If you have spent any time in the offices of Major League Baseball managers, you’ve been beaten half to death with a couple of clichés.
After the team wins a game by 10 runs: “Never too high, never too low.”
After the team loses seven in a row: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Good games, bad games, rain delays, acts of God – these two phrases are the Swiss Army knives of baseball scrums. They are fit for all occasions. At least, they used to be.
Because with a 60-game regular season and 16 available playoff spots, anything short of high was, by definition, too low. The clubs who didn’t spend the past two months sprinting are no longer running anywhere at any speed.
The pandemic MLB season has not just changed the way baseball looks and feels. It has altered the way of speaking and thinking about it.
This has become the season that doesn’t make much sense. The Miami Marlins came into this thing having nearly come dead last in MLB the previous year. They began their campaign by taking an involuntary COVID sabbatical that nearly tanked the entire league. And now they’re in the playoffs.
This is MLB’s rumspringa season, where the young and foolish run wild while the village elders try to figure out what the hell is going on.
The playoffs begin Tuesday. Who’s favoured? Well, who do you like? Because odds are that team has nearly as good a chance as anyone else.
By record and pedigree, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the best team in baseball. They have five solid starters, a lockdown bullpen and (very) arguably the best all-round player in the game in Mookie Betts.
What the Dodgers do not have is time.
Once this thing gets rolling, there is little opportunity to set your team up to maximize your advantages. The three-game wild-card round will happen over three days; the five-game division series over five days; and the seven-game league championship series over seven days. The usual mid-series off-days will only be reinserted during the World Series.
You get into one 16-inning slapping contest early on, burn all your pitchers trying to win a game you have to win and even if you win it, you, my friend, are in serious trouble. This is the postseason most likely to see a second baseman who last pitched in high school up on the mound trying to close out a game.
In these circumstances, it’s difficult to say what works best, because no one’s ever done it like this before. The idea of an altered routine is antithetical to baseball players. These are the least adaptable athletes in the world. That inbred caution makes common wisdom more like holy writ.
It’s okay to lose while doing the usual thing, but woe betide the manager who tries to get creative and loses anyway. That’s how you end up fired.
But if there has ever been a moment for bold, new thinking to assert itself, this would be it.
Wouldn’t that be a nice change? Baseball games that don’t play out exactly like you knew they would an hour before they started?
Every sport changes in the postseason, but none so changes the experience of viewership as baseball.
During the regular season, you can drift in and out of a game. That’s what makes the sport so perfect for radio. It’s meant to be half-listened to, rather than hung on for three-plus hours. Its leisureliness is its greatest pleasure.
During the postseason, every interaction matters. The counts matter. The positioning matters. The viewer finds themselves more attuned to the man on deck or the next man up in the bullpen.
In some ways, regular-season baseball is the fans' practice. The playoffs is where they apply everything they’ve learned.
Usually, this plays out in predictable ways. The first inning matters a great deal as the starters settle (or don’t). Things don’t get tight until the settled starters begin to tire. Then it’s a question of when or if to pull him. Then it becomes mano a mano as a series of relievers are set up for individual duels with specific batters. These patterns are familiar and comforting.
All that could go out the window this year.
Cleveland has the best starter in baseball in Shane Bieber. He’s had a Sandy Koufax sort of season, leading baseball in wins, earned-run average and strikeouts per nine innings. No starter has ever struck out a higher percentage of batters he’s faced (41.1 per cent), though the shortened season makes that a heavily asterisked stat.
If you’re Cleveland, do you go all in with Bieber? Start him on short rest? Make him available as a reliever in must-win games? And if you do, when do you start doing that? Because if you ride him hard during the first couple of series, he’s going to be running at a half-tank once this gets to a seven-game encounter.
Or is the way to go treating the postseason more like the regular season? Schedule-wise, it’s set up like one with daily games.
Instead of managing each at-bat like a one-off encounter, you commit to your usual rotation and hope that familiarity breeds competence. Trust that the law of averages – if you’re the Dodgers, Rays, A’s, Twins or Atlanta, a law that’s been good to you this year – works out in your favour.
Or do you hodge-podge it? Teams such as the Blue Jays spent the shortened season bringing players up and down from the minors, switching starters in and out, looking for a groove whenever things started to get turned the wrong way. If one of your regulars has five miserable at-bats in one game, do you bench him the next?
In running terms, you can either ultramarathon this, middle-distance it or make it a 40-yard dash.
What you want in any postseason, at least to begin with, is chaos. Chaos equals maximum entertainment.
From the vantage point of this starting line, when every goofy strategy is theoretically feasible, baseball is about to run the most chaotic race in its history.