2011 MLB Playoffs: Aces Coming Up Short in Postseason
Apparently, Major League Baseball's second-coming of the "Year of the Pitcher" doesn't extend into the playoffs. A second consecutive campaign dominated by the men on the mound has devolved into an explosive postseason laden with offensive fireworks and embarrassing pitching lines.
It's so often stated that "good pitching beats good hitting" in reference to playoff baseball, that we've grown accustomed to lowering our expectation of dynamic offensive displays in favor of low-scoring affairs which highlight the fine art of pitching.
This is often the case, as we routinely witness well-pitched duels between the league's best staffs striving to subdue some of the most potent lineups in baseball. Of course, there is always the occasional offensive eruption, when a contender removes all the drama from a particular game by scoring early and often.
More often than not however, October baseball reflects the finest of our beloved sport with crisply-pitched outings from the game's premier hurlers dominating the headlines as hitters struggle for answers in the short season of MLB's playoffs.
The regular season was another in a streak of MLB campaigns to witness declines in offensive production after the perhaps artificially enhanced explosion of the 90's and early 00's. With power numbers and offense in general once again on the downward trend, many expected the trend to continue into the postseason.
However, the 2011 postseason has already included numerous blowouts, record-setting offensive performances, and many poorly pitched games from some of the game's elite hurlers. Some of the top arms in the game have combined to serve up generous amounts of home runs and uncharacteristically high hit totals, contributing to the offensively explosive postseason we are currently in the midst of.
While the playoffs are clearly a small sample size, and a start, two or three is too little to draw any definitive conclusions from, let's take a look at six established "aces" that have fared surprisingly poorly in the 2011 MLB playoffs.
C.C Sabathia: New York Yankees
The big man in the Bronx carried a massive burden upon his broad shoulders as the New York Yankees entered the 2011 postseason, with more questions than answers inhabiting their playoff rotation.
Counted on to lead Joe Girardi's rag-tag bunch of arms that somehow managed to pitch the Yankees to the American League's best record, C.C Sabathia came into this year's rendition of playoff baseball with a 5-1 record and a 3.10 ERA as the ace of New York's staff.
Leading off the ALDS clash against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1, Sabathia looked like he had great stuff, but allowed a solo home run to Delmon Young in his two innings before the rain washed out the game.
Once he got another opportunity to toe the rubber, in Game 3 of the series, Sabathia looked anything but comfortable on the mound, as he labored immensely through 5.1 innings.
He allowed four runs on seven hits, while walking six Tigers. Though the strike zone was one of the smaller I've seen in a MLB game, it was fair to both teams and Verlander had to deal with the same conditions. The much hyped battle of the aces that had promised such excellence had never truly materialized between Sabathia and Verlander.
Sabathia would earn another chance to pitch, albeit in relief, in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. It would be the first relief appearance of his long career, and would prove less than stellar. Of the four outs he recorded, all were strikeouts, but he allowed two hits and two walks, as well as a single run that would prove to be the difference in the season-ending 3-2 loss to the Tigers.
Overall, he hurled only 8.2 innings in his three appearances, but allowed six earned runs on 10 hits and eight walks, playing a critical role in two of the Yankees' three losses in the series.
Despite his poor playoff performances, Sabathia will likely re-sign with the Yankees and will be afforded several more opportunities to continue his previously successful playoff career in New York.
C.J. Wilson: Texas Rangers
In what could potentially be the costliest personal failing of 2011's postseason, pending free agent C.J. Wilson has pitched nothing like the ace that he will likely be paid as once his contract runs out following the World Series.
As the big fish in a shallow free agent pond, Wilson will undoubtedly attract numerous suitors over the offseason, but some teams may view him in a different light after his unimpressive outings this October.
Though he obviously produced another successful season within the Rangers starting rotation, after five years as a reliever, Wilson lost his mojo once the postseason began.
Leading the Texas rotation as the ALDS Game 1 starter, he struggled mightily in that outing, allowing eight runs, six earned, on seven hits and one walk. He allowed three home runs in the opening 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays.
His next start came in Game 1 of the ALCS, in which he fared slightly better, but still lacked the sharpness he had displayed all season. In 4.2 innings, he allowed two runs on six hits and five walks. He kept the ball in the park and was fortunate to escape a few jams, but wasn't able to stay in the game long enough to earn the victory in the 3-2 Texas win.
Handed the ball in Game 5, Wilson struggled again, allowing six runs in six innings, on eight hits and two walks. He again allowed three home runs and looked vastly different than the pitcher who only allowed only 16 season.
Over the course of three postseason starts, Wilson allowed 16 runs in 15.2 innings, on 21 hits and eight walks. His 8.04 ERA and 1.85 WHIP have led many to question his credentials as a legitimate ace qualified to pitch the most critical games of his team's season.
Thankfully, for his sake, Wilson's Rangers advanced to the World Series, and he will earn at least one more opportunity to reverse his abysmal performances thus far in the 2011 postseason.
With a quality start or two in the World Series, Wilson could go a long way toward reestablishing himself as the premier free agent available at the conclusion of the playoffs.
Cliff Lee: Philadelphia Phillies
The acquisition of left-hander Cliff Lee, owner of a dazzling playoff resume, was supposed to make the Philadelphia Phillies an unstoppable force as the pitched their way to their second World Series title since 2008. Along with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, Lee was expected to usher in a new era of dominance in Philly, and perhaps build a dynasty that would reign for the first half of this decade.
With a 7-2 record in 10 postseason starts, Lee had made himself into a modern baseball legend, earning mention in the same breath as baseball luminaries Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.
