Courtesy of Jim Feist
October memories glare the brightest in baseball lore. Bobby Thompson's 1951 home run, Don Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the '56 Series, Bob Gibson's 17-strikeouts in Game 1 '68, Carlton Fisk's home run in '75, Kirk Gibson's blast in '88, Joe Carter's Series ending three-run homer in 1993. While home runs mostly dot the top of the memorial landscape, October baseball can also feature memorable defensive plays and great pitching performances from starters and relievers.
For all the accolades the Detroit Tigers had this summer with their impressive starting pitching rotation, as a team they finished 24th in baseball in ERA. An unimpressive bullpen killed them in the 2013 ALCS and again this October, getting swept by Baltimore. Oh, and those surprising Orioles, AL East champs, were 7th in team ERA, plus 6th in fewest errors made. And those amazing Giants? A top 10 team in ERA in 2014.
Boston road a strong defense and pitching staff to a worst-to-first title a year ago, but slipped to last place this season with a team ERA ranked 23rd -- a shade ahead of Detroit. The Big Four who reached the 2013 League Champion Series were no flukes during the regular season. The Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers all had star power on offense and some dominant aces on the mound to help anchor the pitching staffs and end losing skids. Pitching and defense shine in October. You need both to get here and managers are more inclined to go with their best arms, which isn't always the case during the long regular season.
The Giants won the World Series in 2012 and the final scores of the last three games against Detroit: 2-0, 2-0 and 4-3 in ten innings. The Cardinals stunned the Texas Rangers in October of 2012 with a miracle comeback in Game 6, a 10-9 thriller. But 5 of those 7 World Series games went under the total with scores of 3-2, 2-1, 4-0 and 6-2.
That is what led the surge of the Tampa Bay Rays this season and their remarkable run to the World Series five years ago, great defense and a deep young pitching staff. The 2010 Giants were a poor hitting team all season, ranked 17th in runs and 19th in on base percentage, yet won it all.
Taking a content analysis of the last 15 years of the World Series, you'll notice that pitching and defense shine a bit more on the October stage than offense. Over that time there have been 56 unders, 20 overs and 2 pushes in World Series play. Is this a fluke? Or are there reasons for more low scoring games?
Since the World Series is the last battle of the season, managers aren't going to go with their worst pitchers, but the best of their best. This is why you see three and four man rotations in the World Series, whereas in the regular season teams employ a five and sometimes six-man rotation. Simply put, the No. 4, 5 and 6 starters during the regular season aren't going to see much (if any) important action in late October. The same is true for relief pitchers: A team generally has two or three quality relievers and three or four marginal/below average arms. Naturally, a manager is going to use his best often and go to his weakest arms only if necessary.
Teams constructed solely around offense are built for the regular season. Teams stocked with a balanced lineups and excess pitching, both starting and in the bullpen, are built for October.
In addition, defense is a subtle, often overlooked aspect of baseball. There's an old adage that teams win with pitching, hitting and defense, and that's true. This is why you often see teams with outstanding center fielders, shortstops and catchers in the World Series because a team needs to be strong up the middle. Good defense helps your pitchers, turning double plays and keeping the other team from scoring.
Finally, the weather is far colder in October than in July and August, and it's tougher to hit a baseball when it's cold. When the World Series takes place in northern cities (Boston, New York, Cleveland, Detroit) it can be very cold in late October and early November.
Last fall the final three games went under the total between the Cardinals and Red Sox, 4-2 under overall. In 2006 the A's and Tigers hooked up for Game 3 in Detroit. It was 42 degrees at game time, the lowest for a postseason game since it was 38 in Cleveland at the 1997 World Series. The final score? 3-0 Tigers, way under the total. Fans were bundled in parkas and blankets in Philly at Citizens Bank Park during the World Series in recent years. So don't be surprised if pitching and defense shines a bit more than offense as temperatures dip along with batting averages.
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