It’s the bullpen stupid…

So after 2,430 regular season games and 25 post season ones, we have finally reached the main event of the baseball season, the 2014 World Series. And a perfect match up it has thrown up between the underdogs Kansas City Royals – making their third World Series appearance in franchise history – and the favourites the San Fransisco Giants making their third World Series appearance in the last five years. For the Royals all this is new. The Giants have an experienced core – Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner – who already have World Series rings. It is a fascinating contrast.
And yet the two teams are quite similar – and both have shown that there are two key points to success in the post season. First and most important is a good bullpen. For if this post season has proved anything it has shown that unless your relief pitchers are up to the task, you are going nowhere. Just ask the Detroit Tigers and LA Dodgers who despite all the money they spent had hopeless bullpens and paid the price. In contrast the Royals’ 7th-8th-9th inning guys – Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland – have been lights out. While the Giants’ bullpen can be summed up by the nine scoreless extra innings it threw in that 18 inning Division Series game at Washington – including six by Yusmeiro Petit in the outstanding performance of the 2014 post season. Bullpen pitchers are the honest foot soldiers of baseball. They don’t command big salaries – in fact Baseball Prospectus 2014 (page 235) says “nobody is supposed to pay money for relief pitching”. Nor unless they are outstanding closers like Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hofffman do they become stars . But they are vital to a team’s post season chances.
The second lesson is that offences that rely on hitting home runs are exposed in the post season against better pitching. The O’s are this year’s example. They feasted on Detroit’s awful bullpen but when they met the Royals’ pitching the home run hitting failed them and they had no other option. The same fate befell the 2013 Braves and the 2012 Yankees. Yes timely home runs are important but you also need to get on base and play “small ball” – the sacrifice bunt the stolen base – the Royals stole seven in one game – are also important and both teams know this. As Brad Pitt – playing A’s general manage Billy Beane – says to Eric Chavez in a scene from “Moneyball” “You get on base we win. You don’t we lose”. If you never get on base you can only score by solo home runs – which don’t win games very often.
So what will happen in the World Series? If I was to name one key player it is the Giants’ starter Madison Bumgarner. Since the bullpens are better than the starting pitchers both teams- but especially the Royals – will try to get ahead by the sixth inning then turn it over to the bullpen. Bumgarner – as the one outstanding starter on show – is a big obstacle to that plan (that is unless Royals’ starter James Shields earns his “big game James” nickname. As Victoria Chiesa wrote on Twitter – @vrcsports – one wonders if the nickname is ironic. He has done nothing this postseason to earn it and the Royals could be said to have won his starts despite him rather than because of him.)
If the Giants win the first game it will be a big test of character for the Royals who have won all their postseason games in 2014 and – unlike the Giants – have no experience of being behind in a post season series. There is a scenario where – like the 2007 Rockies who also won every post season game got hammered in game 1 of the World Series and never recovered – the Royals collapse and the Giants get their second World Series sweep in three years. I don’t see this happening. The series will be tight low scoring and exciting (with my record of making predictions that means tonight’s game will be a 10-8 slugfest!) As for who’ll win? My heart says the Royals. My head says the Giants. So who to go with? One thing this post season has lacked is a game five or a game seven – a final decisive game. I wouldn’t be surprised if this time the series goes all the way to Kansas City for the decisive game seven. And who’ll win? I’ll just go with my head and the Giants. One thing is certain. What will decide it? To misquote Bill Clinton it’s the bullpen stupid..

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