The 2022 postseason hinged, or was bookended, by two Yordan Alvarez homers. One was in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Mariners. The other was in Game 6 of the World Series against the Phillies. Both were part of innings where the Astros overturned a deficit into a lead. There is nothing more dramatic in the playoffs than a game being turned on its head, shifting an entire series and both teams’ fortunes, and even how the teams will be viewed in the future. They feel momentous (ask me about the chair I flung across my living room before the 9th inning of Game 4 of the Cubs-Giants 2016 series and then refused to move the rest of the month).
If you feel like that was the last time any lead changed in a playoff game, you’d be forgiven.
In the 2023 MLB playoffs, only four of 27 games so far have seen a lead change. Two of them were in the Arizona-Milwaukee wildcard series. Only two have happened since that round, and none in the first five games of the LCSs. In the playoffs, once a team gets the lead, it keeps it. Which doesn’t lead to a ton of drama.
It’s been something of a pattern, as last year only 13 games out of 42 had a lead change. That doesn’t mean teams didn’t get close or put the tying or winning run on and failed to drive them in, which is just as dramatic. But as baseball has been unable to solve for quite a while now, most teams’ pens are unbreakable.
Why so little change? One factor might be that the wildcard and division series being so short, not only do relievers run supreme but hitters only get one or maybe two looks at them in the series. Now the Marlins don’t have an offense (cue all the unhinged Marlins fans yelling at me, and yes, I was as shocked as you that such a thing exists), but the Phillies never had to use a reliever twice in that series. The Twins used four of their relievers in both games of their series against the Jays, and their pen is also lights out. The Rangers only had to use Jose Leclerc twice in the wildcard round, everyone else just once, and he was the only pitcher they had to use three times in the division series to close out all three games.
Rarely in those short series do relievers get seen by hitters for a third time, and relievers in the postseason have similar numbers when seen for a third time in a series as starters do when going through a lineup for a third time. Alvarez’s homer in Game 6 of the World Series last year was off Jose Alvarado, the third time he’d seen him in that series (though to be fair, Alvarez is one of the best left-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers in history).
Also, those short series are taken up almost entirely by a team’s best starters. Rarely does a team get a look at No. 3 starters or an amalgamation of the bottom of rotations. Which means starters in those shorter series are going through a lineup two or even three times, and then the best relievers only have to get 9-12 outs, if that. Tonight, for instance, the Rangers are going to handcuff Andrew Heaney and Dane Dunning, most likely, before cycling back to Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi in the following games. These kinds of things rarely happen in the wildcard or divisional round.
The days off help, too. The divisional round doesn’t have three games in a row, which means a pen is fresh pretty much all the time barring disaster. The LCSs and World Series at least have one section of three games in a row, and perhaps if any of these three series extend to five games or beyond we’ll see an effect.
But this is only a symptom of one of baseball’s biggest problems, which is that relievers are fiendish tools of the devil. Most teams feature a host of guys who throw 101, with some slider/sweeper that looks like it banks off something rather than breaks. No matter how many times hitters see that, it’s really hard to hit. It’s even harder to string hits together to generate a rally and come back, and probably even harder than that to homer enough times to avoid that. The Phillies avoid all this by hitting solo homers off starters and then turning it over to their starters and pen. They’re not concerned with hitting a bunch of singles and a big double or something.
There’s little MLB can do about that, given that it’s sort of the natural evolution of talent in the game, other than moving the mound back, which isn’t even being discussed. And perhaps a feature of this is that the rare late-inning comeback will be truly special and memorable now, all rising to the level of Kirk Gibson homering off the formerly impenetrable Dennis Eckersley way back when. It’s just that in between those rare miracles, we’re watching a lot of boat races.
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