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Breakout stars, dramatic moments and key themes: What we’ve learned so far this MLB postseason

Everybody came into this postseason expecting the unexpected, considering how many unusual features were built into the Major League Baseball postseason, tailored for the unique circumstances of the 2020 season. Just for starters, we faced an expanded field of teams, a wild-card series instead of an elimination play-in game and the potential impact of no days off between games within the first two rounds.

All of that was planned on paper, and now the first two rounds are complete. What can we take away from this year’s postseason so far, and what does it mean for the finals two rounds before baseball crowns a new champion? We asked MLB columnists Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield for their evaluations of what we’ve learned from this year’s expanded postseason.

What is the one theme that stands out to you across series this postseason?

Doolittle: It’s probably the reliance on home runs for whatever scoring has occurred, but I think as teams get better, the numbers should become a little less extreme. Things have gotten so skewed that it makes you wonder about the chicken-and-egg aspect of it. How much of it is that the pitching has gotten so good, and how much of it is that the pitching has gotten so good because the batters are all out there playing hero ball?

Miller: It’s the way that the lack of travel days within series has pivoted pitcher usage from “here’s something creative we can do” to “here’s something desperate we have to do.” I’d become fond of some of the more imaginative tactics managers used to squeeze free innings out of their best pitchers: starters relieving on their throw days, relievers stretching themselves to multiple innings when a day off loomed and so on.

In this compressed schedule, though, it has been more about trying to squeeze a few more outs from an emergency starter or relying on the fourth-best reliever because the best- and second-best relievers are overworked and unavailable. Forget who has the best pitchers. The Braves and Dodgers are the only teams that have had enough pitchers.

Schoenfield: What Brad and Sam said. Of course, this doesn’t make for the most entertaining style of baseball unless you really love home runs. I’ll even say it out loud: I kind of miss bunting. And, yes, I know teams are 22-1 this postseason when hitting more home runs than the opponent. Still, I miss at least an occasional sacrifice bunt, just to change up the strategy a little bit. You know how many sacrifices we’ve had? Zero.

But we’ve seen a lot of relief pitchers. Sometimes the bullpen games worked, and sometimes they didn’t, so I’m not convinced that this is going to become the wave of future postseasons. I also think the creative usage of pitching staffs will be more difficult to pull off in seven games in seven days for the LCS round because you can’t bullpen your way through seven games. Watch for a somewhat more conventional look to the next round.

What feels most different about watching games without fans in the stands this month?

Doolittle: Nothing. Not to be flip about it, but we got enough of a sampling during the regular season to get used to it. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman mentioned this when asked after the Braves’ clincher against Miami, about the fact that there will probably be a quarter-capacity crowd at Globe Life Field for the LCS. He said it will be an adjustment because the Braves have gotten used to no fans. But he added that the players play for the fans. Don’t want to throw Freddie under the bus.

During the season, I went to exactly one game in person, just to see what it was like. The weird thing about the fake noise is that it isn’t responsive. The crack of the bat doesn’t stir the immediate cheer or groan that we’re all accustomed to. The whole thing felt out of rhythm. Watching on television, it seems like they’ve done a good job of replicating those rhythms for viewers. My curiosity will be whether, all of a sudden, players find it strange to be playing in front of people, if only because it is a different rhythm.

More than anything, though, when you watch the passion and intensity of these games — and the games during the regular season and the NBA’s bubble-based playoff games — it just goes to show that so much of what hooks us on sports is generated by the competition itself. The pageantry and the spectacle are great, but even when the game is stripped of those things, the competition is able to stand on its own. That’s pretty cool.

Miller: The strangest thing was seeing, in the first round, how home teams’ fake-noise conductors absolutely refused to raise the volume unless the home team was batting. It would be the top of the ninth inning with the tying run on base in a postseason game, and the game would be … utterly silent. Also weird was the way the noise loop coming out of the Astros/A’s games had faintly distinguishable individual voices, so it sounded like the game was haunted by a family of ghosts. Very creepy.

I think it’s a huge loss — a necessary one in this time, to be sure, one that I greatly prefer to the alternative, but a huge loss. If you don’t see people reacting with emotion to what you just saw, you really do have a harder time feeling how you’re supposed to feel.

Schoenfield: I’ve been impressed by the emotion and intensity of the players, and the fact that pitchers have slowed down their time between pitches is a clear indicator that these games are being played like typical postseason games (very slowly). Still, I miss the fans. I miss the nervous energy that fans add to elevate the tension in postseason baseball. Even though watching the reactions of players on television makes it feel almost normal, it still seems like the games are missing that little added mental stress that makes October baseball so hard on the heart.

What’s the one October strategic decision you can’t stop thinking about?

Doolittle: Rick Renteria and his bullpen mismanagement against Oakland in the deciding game of the White Sox’s wild-card series. It’s like he saw Kevin Cash doing stuff on television and tried to copy it. That’s grossly unfair, but there never seemed to be rhyme or reason to why the White Sox were doing what they were doing. I still can’t wrap my head around it.

Miller: Games 2 and 3 of the wild-card round: Liam Hendriks, called in with a five-run lead to get six outs, ends up throwing 49 pitches to get five and seemingly blows any chance whatsoever of his being available the next day. Then, whoopsy-doo, there he was, closing out Game 3 of that series. The wildest thing is that Hendriks is part of the league’s best and deepest bullpen, yet he was the only reliever his manager trusted this month. That, to me, is postseason baseball in a nutshell.

