Where Amazing Happens: Why the MLB Playoffs Have Been Insanely Exciting

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There are somewhere between 15 and 27 games remaining in the MLB postseason, depending on whether baseball’s surviving teams give us sweeps or Game 7s. We don’t know if October will end on a high note; maybe all those games will be blowouts, and maybe the favorites will always win. Regardless of what happens over the next few weeks, though, we’ve witnessed a month’s worth of excitement in the postseason’s first six days. Let’s run through several ways in which the 2014 playoffs got off to a special start.

Click here for all of Grantland’s 2014 MLB playoff coverage.

Incredibly Close Games

Despite what we’ve seen over the past week, playoff games aren’t typically much more closely contested than games during the regular season. The following table shows the percentage of games decided by one run and the percentage of games that went into extras in both the regular season and the postseason, from 1995 to 2013 (according to ESPN Stats & Info and the Elias Sports Bureau).

Period One-Run % Extra-Inning %
Regular Season 28.3 8.6
Postseason 29.0 10.6

Of the 12 postseason games that have been played this year, eight have been decided by one run. And that undersells the uncertainty somewhat: Of the four games that weren’t decided by one run, one went 11 innings, and another was a one-run game until the bottom of the eighth.

On Friday, when every remaining team was in action, staggered start times allowed viewers to mainline most of the action without even having to change channels within a given time slot. All four games either went to extras or were decided by one run, and the Royals became the first team ever to win three consecutive extra-inning postseason games.

On Saturday (and, on the East Coast, a small sliver of Sunday), the Giants and Nationals went 18 rounds in the longest postseason game ever (six hours, 23 minutes). Aside from the NL wild-card matchup and Game 3 of the Royals-Angels ALDS, every game has been exhilarating (and, depending on your loyalties, potentially terrifying) until the end. If both the playoffs and one-run games are largely the result of luck, then this October has been a double dose of random chance, like playing regular roulette and Russian roulette at the same time. It’s so sudden-death that it barely feels like baseball, but it’s a hell of a chaser for six months of a slower-paced regular season.

Upsets

Although the individual games have been close, the series haven’t: Both AL division series resulted in sweeps, and the Giants will attempt to finish off the Nationals in Game 3 of their NLDS matchup today. The Angels, Tigers, and Nationals were all consensus favorites in their series, according to the sportsbooks, the projection systems, and our own previews, and they’re all either eliminated or in need of a three-game winning streak to survive. Thus far, the NL wild-card matchup of Madison Bumgarner and Edinson Volquez is the only one that has played out in a predictable way.

That’s bad news if you’re a fan of one of the defeated (or on-life-support) favorites, but good news for everyone else. Impartial observers generally enjoy rooting for underdogs, and thus far the underdogs have delivered, with the Royals — the ultimate underdog, after 28 straight seasons without a playoff appearance — pulling off the first-ever division series sweep of a team with the best record in baseball. With both the Royals and the Orioles in the ALCS, the AL’s World Series representative is guaranteed to be a team with the league’s second- or third-longest drought between pennants.1 Thus far, audiences seem to be responding to the intrigue, with postseason ratings at their highest since 2010.

Comebacks

Five of 12 postseason games have featured at least one lead change. Grantland contributor Rany Jazayerli chronicled the epic AL wild-card game, which went back and forth three times, but the Cardinals’ Game 1 comeback against Clayton Kershaw was just as far-fetched. Opposite Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, Kershaw cruised to a 6-2 lead through six. In the seventh, though, the Cards strung together four straight singles, followed by an obligatory Pete Kozma K, another single, an Oscar Taveras strikeout, and a bases-clearing Matt Carpenter double. Kershaw became the first pitcher ever to produce a 6.2/8/8/8/0/10 pitching line, a Dr. Moreau–esque union of dominant outing and disaster start. And because it’s so difficult to conceive of Kershaw simply throwing bad pitches and being burned, some observers formulated flimsy narratives about tipped pitches and the Cardinals owning Kershaw.

