimates the pitcher’s true skill level. It eliminates, or mitigates, the distorting effects of luck and defensive support on a pitcher’s ledger. Lynn, whose ERA dropped from 3.97 to 2.74 this year, basically duplicated his 2013 season in FIP (3.35 versus 3.28). He went 15-10 in each season. This year was not his breakout. Last year was.
At any rate, Lynn did impressive work, allowing two runs in five and two-thirds innings. He got stronger as the game went on, fanning three straight Giants batters near the end of the outing, and with better outfield defense, he might have shut San Francisco out over six full frames or more. But Lynn was not the hero.
* * *
It was Hunter Pence’s bizarre thrice-hit, broken-bat infield double that turned the 2012 NLCS in the Giants’ favor. It was his strangely gripping pre-game pump-up speech ritual that galvanized the club that year, if one believes in such things. It was Pence who played all 162 games this season, the second straight season in which he’s done so, and who put up yet another productive batting line, never breaking out, never breaking down. Pence’s performance is as steady and valuable as his appearance and mechanics are awkward and off-putting.
Pence was the one who chased Lynn from the game. In the top of the sixth, with Pablo Sandoval on base thanks to a bloop double, Pence worked a 3-2 count against Lynn. He fouled off the first 3-2 offering. All six pitches in the at-bat to that point had been fastballs. Lynn was making a clear attempt to elevate, get Pence chasing a ball outside a comfortable hitting zone.
Lynn wasn’t even mixing the two-seam heater in. He had pounded Pence with the four-seamer, around the top of the zone, trying to force the long-armed Pence to stay short to the ball in order to catch up. Pence had been smoked on one of the early ones. Lynn wasn’t about to speed up Pence’s bat by going to the curveball.
Pence knew that as well as Lynn did, though, or so it seemed. He got a pitch a bit too down, a bit too much over the plate, and he cracked a clean single to right-center field. Sandoval scored the tying run. It was a huge hit. Lynn was lifted. The Giants had wiped the slate clean, and would get to turn the thing over to their excellent bullpen. Alas, Pence was not to be the hero of Game Two, in the end.
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If there’s one tool on a scout’s checklist that a player has to have, if he wants to stay in consistent demand, it’s power. That’s what sets apart more Major Leaguers from their Minor League counterparts than any other tool, but more importantly, it’s perceived as a separating tool. Certainly, players without power to speak of struggle to fit any of the pre-formed molds evaluators use to try to place someone.
Unfortunately for Gregor Blanco, he’s never had any real power. That helps explain why he was 24 before he broke into the Major Leagues, in 2008. To illustrate the point, I give you this: Blanco came to bat 519 times in his rookie season, but only 19 of those ended in extra-base hits, and only one of those hits was a home run.
Blanco’s lack of pop became such a knock that, despite a healthy .366 on-base percentage that 2008 season, he didn’t see much time with the Braves the following year, nor with them or the Royals in 2010. In 2011, Blanco was a 27-year-old, and he never played in the Majors. Many players in that situation—most players in that situation—never see the big leagues again.
Blanco did, though. He got a break with the Giants in 2012, and has been with them ever since. He still draws walks, steals bases and plays a solid defensive outfield, but he also hits a homer every now and then, and the total package is a nice little ballplayer. A healthy team would not start him every day, as the Giants must in the absence of Angel Pagan, but Blanco is a solid contributor to the team. He was, however, having a brutal October when he came to bat in the seventh inning, the game tied. He was batting an ugly .100.
Then, as will happen during the playoffs, things turned around in a heartbeat. Blanco singled past a drawn-in infield, and the Giants had their first lead of the game, with just nine outs left to get.
Blanco, though, was not the hero of Game Two.
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Exactly where he stood depended upon whom you asked, but Oscar Taveras entered the season as one of the three most-heralded prospects in baseball. A lefty hitter whose swing has been lauded for its beauty, its violence and its control, Taveras has been on the doorstep of St. Louis stardom for going on three years. He will, eventually, be an All-Star caliber starting right fielder. It’s just that he’s not there yet.
It was a long season for Taveras. His production flattened out in Triple-A, where the story was that he was bored and frustrated not to be in the Majors. When he was on the MLB roster, he struggled to find playing time in an outfield rotation that often included Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk and/or Allen Craig. Then, once GM John Mozeliak dealt Craig, Taveras had a prolonged adjustment period, finishing his rookie year with an ugly .239/.278/.312 batting line. Starting him became untenable, especially because Grichuk is a superior fielder.
It was Taveras upon whom manager Mike Matheny called to pinch-hit in the bottom of the seventh, pitcher’s spot due, tie game, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other choices. Taveras rewarded his manager’s indifference with a long home run. The game was tied again. Taveras had struck perhaps the biggest blow, in terms of the team’s energy level, but he had only tied the game. Guys who get the tying hits aren’t heroes. Taveras is no exception.