Schoenfield: Piggybacking on Brad and Sam (again), it’s all about pitcher usage. Do you trust only your best guys, or should you put more faith in using the entire staff that got you here? I don’t know the answer because both ways have worked and both ways have backfired. It is interesting that the consensus view from managers seems to be, “I don’t really want to give the ball to my No. 4 or 5 starter,” even though it’s of course ridiculous to assume that starting those guys will lead to a loss.

Certainly, the most interesting decision was starting Tyler Glasnow on two days of rest in Game 5 of the Rays-Yankees series. It worked in one way: He didn’t allow a run in 2⅓ innings. But it also meant that Kevin Cash had to get 6⅔ innings out of his bullpen, and that’s asking a lot of even a good bullpen such as Tampa Bay’s.

What is the signature moment of this postseason so far?

Doolittle: Cody Bellinger robbing Fernando Tatis Jr. of a clutch homer was a spectacular play, no matter how you look at it or whom you root for. There is a lot to not like about the style of play in baseball right now. But there are things that happen in baseball, circa 2020, that are better than they have ever been. Bellinger encapsulated that with one play, and it didn’t hurt the iconic nature of the moment that it was on a ball struck by Tatis.

Miller: Freddie Freeman’s walk-off hit in the first game of the wild-card series. A scoreless tie that stretched into the 13th inning is the exact opposite of most of this postseason, but it also seemed totally fitting for this era: If nobody homered, it felt like nobody would score, and nobody homered. Plus, the Braves’ pitching — four shutouts in five games — has been the most extraordinary performance this month. That might be the last 13-inning game we see in the postseason for … ever if the league permanently implements the “runner on second” rule for all games next year.

Schoenfield: Mike Brosseau‘s eighth-inning home run off Aroldis Chapman to win Game 5 of the ALDS for the Rays — and send the Yankees home.

Who is the breakout star of this postseason?

Doolittle: There are some good candidates! Randy Arozarena, who I still can’t believe was traded by the Cardinals. Ian Anderson, who as much as anything seems bemused by the fact that major league hitters can’t figure him out. But I’m going with 31-year-old catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who, if you recall, was released by the Mets just last season. He has a 1.342 OPS at the plate this postseason, which is pretty good, and he has been batting cleanup in what might be baseball’s best lineup.

More than that, d’Arnaud has caught all five games as the Braves have put up a sub-1.00 playoff ERA as a staff. Even more than that, everyone associated with the Braves seems to go to great lengths to heap praise on him. Freddie Freeman even took a moment during his post-clincher media conference to stump for d’Arnaud’s Silver Slugger candidacy. It’s a late-career breakout, but better late than never, right?

Miller: The Yankees have a guy named Giancarlo Stanton. Before this, he was just kind of a fringe-y slap hitter; he managed only seven home runs the past two seasons combined. But this month, he really emerged as a power-hitting threat in that Yankees lineup: He hit six home runs, a couple of which flew so far that they had to get temperature checks before they boarded. I think this kid’s got a few more dingers in that bat.

Schoenfield: I have to go with Arozarena. He’s from Cuba and was asked about players he watched or emulated while growing up, and he mentioned several, including Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. Then he was asked who his favorite Cuban player is, and he answered, “Randy Arozarena.” This guy hit .344 in the minors last year and doesn’t strike out excessively. He has added some muscle to get stronger, and his power numbers spiked in a small sample in the regular season and now the postseason. The Cardinals are going to regret trading this guy.

Which player or team has disappointed you most this postseason?

Doolittle: The Brewers. And it’s not their fault, really, and they didn’t actually deserve to be a postseason team. Still, I would have loved to see how they might have tested the Dodgers in a best-of-three had Devin Williams and Corbin Burnes not been injured. Very disappointing.

Miller: The Astros. Too petty? OK, then Christian Yelich. He entered the year as perhaps the world’s best hitter. By the end of the Brewers’ (very short) postseason run, he might have been the 300th batter I would choose to send up with the game on the line.

Schoenfield: The Cubs. Being swept by a mediocre Marlins team was really the icing on the past couple of years, when the Kris Bryant/Kyle Schwarber/Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez core suddenly morphed from the Four Musketeers into the Four Stooges. None was productive in the regular season, and now all are free agents after 2021. What do the Cubs do in the offseason?

Based on what you’ve seen so far, what’s one prediction you would make for the rest of October?

Doolittle: The Dodgers-Astros rematch is going to be a doozy.* Although it’s not going to be in Houston, it will be in Texas, which is going to send baseball’s weirdest season out on a most discordant note. Still, somehow, that matchup will bring us back full circle to the way the baseball zeitgeist was in the old days — like, back in February.

(*I am aware that the Astros and Dodgers have to win four more games apiece to set up this World Series matchup.)

Miller: Dustin May will be on the mound for the last out of the year.

Schoenfield: I picked the Dodgers in March, I picked the Dodgers in July, and I’m still picking the Dodgers. Sam is right: With the World Series back to a 2-3-2 format with two off days, the Dodgers will need only four starters in the World Series, which means they can move May to the bullpen and solve their closer problem, as a shaky Kenley Jansen currently means extra doses of in-game Alka-Seltzer for Dodgers fans.


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