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2021 World Series Showcasing a Massive Shift in Starting Pitching Philosophy

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2021

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 27:  Jose Urquidy #65 of the Houston Astros delivers the pitch against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning in Game Two of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 27, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Once upon a time, a starting pitcher who lasted five innings in the postseason wasn't newsworthy. Now it might just be the type of performance that could decide the World Series.

If we go back to the 2011 Fall Classic between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, the epic seven-game showdown included 10 starts of at least five innings.

The seven-game 2001 World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees featured 12 starts of five innings.

Unless a starting pitcher was getting shelled, it was a foregone conclusion that they would pitch into the sixth, seventh or eighth inning when the lights shined brightest.

Now teams are thrilled if their starters are still in when the fifth inning ends.

During the 2021 postseason, pitchers have completed five innings in just 28 of 66 starts, and their clubs are 16-12 in those games. Six of those losses came against another starter who pitched five innings.

The Los Angeles Dodgers had the best starters' ERA in baseball during the regular season with a terrific 2.93 mark, but their rotation let them down in the National League Championship Series. After losing a bullpen game in Game 1, they failed to get length from Max Scherzer in Game 2 (4.1 IP) and Walker Buehler in Game 3 (3.2 IP), and that caught up to them.

Quick hooks for starters and taxed bullpens is a trend that has overtaken baseball during the last few seasons. It may largely be a result of analytics proponents, who preach that it's a bad idea to let starters face opposing lineups a third time, but pitchers also don't seem to have the same capacity for work they once did. That has played a part in the evolution of the opener, with multiple instances of would-be starters working three or four innings in bulk relief roles instead this postseason.

The situation is now front and center in the World Series.

With Lance McCullers Jr. (162.1 IP) sidelined because of a strained forearm and veteran Zack Greinke (171.0 IP) limited to a reliever's workload after he missed time late in the year because of a sore neck, the Houston Astros are without the two starters who led them in innings during the regular season.

Likewise, the Atlanta Braves are also without their workload leader in Charlie Morton (185.2 IP), who was forced out of Game 1 with a fractured fibula that will keep him sidelined for the remainder of the series.

Morton and Framber Valdez were gone by the end of the third inning of Game 1, and Jose Urquidy and Max Fried pitched five innings apiece in Game 2.

Urquidy rebounded from an ugly outing in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series to toss six-hit, two run ball and earn the victory. Fried allowed five runs in the first two frames but otherwise saved the bullpen.

In Game 3, Atlanta's Ian Anderson will face Houston's Luis Garcia, marking the first time since 2006 that a pair of rookies will square off in the World Series.

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With bullpen games looming for both teams in Game 4—and perhaps also for the Braves in Game 5 now that Morton is out—it feels like the young starter who can go five strong innings will provide a huge leg up for their team.

Let's look at the tale of the tape.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 23: Ian Anderson #36 of the Atlanta Braves throws a pitch during the first inning of Game Six of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Truist Park on October 23, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Ph
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Anderson, 23, went 9-5 with a 3.58 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 124 strikeouts in 128.1 innings in a terrific rookie season that could generate down-ballot NL Rookie of the Year support. He gained valuable postseason experience last season with four starts and 18.2 innings of 0.96 ERA ball.

He made it through five innings in 18 of his 24 regular-season starts, and he tossed five shutout innings against the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 3 of a National League Division Series. However, he threw just seven innings in two NLCS starts, exiting for a pinch hitter after four innings in the decisive Game 6.

He has exceeded 100 pitches only once all season, and he has not surpassed 70 pitches in his last two starts.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 22: Luis Garcia #77 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning in Game Six of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 22, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Garcia, 24, was 11-8 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 155.1 innings, emerging as a key cog in the Houston rotation after starting the season with just 12.1 major league innings.

He navigated five innings in 22 of 28 starts during the regular season, but he was knocked out in the third inning of Game 3 of an American League Division Series before exiting Game 2 of the ALCS in the second inning with a strained knee.

He returned to the mound in Game 6 of the ALCS and pitched the game of his life, no-hitting the Boston Red Sox through 5.2 innings before Enrique Hernandez chased him from the game with a triple.

With Greinke, Jake Odorizzi and Cristian Javier capable of chewing up innings out of the bullpen and Valdez lined up to start Game 5, the Astros are well equipped to handle the next three games if Garcia can give them another five-inning start. If McCullers were healthy and Greinke were stretched out, they would be heavy favorites, but the starting pitching edge still seems to be in their favor.

On the other hand, the Braves will have to tread carefully, knowing it's going to be up to their bullpen to handle Games 4 and 5. Relievers Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson and Will Smith got the night off Wednesday, and the key to the series may be how Brian Snitker deploys that Big Four.

He needs to take any opportunity to keep them fresh, and that could mean using starter-turned-reliever Drew Smyly for multiple innings or even punting a game that gets away early by turning things over to Kyle Wright and Tucker Davidson.

Without traditional innings-eating aces to lean on, the road ahead is not easy for either team. A strong start Friday by Anderson or Garcia would be a major boon to either team's chances the rest of the way, while an early exit could be catastrophic.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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