As it always does, the Major League Baseball postseason provided plenty of fun times on the lead-up to the World Series between Atlanta and the Houston Astros. Really, what more could anyone want?
Well, cleaner, better officiated games for one thing. And maybe more watchable games. And more dramatic series.
This is to say that if you've been left both entertained and yet also frustrated by the 2021 playoffs, it's not just you. Whether they also exist in the regular season or are native to October, MLB has had some significant problems creep into the spotlight here and there.
As for how these issues might be prevented in the future, some potential solutions are simpler than others. Either way, let's dive right in.
Laz Diaz Makes the Case for an Automatic Strike Zone
To give credit where it's due, umpires have actually done an excellent job of handling pitches within the strike zone so far in the postseason. Only 8.2 percent of pitches in the zone have been called balls, compared to 10.5 percent in the regular season.
Even still, that former number isn't as close to zero as it ideally should be. Umpires have also been more liberal than usual with strikes outside the zone, calling them at a 7.1 percent clip compared to 6.7 percent in the regular season.
More specifically, there's what happened in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series between the Astros and Boston Red Sox. Laz Diaz, who was behind home plate for the game, wasn't solely responsible for the Red Sox's 9-2 loss, but he did hose them with crucial missed calls on J.D. Martinez (see here) and Nathan Eovaldi (here).
As ESPN's Jeff Passan noted after the game, those were not isolated incidents that night:
Jeff Passan @JeffPassan
Home-plate umpire Laz Diaz has missed 21 ball-strike calls tonight, according to <a href="https://twitter.com/ESPNStatsInfo?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ESPNStatsInfo</a>. That is the most of any umpire this postseason. The green dot in the upper RH corner is the Eovaldi curveball that would've ended top of the ninth with the score 2-2.<br><br>It is now 9-2. <a href="https://t.co/VzdyL4lth3">pic.twitter.com/VzdyL4lth3</a>
You know where this is going. You say "robot umps" and we say "automated strike zone," but it's really potayto, potahto.
For those who are fine with the human element giving way to cold, hard computer precision when it comes to calling balls and strikes, the good news is that the technology obviously exists and that it's already made headway into affiliated ball. An automated zone made its debut in the Low-A Southeast League this year.
The less good news is that the automated zone isn't yet ready for prime time. The use of it coincided with an offensive explosion in the Southeast League early in 2021. Come July, the league sought to alter the parameters of the zone by widening it laterally and cutting a few inches off the top, so as to better reflect the zone that actual humans typically call.
There's also a more, shall we say, existential argument to be made against the automated zone. For instance, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post posited that it would change the respective arts of hitting and pitching for the worse.
It is, however, easier to make that argument while the automated zone is still in a beta-testing phase. Even if MLB and the MLB Players Association don't make the automated zone part of the next collective bargaining agreement, it won't and indeed shouldn't stay out of the majors forever.
In the meantime, perhaps it's not too much to ask that MLB at least try to keep umpires like Diaz—i.e., ones with terrible accuracy and consistency scores—as far away from home plate as possible during October.
The Possibility of a 'Gabe Morales Rule'
As bad as Diaz's strike zone was in the ALCS, a more tragic missed call occurred in Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
This one was by first base umpire Gabe Morales, who simply didn't get it right when he ruled that Wilmer Flores hadn't checked his swing on the final out of the Dodgers' decisive win, even though replays left no doubt that he had:
In Morales' defense, there isn't actually a set definition as to what does or doesn't constitute a swing. As Ted Barrett, the crew chief for that NLDS Game 5, elaborated afterward:
"We talk about it lot at our meetings because it is one of our most difficult calls, and we try to get all on the same page as a staff that we’re all trying to call the same thing. But by the rule book it just says, did he offer at the pitch. So there’s some ambiguity there, but we do our best to try to be consistent so players know what’s a swing and what’s not."
What's more, check swings are not subject to replay reviews. Umpires can therefore only go off what they see in real-time, which Morales rightfully noted isn't easy:
If nothing else, it's way past time for MLB's rule book to specifically address check swings. Unofficially, it's long been agreed that a batter fails to check his swing when he "breaks his wrists" and the barrel of the bat goes ahead of his hands. Maybe that should also be the official language.
From there, also making check swings reviewable so umpires actually have a chance to review key calls through multiple angles and in slow-motion would be a logical next step.
That Dodgers vs. Giants Series Was Great; It Shouldn't Have Happened So Soon
Speaking of the Dodgers' and Giants' showdown in the NLDS, it always figured to be a dandy on account of its historical implications:
And a dandy it was. It not only went the distance, but two of the last three games were decided by one run. Though the Giants ultimately lost, the outcome might have been different if the two clubs could have played a best-of-seven series.
Of course, that only could have happened if they had met the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. And that couldn't possibly have happened because of baseball's antiquated seeding.
In MLB, the three division winners in each league are seeded by their records, and the winner of the Wild Card Game is automatically the fourth seed. It's an OK system in theory, but it's screwed over two 100-win teams in the last four years—the New York Yankees in 2018 and the Dodgers this year—and it creates a strong possibility of a league's two best teams meeting up before they ideally would in the Championship Round.
