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How I learned to stop worrying and love modern playoff baseball

Relief pitchers recorded 44 of the 51 outs in last night’s Wild Card game. The starting pitcher of the winning team recorded one of them. In all there were eighteen strikeouts, nine walks and five homers allowed, collectively, by eleven pitchers. The game, which did not include a bottom-of-the-ninth, took three hours and fifty-one minutes. Welcome to playoff baseball.

This is maybe the third or fourth year of the quick hooks/long bombs playoff era, and I’m torn about how to think of it all.

On the one hand, it assaults my aesthetic preferences. I’m a pitching guy who has always perceived the game first and foremost through the feats of starting pitchers. It’s a dispositional thing, mostly. My favorite players growing up were usually starters who, rightly or wrongly, I imagined as Davids facing nine Goliaths. I have always appreciated offensive heroics — Kirk Gibson’s homer off of Dennis Eckersley is one of my greatest baseball memories — but my ideal baseball game has always been one in which the drama and narrative comes by virtue of a pitcher’s duel, with the tension building, inning-over-inning, until one of them breaks. Quickly-moving games in which aces, be they well-established or named as such by brevet promotion, work something close to magic as the innings build.

On the other hand, just because a game doesn’t conform to one’s preferences does not mean there isn’t greatness and drama to be found. While the pitching changes themselves — and breaks in the action occasioned by them — are buzzkills, how can you not appreciate the feat of a guy like the Yankees’ David Robertson being pressed into service early and used beyond his normal tolerances? A one-inning, eighth or ninth inning reliever came in in the middle of the third inning and tossed twice as many pitches as he usually does. It was not Jack Morris or Tom Glavine going three times through the lineup, but it was gutsy and it was excellent work and if you can’t appreciate that you’re just being a curmudgeon.

In light of all of that, I’m inclined to hold my complaints and just do my best to go with it.

This is what playoff baseball is now. It got this way by virtue of a lot of logical decisions. Decisions which, in a vacuum, make sense but which collectively have created a product that is somewhat (though, as time goes on, less-and-less) foreign and not necessarily to my liking. I still don’t know how to process these sorts of games as aesthetic experiences, but the guys on the field aren’t there to validate my aesthetic preferences. They’re there to win and they’ll do it whatever way they can. The guys back in the 1980s weren’t trying to deliver a pleasing aesthetic product to me either, after all. They were trying to win however they could. I just came to like what they were doing because that was what I grew up with.

I’ll watch as many playoff games as I physically can because that’s what I like and that’s what I do. I will, no doubt, sigh heavily as games drag on and as managers walk out to make pitching change after pitching change, turning the most important games of the year into bullpen games, the likes of which we’d only see in emergencies and when outcomes were relatively meaningless in the regular season. I’ll take to Twitter and moan about it sometimes too, lamenting that, in October, the game is transformed into something very different from what it is between April and September. I’m old and that’s what old people do.

But I’m going to try to do as little of that as possible. And even if I can’t stifle it too much, I’m not going to let my prejudices about how baseball games are most pleasingly mounted obscure the greatness that still occurs in every single one.

A critical strikeout by a relief ace in a tense situation is just as fantastic if it happens in the fourth inning as it would be in the ninth. A fantastic defensive play is still a fantastic defensive play if happens at 9:30PM or close to midnight. A homer is still a homer no matter if it’s the only one in the game or the sixth. Homers are cool. Baseball games can take the form of any number of narratives, but moments are still moments. If you fail to acknowledge them simply because they aren’t delivered in a manner to which you’re accustomed, it’s your loss. Don’t miss or denigrate the moments because you don’t like how they came to be.

And hey, as I watch all of these games, I’ll likely get at least one classic starting pitching performance somewhere along the way. It’ll be that more special to me when it comes.