Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Jones: Can 2016 Rays beat heat of power playoff pitching?

There are a couple of really cool things about Major League Baseball's postseason.

One, of course, are the games themselves, full of drama and emotion. We get to witness out-of-nowhere stars (Mets' Daniel Murphy), heartbreak (those who live and die with the eternally cursed Cubs) and controversy (see: bat flip by Blue Jays' Jose Bautista).

But there also is something quite intriguing for fans of teams not included in the playoffs. They get to see the gap between their favorite team and the ones battling for baseball supremacy.

That brings us to Tampa Bay. If you're a fan of the Rays, what is it you notice most about this year's playoffs other than Joe Maddon wearing a blue hat that says "C'' instead of "TB''?

It's all about the pitching.

You need clutch hitting. You need the long ball. You need solid defense and smart baserunning, and a little luck goes a long way. But if you want to get to October and if you want to play well into October, you need pitching.

That's good news for the Rays, a team always blessed with an excess of major-league arms.

But not so fast.

If this postseason, particularly the success of the National League champion Mets, shows us anything, it's that baseball is becoming more and more about the power arms. That is, the pitchers who consistently throw in the upper 90s. The harder, the better. The more, the better.

And that might hint at bad news for the Rays, seeing as how Chris Archer is the only true elite power pitcher the Rays have at the moment.

Perhaps comparing the Rays to the Mets is unfair because we have rarely seen the type young power arms the Mets can throw out there day after day. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz all can break 95 on the radar gun with Syndergaard hitting 100 in these playoffs. Then toss in closer Jeurys Familia, who also throws high heat.

Few teams can run out so many hard throwers, yet these pitchers have shown that in the game's most critical moments, nothing beats rocking back and throwing a ball as hard as you can for a critical strikeout.

Not all recent World Series winners have had flame-throwers. The Giants won it all last year behind one of the greatest postseason individual pitching performances ever from Madison Bumgarner, whose fastball usually tops out around 93 mph.

However, not having a couple of power arms can spell trouble for teams thought to have great pitching.

The best example of all is the Atlanta Braves, who won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005. They did it with an elite pitching staff made up of three Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Yet, they won only one World Series title.

A lot of factors go into winning and losing a short series, but look at the makeup of those pitchers and how they fared in their postseason careers. Maddux and Glavine were not hard throwers. They were nibblers, who relied on guile and command and finesse. Maddux was 11-14 in the postseason, while Glavine was 14-16. Meantime, Smoltz was the lone power arm of the Braves' staff and he was 15-4 in the playoffs.

There's a school of thought that David Price's postseason woes (0-7 as a starter) are directly related to the fact that he is a power pitcher who no longer possesses an A-plus fastball. Perhaps a fastball pitcher who regularly throws around 94 mph (like Price) can succeed in the regular season against mediocre lineups, but not so much in the postseason against good teams with their top lineups dialed in each pitch.

Now let's look at the Rays.

Archer has a giddy-up fastball that can top 95 and his 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings was sixth in the majors in 2015. But the rest of the staff doesn't reach those kind of power numbers. Matt Moore no longer throws in the high 90s. He's more of a 93-94 mph pitcher. Same with Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly, a crafty pitcher who is more like a 90-mph thrower. Eventually, Alex Cobb will return to the rotation, but he, too, is a low 90s pitcher. Maybe prospect Blake Snell can add a power arm to the Rays' rotation.

The trend in baseball these days is moving to young guns who break radar guns. That not only applies to starting pitchers, but middle relievers and closers.

Not all that long ago, the majors featured a handful of pitchers who could throw 98 mph. Now, it seems, there's something wrong if you don't have two or three guys coming out of your bullpen who can sling it that fast.

Does this mean the Rays are doomed to fail because their major-league roster doesn't have those types of pitchers?

Of course not. Defense, offense, scouting still count for something. Some teams, such as this year's Cubs, prove that teams can occasionally out-slug their pitching deficiencies. Then again, in the one of the biggest series the Cubs played in the past 100 years, they were swept by the Mets.

Swept because their mediocre pitching that featured too many low 90s fastballs couldn't stop Mets hitting, and New York's elite fastball pitching shut down Chicago's young hitters.

What does that say? It's all about the pitching.

Remember that as you watch the upcoming World Series while thinking about next April 4 when the Rays open the 2016 season.

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