The game ended the only way a classic could: with the tying run on third, and Trevor Rosenthal blowing a 99 mph heater past Yasiel Puig.

The Royals

Every playoff team right now has had highlights, but Kansas City is the only club that deserves its own section. The Royals have flaws (not that they’ve shown them so far this postseason), but their strengths make them the most exciting team in the majors when the balls bounce their way. In a contact-starved era, the Royals put the ball in play more often than any other team. They also allow balls in play often, particularly in the air, which gives their catch-everything outfield ample opportunity to show off. They run more often and more efficiently than any other team, and they’re young, adorable, and demonstrative, which makes for good GIFs.

First, the baserunning: The Royals have 12 steals in four games; the other nine playoffs teams have 10 steals combined. This is how well things are going for them once their batters reach base: In Game 3, Billy Butler, one of the game’s slowest runners, scored from first on a double, then recorded his first stolen base (and first steal attempt) since July 2012.

It’s easy to overstate the value of pinch runners: Backflipping Jarrod Dyson and too-fast-to-slide Terrance Gore are exciting, but neither scored in the ALDS. Decisive, high-leverage pinch-running opportunities arise less often than one might think, since so many conditions have to be met: a game that’s close in the late innings; a below-average runner on base; an RBI batted ball.2 Still, the Royals’ baserunners aren’t just speedy; they’re smart.

Then there’s the outfield defense. In Game 1, Lorenzo Cain made two great catches and Nori Aoki made two adventurous ones:

In Game 2, Dyson doubled off Collin Cowgill …

… and then completed the triple play with an equally impressive postgame quote:

And in Game 3, Cain robbed the Angels of two outs in a row:

After the Royals’ decades out of contention, their comebacks against Oakland, and their convincing victory in the ALDS, it’s tempting to declare them a team of destiny. Of course, they could easily turn back into the team that struggled to produce runs all season and that, before doing so twice in their first four postseason contests, hadn’t scored eight runs in one game in well over a month. For now, though, they’re baseball’s best postseason story.

Harper’s Homer

The best way for baseball to end the media’s post–Derek Jeter fretting over the sport’s facelessness would have been for either Bryce Harper or Mike Trout to seize the spotlight and reel off clutch hits while taking his team to a pennant. That doesn’t look likely to happen: Harper went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning marathon and is one loss away from his winter, while Trout went 1-for-12 (with three walks) in three games and struck out to end his series. However, both young sluggers did go deep once, and Harper’s homer was particularly memorable.

With the Nats down 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh in Game 1, Harper unloaded on a fastball from Hunter Strickland that came in at 97 and went out at 114. With a true distance of 445 feet, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, the upper-deck solo shot was the longest hit this postseason, and the longest of Harper’s career.

This home run is why the Internet gods gave us GIFs, so it’s best to admire it from multiple angles and at multiple speeds:

Starters Pitching Out of the Bullpen

In the division series, San Francisco’s Yusmeiro Petit, Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman, Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez, Kansas City’s Danny Duffy, and Washington’s Tanner Roark have combined to pitch 14.2 innings in relief, allowing six hits, four walks, and two runs, with 18 strikeouts. Failed starting pitchers often make useful relievers; successful starting pitchers often make unhittable ones. The playoffs are the perfect time for teams with strong rotations to make the most of that depth.

Bad Blood

Baseball’s brouhahas are almost always silly eruptions over unwritten rules and perceived slights, and Saturday’s not-quite-brawl between the Dodgers and Cardinals was no exception. It began in the third inning, with the Dodgers down 1-0, when Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez started “screaming” at Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina on his way to the plate after Adam Wainwright hit Yasiel Puig with a pitch. There was no reason to believe the contact was intentional, and Puig didn’t appear to take offense. However, the two teams have enough hit-by-pitch history that Gonzalez couldn’t let it go.