In the NBA, meanwhile, there are divisions, but those standings ultimately don't matter in the playoff seeding. It's strictly based on records, with the best team on top and the worst team on the bottom.
"I do like the format of the NBA," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in August, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "The two best teams, in the sample of a major league season, should have the best chance of meeting in the postseason, and not just in the first round."
If MLB and the MLBPA were to agree that they also like the NBA format, the league could have a more equitable playoff format as soon as next year.
What About Pace of Play and All the Pitching Changes?
Look, if baseball is not your cup of tea, then you probably wouldn't sit for it even if games lasted just 10 minutes. And that's fine.
But even for actual baseball fans, who by rule are more enthusiastic and more patient than that, watching playoff games is starting to require an unreasonable time commitment.
As Zach Kram of The Ringer researched, the average game this postseason has taken a staggering three hours and 42 minutes to finish. This is the latest in an ongoing trend that's seen playoff games of three hours or less all but disappear in recent years.
Among other things, this is a pace-of-play problem. Though FanGraphs no longer tracks time in between pitches, the average for both starters (21.2 to 23.6 seconds) and relievers (22.7 to 25.3 seconds) increased significantly between 2008 and 2018. It almost certainly hasn't regressed in the other direction since 2019.
Much like the automated zone, this is a problem that could potentially be solved by technology. Specifically, a pitch clock the likes of which baseball has already experimented with in the minors. There's been a 20-second clock at Double-A and Triple-A since 2015. This year, a 15-second clock debuted to promising results in the Low-A West League.
It's a lesser problem, but it might also be time for MLB to rewrite rules about warm-up pitches for injury replacements on the mound. Right now, pitchers who take over in an injury situation are allowed as long as they need. But as Jake Odorizzi demonstrated in Game 2 of the ALCS, there apparently is such a thing as too long in these scenarios.
These things? Simple enough. But neither is the most glaring pace-related problem hanging over the MLB postseason, which is the bonkers things that managers are asking of their pitchers.
We're only now at the World Series, but there have already been 19 instances of a starting pitcher failing to record even 10 outs. That's one shy of the record set in the 2020 postseason, which had a whole extra round. Likewise, the 26 occasions of a starter lasting longer than five innings are by far the fewest since the wild-card era began in 1995.
To be sure, many of the early hooks have been justified. There's just been some bad starting pitching, which could potentially be linked to how so many pitchers took a big leap in innings pitched after the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2020 season to just 60 games. The times through the order penalty also always looms larger in October, as managers rightfully don't want a struggling pitcher to see the same lineup more than twice or even once.
The willingness of managers to use their best starters in relief on their throw days is another thing that can't be ignored. It's not a phenomenon exclusive to 2021, but the potential perils of doing it have certainly become more apparent.
For example, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez doesn't think it's a coincidence that Dodgers ace Max Scherzer had a "dead" arm when he started against Atlanta in Game 2 of the NLCS just three days after closing out the NLDS:
Pedro Martinez @45PedroMartinez
The energy <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Scherzer?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Scherzer</a> had to use to close that last game took a toll on him, as well as the jet lag and the trip. He had never close a game before in his career, and for a starting pitcher that has a different load physically and mentally <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MLBonTBS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MLBonTBS</a>
Though Scherzer was supposed to start Game 6 for the Dodgers, the same dead arm necessitated a last-minute scratch. In his place, the Dodgers tabbed Walker Buehler to start on short rest for the second time in less than two weeks. Previously, he had never done it before in his career.
It's a weird dichotomy. We're seeing starting pitchers generally work less this October and yet also seeing good starting pitchers work too much. Either way, ESPN's Buster Olney is right in thinking that MLB and the MLBPA should want to do something:
Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN
There is a desperate need for the MLB, the Players Association to talk about all the pitching changes, and restoring the preeminence of the starting pitchers. It'd be better for the product, it'd be better for the union, given the importance of starters in setting market prices.
Asked for his thoughts on what baseball should do, super-agent Scott Boras proposed "an immediate roster increase for the remainder of the playoffs and the World Series" to Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
Would that solve the workload issue? Almost certainly. But would it also make the pace-of-play problem even worse? Since the three-batter minimum rule would then be literally the only thing stopping managers from diving as deep into their deeper pitching staffs as possible, that's another "almost certainly."
To this end, restrictions might make more sense than expansions. But there's no way these restrictions wouldn't be arbitrary, such as with Olney's idea to limit managers to five pitchers per nine innings save for situations involving blowouts and injuries. Why five? And what constitutes a blowout? And what would stop teams from participating in "injury" chicanery?
The most practical solution might involve cutting down on travel days in October so that there would be greater risk associated with managers using a quick hook on their starters. But this is a hard sell, as there's no easy way to cut travel days in half under either the 2-2-1 format of the Division Series or the 2-3-2 format of the Championship Series and World Series.
Things are getting to a point where there are no longer starters and relievers but just pitchers. Good, bad or indifferent, it is what it is and it's naive to think that this particular genie can be put back in the bottle.
As such, probably the best thing MLB can do is fix the problems that it can fix and hope that this one becomes less visible as a result.