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Matt Adams had to overcome rather the opposite of the problem Gregor Blanco faced. As a fat first baseman, he was never considered much of a prospect. Guys like Adams have to be exceptional hitters, because they provide no value in other facets. Remember how Matt Carpenter went to the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 2009 draft? Adams came to them in the 23rd round, of the same draft. Adams was another who would have to fight his way up. He did it, a year later than Carpenter but as a younger man. He became the Cards’ starting first baseman this season, pushing Craig out of his way (with no small amount of help from Craig, who didn’t hit).
Adams is interesting. He’s clearly an above-average hitter, but he may not be above average given his position. He needs to develop more plate discipline. Right now, his approach at the plate consists of swinging viciously at the first pitch he feels can drive. Still, he’s not a one-dimensional slugger. He will hit for average, thanks to a solid contact rate and plenty of line drives. He just doesn’t draw walks, and because he’s not selective enough to do it, he doesn’t hit for tons of power. He certainly doesn’t lack strength; he just isn’t often in a position to wait for a certain pitch and open his hips on it.
Clayton Kershaw would not want to hear about Adams’s lack of power production, though. Kershaw gave up Adams’s three-run, game-winning home run in Game Four of the NLDS, effectively ending the Dodgers’ season. Pounding the strike zone, especially with fastballs, is the worst way to attack Adams, even if one has excellent stuff and is used to succeeding with that approach. Kershaw learned that the hard way.
So did Hunter Strickland. Strickland threw his too-straight fastball into Adams’s wheelhouse, and Adams gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. His bat flip was over-the-top, but given the frenzy of the crowd, almost any enthusiasm is forgivable, especially from a 26-year-old. Adams was the hero of Game Four of the NLDS, and he made his bid to be the hero of this game, too. But he wasn’t.
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Matt Duffy has some future in the Major Leagues. At 23, he played in 34 games with the parent club this season, having proved that Double-A Richmond was no challenge. He’s come a long way in a short time, from being an 18th-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.
There isn’t tremendous star potential here, but having hit so well in a first exposure to Double-A augurs well, and Duffy is a middle infielder with decent speed.
On Sunday night, only that last part of that last sentence really mattered. After an Andrew Susac pinch-hit single, Duffy ran for Susac as the Giants rallied in the ninth. He was on second, with a full count and two outs, when Trevor Rosenthal bounced a 99-mile-per-hour fastball in front of home plate, and Tony Cruz let the ball get away and out of his sight. Duffy had been running with the pitch, and he read the play in front of him perfectly. He didn’t slide at third base. He didn’t even slow down. He tore home, sliding in well ahead of Cruz’s throw to Rosenthal. The game was tied. The rookie with the fresh legs had made a veteran’s read in a crucial moment. New game.
But Duffy wasn’t the hero.
* * *
Last year, in the World Series, Koji Uehara caught Kolten Wong floating (literally, mid-hop, unable to break back because he wasn’t on the ground) off first base in the bottom of the ninth inning, picking him off to end a game. In the World Series. It was a tough way to end a tough rookie season for Wong, who plays with a certain unrestrained energy but whose instincts are good enough to keep him out of embarrassing spots like that most of the time. Wong had hit poorly in limited exposure during the regular season, and in an even more limited role in the playoffs, he wasn’t impressing anyone.
This Spring Training, Matheny had some issues with Wong’s attitude. It wasn’t that Wong wasn’t hustling, working hard or focusing on improving. He just seemed to have a lot of swagger, maybe too much for a kid who made a poor first impression in the Show, and Matheny wondered if that would interfere with his development—or worse, disrupt the clubhouse. Wong opened the season with the Cardinals, but would spend a chunk of the season in Memphis, after it became obvious to management that Matheny wasn’t ready to trust his young second baseman.
Wong did quietly improve, though. By season’s end, he had established himself as the starting second baseman. He wasn’t controlling the strike zone, but he cracked 12 home runs and stole 20 bases (efficiently), so the tools were starting to show up. Wong punctuated that emergence with a game-winning home run in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the NLDS. He’s quite small, so the mind goes immediately to speed and defense, but Wong has quick, strong wrists, and he gets power from bat speed, not just leverage.
Sergio Romo may have known all of that, and simply executed poorly, or he may have been ambushed, but in either case, Kolten Wong took him deep into the right-field corner seats to win Game Two of the NLCS, a walk-off homer that made sure: Wong was the hero, and now has a more indelible postseason image attached to his name than diving back to first base in vain.Next post: Two Game Threes: Giants Win Classic Over Cardinals, Royals Outplay Orioles
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