Yes, it’s macho posturing and a byproduct of competitiveness that those of us who aren’t elite athletes can’t completely understand. As long as it climaxes with aimless milling about instead of actual violence, though, it doesn’t do any harm. And for Dodgers and Cardinals fans who are invested in the rivalry, it’s probably gratifying to know that these players don’t particularly like each other, either.

Bat Flips/Releases

This has been a postseason for bat flips — none of them, surprisingly, involving Puig. It’s as if the achievement of earning a playoff spot and the elevated stakes of postseason play have made it possible for normally reserved players to pimp their homers like we never knew they could. In descending order of style, here are Harper, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Brandon Belt, the last of whom didn’t so much flip his bat as release it like it was too hot for his hands.

Rounding out the top five: Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, who bat-flipped like they’d been there before.

Controversial Managerial Moves

This postseason’s tight games have produced plenty of player heroes. The goats, though, seem to be almost anyone but the people swinging the bats and throwing the balls.

Critiquing in-game tactics and roster construction isn’t a new phenomenon: Fans and writers have been first- and second-guessing managers and GMs since baseball began. Bill Buckner and Calvin Schiraldi were the goats of the 1986 World Series, sure, but so was manager John McNamara. A book could be written about baseball’s biggest managerial blunders, if Rob Neyer hadn’t already written one.

Still, it feels like the microscope has been trained on management more often than ever this postseason, and not just on Ned Yost. When the Dodgers lost the lead immediately after Zack Greinke was removed from Game 2, no one seemed to blame J.P. Howell, who’d allowed a home run; Twitter aimed its anger at GM Ned Colletti for building a bad bullpen, and at manager Don Mattingly for relying on those subpar arms. When the Tigers’ bullpen imploded twice, people complained about Dave Dombrowski’s failure to fix it and Brad Ausmus’s reluctance to stick with Sanchez or use Al Alburquerque. When Nationals manager Matt Williams made a fateful (and defensible) decision to pull Jordan Zimmermann with a 1-0 lead and two outs in the ninth on Saturday, he made himself a bigger target than Drew Storen, who surrendered a run.

Maybe it’s an age-old reaction magnified by Twitter, which makes public sentiment instantaneous and inescapable. Maybe it’s a new development related to Will Leitch’s observation that in the era of fantasy sports and advanced stats, we all consider ourselves manager or GM material, and we’re more interested in tactics and strategy than we are in what takes place on the field. Regardless, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Players’ failures are physical and unavoidable; sometimes their pitches will catch too much of the plate, and there’s no point in arguing that they shouldn’t have. Conversely, managing and GMing are intellectual exercises; there’s always an option to choose one arm over another. Still, most managerial decisions don’t affect the team’s fortunes as much as we think. When the margins are as small as they have been this month, some might, but we have to be careful about conflating bad results and bad decisions. At least this postseason, those bad results have made for good TV.

♦♦♦

It would take the blog-post equivalent of an 18-inning game to cover every memorable moment, like Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young adding to their October cred by driving in a combined eight runs; this double play by Baltimore; Omar Infante’s adhesive hand; Greinke’s all-around game; Carpenter’s Game 2–tying homer and Matt Kemp’s Game 2–winning homer; Matt Winer reporting on Yordano Ventura from directly behind him; and an Angels fan doing with a Thunderstick what the Angels failed to do with their bats. If this really is the sport’s big chance to distinguish itself on a national stage, baseball hasn’t blown it.

Filed Under: 2014 MLB Playoffs, MLB, MLB Playoffs, Playoffs, Baseball, MLB Stats, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, ALDS, NLDS, MLB Wild-Card, Managers, General Managers, Upsets, Comebacks, Bat Flips, Bullpens, Pitching, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig, Jordan Zimmermann, Delmon Young, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Mike Moustakas, Kevin Gausman, Brad Ausmus, Don Mattingly, Dave Dombrowski, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh