World Series: The rigors of pitching in October nothing like the regular season
LOS ANGELES – Pitching in the playoffs is nothing like pitching in the regular season. And within that, there’s nothing quite like pitching through three rounds of high-leverage postseason play.
Ryan Madson is feeling the brunt of that right now.
The Los Angeles Dodgers reliever and veteran of 16 playoff series over his 13-year career is under scrutiny for allowing five inherited runners to score in the first two games of the World Series, the biggest reason why the Boston Red Sox have claimed a 2-0 advantage as the series heads to Dodger Stadium.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had good reason to turn to Madson: The 38-year-old pitched brilliantly in his team’s first two playoff series, giving up just one run in 6 1/3 innings and stranding five of seven inherited runners against Atlanta and Milwaukee in the NL division and championship series.
It’s all gone haywire against Boston, and Madson isn’t necessarily surprised.
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“What I’ve watched in the postseason the last couple years, it has seemed there’s a point of negative return, particularly in a bullpen,” Madson told USA TODAY Sports as this playoff run began. “You’ve got high-quality arms giving up multiple runs in an inning. That goes to show – it’s impossible the load that they’re given.
“But you could also say, if I put someone else in that spot, instead of giving up two, maybe they give up five. So, it’s the best you can get in that moment. And it’s something that pitcher earned throughout the whole season.”
It will be up to Roberts to determine if Madson will maintain his role in high-leverage spots the remainder of the series, though postseason managing often requires rapid role reversals before it’s too late.
Has Madson hit the wall after throwing 107 high-intensity pitches in nine games over 17 days? Data compiled by USA TODAY Sports spanning the seven postseasons of the double-wild card era show a mixed bag of regression.
Pitching performances from 2012-2018 have actually been worst overall in the division series rounds, where an average of 7.5 earned runs a game are scored, pitchers produce 1.21 walks and hits per inning and give up 2.29 homers per game.
Perhaps that’s a function of weaker overall staffs in a larger playoff field, as the numbers go down for the league championship series: 6.7 earned runs per game, a 1.18 WHIP and 1.87 homers per game.
Then, another bump in the World Series: 7.6 earned runs per game with a 1.18 WHIP. In the past three World Series, roughly coinciding with the “launch angle” era of hitting, home runs have skyrocketed: From 1.6 per game in 2015, to 2.1 in 2016 and 3.6 in 2017 – the latter at two ballparks that ranked 14th and 15th in yielding home runs last season.
Anecdotal evidence gives us a few key examples.
Cleveland Indians lefty Andrew Miller was untouchable in his first six playoff appearances in 2016, striking out 27 of 55 batters faced, giving up no runs and allowing just 11 baserunners in 15 innings.
He was rocked in his final two outings that October, giving up a pair of home runs in Games 4 and 7 of the World Series and striking out just three in 4 1/3 innings.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen was similarly effective last season, giving up zero earned runs and striking out 12 in eight innings of the 2017 NLDS and NLCS.
His first World Series was a different story: A blown save and a loss as he gave up a pair of home runs and was scored upon in three consecutive outings spanning Games 2, 4 and 5.
That last game illustrated how tough it can be for starters: Clayton Kershaw was effective to excellent in his first four postseason starts in 2017, winning three of them, posting a 2.96 ERA and striking out 27 batters in 24 1/3 innings.
His final start, Game 5 of the World Series against Houston, was a debacle against the same team he dominated in Game 1: Six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings as he blew a 4-0 lead in what would become an absurd 13-12 Astros victory that tipped the balance of their seven-game series.
“Pitching in the World Series, you're pitching on adrenaline all through October anyway,” Kershaw said the day before his Game 1 start Tuesday, when he gave up five earned runs, though Madson allowed two to score. “So all of us come Nov. 1 probably aren't feeling so great when the adrenaline wears off.
“But it's one big sprint this month, and then you take a little bit to regroup. But everybody's probably feeling fine right now, for sure.”
Madson says the October toll is as much emotional as physical, the high-stakes games creating a high that’s challenging to rebound from, be it later that week or the following season.
“Emotions are heightened,” he says, “so that’s why it brings on more tension, more excitement, and that leads to more fatigue – physical muscle fatigue, not being able to sleep well at night because you’re so amped up, to not recovering overnight – that’s a path to go down.
“Everybody’s doing it, so the best-prepared wins, physically and mentally.”
Shortly after he was acquired by the Dodgers, Madson had a chat with Jansen in the bullpen about the challenge of recovery in October and beyond, and how it’s impossible to match the playoff intensity in the regular season.
“He told me, ‘Welcome to the hangover,’” Jansen said.
With that in mind, the Dodgers closer has tried to ramp down a bit this postseason to leave more in the tank at the end. After an uneven season disrupted by health and injury concerns, Jansen produced six scoreless outings in the Dodgers’ first two rounds.
He has yet to pitch in this World Series.
“You learn from it,” Jansen said of his World Series fade of 2017. “I kind of feel like I have a better pace, don't burn yourself too much. Instead of last year in the World Series, you kind of got a little fatigue because you're going a hundred miles per hour every day.
“That was a good learning experience. We know that we fell one game short. And we kind of prepare yourself already for this year. And here we are.”
Indeed, for the pressure and the pain and the body blows, October baseball remains the narcotic that keeps players coming back. For the Dodgers, this will be six playoff series plus a 162-game schedule in a 13-month span, which sounds rigorous.
They also wouldn’t have it any other way.
“After going to a World Series, the only thing you want to do is go back to the World Series,” says Madson. “Those are the only games you want to play that year. It’s an unmatchable experience as far as how fun it is, how rewarding it is to play in a World Series game.
“To know that you’re the only official baseball game being played, the only teams on TV right now, that’s a great feeling.”
Even at the low points.
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