Prior to this year's NLDS Game 2, Lee had only allowed 54 hits in 76 innings, while striking out 80 and walking only eight. His sparkling 2.13 ERA was aided by his minuscule .194 batting average allowed and his opponents' on-base percentage of .219.
That's why his atrocious playoff start came as such a surprise to most observers around baseball.
In his lone postseason performance, Lee lasted into the seventh inning, but allowed all five runs in a 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. He struck out nine, but allowed 12 hits, five of them for extra bases, along with two walks. The usually tough lefty was surprisingly hittable in his sole playoff appearance considering his established reputation for postseason heroics. Lee's difficult start earned him a 2.33 WHIP and a 7.50 ERA for the 2011 NLDS.
Along with fellow Philly hurlers Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley and potentially Roy Oswalt if his option is picked up, Lee will likely have another opportunity to add to his impressive postseason dossier as part of a well-constructed starting rotation.
This season however, it was not meant to be.
Zack Greinke: Milwaukee Brewers
After a solid debut season in Milwaukee, in which he went 16-6 with a 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 201 strikeouts in 171.2 innings, Zack Greinke never appeared comfortable on the mound during the Brewers' ill-fated postseason run.
The right-handed hurler, imported from Kansas City over the offseason, managed only 16.2 innings in three starts, and allowed 23 hits and 12 earned runs over that span. He would go 1-1, but his 6.48 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and .311 batting average allowed were a far cry from the standards he had previously established.
In ALDS Game 2 against Arizona, Greinke hurled five rough innings, allowing four earned runs on eight hits, three of them home runs.
Tasked with leading his team in Game 1 of the NLCS at Miller Park in Milwaukee, he tossed six innings, but allowed six earned runs on eight hits and two walks, earning the win thanks to a six-run fifth inning from his offense.
Greinke was saddled with a tough loss in Game 5 of the Championship Series, in which he was undone by two critical errors that directly led to three unearned runs. Overall, he would allow five runs, two of them earned, on seven hits, two walks and one hit batsman in 5.2 innings.
Though he was highly successful in his transition to the National League, Greinke's postseason performances did little to dispel the notion that he may not have what it takes to be counted upon in critical situations.
James Shields: Tampa Bay Rays
Though it was only one solitary start, much was expected of "Big Game" James Shields after his phenomenal regular season for the Tampa Bay Rays. In 33 starts for Tampa, he threw 11 complete games, with four shutouts, posting a 2.82 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 225 strikeouts in 249.1 innings. His 16 victories led the AL Wild Card-winning Rays.
However, once the calendar turned to October, Shields' dream of a season came to a crashing halt in one nightmarish start.
Staked to a 3-0 lead in the first four innings of ALDS Game 2, Shields imploded in the bottom of the fourth and quickly turned a 3-0 lead into a 5-3 deficit.
After allowing only two singles through three innings, he began the fourth with a hit batter and two consecutive singles to Josh Hamilton and Michael Young to load the bases. He then hit Adrian Beltre to force in a run and next came a two-run single by Mike Napoli. Following a strikeout of Nelson Cruz, he then uncorked a wild pitch to move the runners up a base, which would prove critical after he struck out David Murphy, but on another wild pitch that would bring Beltre home with another run. A Mitch Moreland ground-out brought home the fifth run of the frame before Ian Kinsler flew out to end the inning.
He would survive through six innings, but allowed two more runs to put the game further out of reach at 7-3. Tampa would eventually score six runs, but by that time, the damage had been done and they were unable to dig out of the hole that Shields' ineffectiveness dug for them early.
Of course, it was only one start, but the degree to which he struggled came as a significant shock after the dominance he displayed throughout the season.
Justin Verlander: Detroit Tigers
For all the hype surrounding Detroit ace Justin Verlander, following his dominant season for which he will garner legitimate attention in the MVP race, his playoff performances weren't nearly as impressive as his regular season outings.
Sure, he struck out 25 opponents in 20.1 innings, but he also walked 4.5 hitters per nine innings and allowed 12 earned runs over the course of his 2011 playoff ledger.
He started four games for Jim Leyland's Tigers, but one was the abbreviated outing in ALDS Game 1 at Yankee Stadium in which he only tossed one inning. Verlander may have been rescued by Mother Nature in that start, as his command didn't appear sharp and he required 25 pitches to navigate the first and only inning he would throw that day.
Detroit's flame-throwing ace recovered to earn the victory with eight gritty innings in Game 3 of that series, but he allowed four earned runs to take some of the luster off his 11 strikeout performance. After blowing the lead he was handed, Verlander was the beneficiary of a clutch solo home run from Delmon Young in the bottom of the seventh.
Verlander next took the hill in Game 1 of the ALCS, as he labored through four innings, earning the loss by allowing three earned runs on five hits and two walks.
The presumed Cy Young award winner would earn the victory in Game 5 of that same series, as he pitched into the eighth inning for Leyland, taking the heat off the back end of Detroit's bullpen. With a comfortable 7-2 lead, Verlander allowed a hit to Mike Napoli, before being victimized by the current incarnation of Mr. October, Texas' Nelson Cruz, who hit one of his several late-game home runs to make the game closer. Verlander would earn the win, but his line of 7.1 innings and four runs on eight hits and three walks was another less than dominant outing in the postseason.
Overall, Verlander would go 2-1 in his three-plus starts, but his 5.31 ERA and 1.43 WHIP didn't quite resemble the same pitcher who led his league in wins, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP and innings pitched.
Though he likely would have preferred a World Series title, Verlander can take some solace in the fact that he is the leading candidate for the American League Cy Young award. At 24-5, with a 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings, he is a clear standout that is likely to take the honor home.