What does it take to win the World Series? The traditional wisdom says that October demands a dominant team with one or two aces who can win close games at a time when runs are scarcer than in the regular season.
Forget tradition. These days, that kind of postseason thinking is about as current as a typewriter or a pay phone. Welcome to the new October.
Your next world champion would do well to behold the last one, the 2011 Cardinals, a 90-win team without so much as a 15-game winner, not as an aberration but as a model of how to exploit the new postseason. The extra rounds of playoffs—a new fourth layer this year will have two wild-card teams in each league squaring off in knockout games on Friday—have created a tournament flavor in which the hot team trumps the better team. In the 16 full seasons under the wild-card format, teams with 92 or fewer wins have won the World Series nine times—just three fewer times than in the first 90 years of postseason play (not counting shortened seasons).
The rules of engagement have changed so much that last year there were more runs on a per-game basis in the postseason than in the regular season. Offense wins in October? What in the names of Koufax and Drysdale is going on here? "Our key numbers are on-base percentage and [hitting with] runners in scoring position," says Brian Sabean, general manager of the Giants, a team well equipped for the new October. "Our two best hitters, [Marco] Scutaro and [Buster] Posey, are hard to strike out. They are good two-strike hitters and use the whole field. That sets the tone for everybody else in our lineup."
While steroid testing with penalties seems to be the default answer to every change in baseball since the drug-screening era began in 2004, the biggest change in how the game is played is the proliferation of strikeouts. The K frequency has risen for seven consecutive years, setting new alltime highs in the last six (this year's rate through Sunday was 7.6 per team per nine innings, up from 7.1 in 2011) and producing an overall increase of 19% since 2005. So plentiful are strikeouts that the average relief pitcher strikes out nearly a batter per inning (8.4 per nine). That's a function of teams steering power arms to bullpen duty and managers using a parade of specialized relievers to turn the last third of ballgames into matchup-fests that create stark platoon advantages.
It's not just flamethrowing relievers and cagey LOOGYs, though—all pitchers have become much more adept at putting hitters away. Twenty years ago, 34.1% of plate appearances in which a hitter had two strikes ended in a strikeout. This season that figure is 39.8%, the highest since such stats were first tracked, in 1988.
The formula for modern postseason success begins with countering the proliferation of strikeouts. A team that can do so is a team with hitters who can put the ball in play. A team that puts the ball in play has a better chance of driving runners in from scoring position. A team that hits with runners in scoring position is a great rally team. And great rally teams win in the new October.
The Cardinals won the World Series last year because they would not let Rangers pitchers get strike three in their epic, come-from-behind Game 6 win. David Freese, the eventual Series MVP, and Lance Berkman each stroked a game-tying hit when a third strike would have given Texas its first world championship—Freese hit a 1--2 pitch for a game-tying triple with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Berkman tied things again with a single on a 2--2 pitch with two outs in the 10th. (Freese won the game in the 11th with a home run on a full count.) Texas pitchers had 24 two-strike counts in Game 6 but managed to get the third strike only six times. St. Louis scored six of its 10 runs in that game on two-strike counts, including its last five.
"When putting a roster together, we're always looking for balance," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says. "We want some players who hit for power, for extra bases, and we always like guys that get on base. What you're trying to avoid is somebody who strikes out a lot and is not a run producer. With [hitting coach] Mark McGwire, his philosophy is to grind out at bats. You need to be a disciplined hitter: to be aggressive when you need to be but not be afraid to hit with two strikes."
The 2011 Cardinals and Rangers each were the hardest team in their league to strike out and were the best at hitting with runners in scoring position. That combination has loosely defined recent champions in the Age of the Strikeout. The past six teams to reach the World Series have ranked first, first, fifth, fourth, second and eighth in their leagues in fewest strikeouts. That bodes poorly for such strikeout-prone postseason hopefuls this year as Oakland (14th in the AL), Baltimore (12th), Washington (14th in the NL), Atlanta (13th) and Cincinnati (11th).