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Blue Jays’ ability to grind at-bats crucial to ALDS sweep over the Rangers

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During the regular season, no team saw more pitches per plate appearance than the Blue Jays at 4.03. The major league average was 3.87. Over a full season, about 6,200 plate appearances, the difference between the Blue Jays and the league average amounts to nearly 1,000 pitches. As a result, not only did the Blue Jays lead the American League in walks (632) and rank third in on-base percentage, (.330), the Jays’ pitch selection helped them blast the third-most homers (221).

Blue Jays batters’ ability to grind at-bats was crucial to their 3-0 series sweep over the Rangers in the ALDS. Let’s start with Game 1.

Against starter Cole Hamels, who ended up lasting only 4 1/3 innings, Jays batters saw six or more pitches in an at-bat four times, raising Hamels’ total pitch count to 82 before he departed. Those four plate appearances resulted in a walk, a strikeout, an RBI single, and a three-run triple. They weren’t able to work the count much against Alex Claudio, who relieved Hamels, so the lefty wound up working 3 2/3 scoreless innings as a result. But Jose Bautista‘s three-run homer against lefty reliever Jake Diekman in the ninth that put the game away? That was the result of a six-pitch at-bat.

Let’s go to Game 2. Bautista worked a six-pitch at-bat against starter Yu Darvish that ultimately yielded a leadoff walk. He’d score shortly thereafter on a Troy Tulowitzki home run. Darvish would only last five innings, throwing a total of 84. That’s an average of 17 pitches per inning. Not exactly efficient. Darvish threw 23 pitches in the fateful fifth inning that bolstered the Jays’ lead from 2-1 to 5-1.

In Game 3, Ezequiel Carrera led things off by working a single on the sixth pitch he saw against starter Colby Lewis. Carrera would end up scoring and the Jays would force 23 pitches out of Lewis in the first frame. In the third, Carrera took five more pitches from Lewis and worked another single. Josh Donaldson followed up with a ground-rule double, chasing Lewis and forcing manager Jeff Banister to bring in reliever Tony Barnette. Edwin Encarnacion saw five pitches with the fifth pitch resulting in an RBI single.

Let’s flash forward to the bottom of the 10th inning, with the Jays and Rangers tied up at six apiece. Matt Bush was still on the mound for his third inning of relief. Donaldson ripped a double to right-center on the second pitch. Bush then intentionally walked Encarnacion to set up a double play. Bautista stepped to the plate and fell behind 1-2. In a 1-2 count against a pitcher who throws in the high 90’s like Bush does, it would be hard to fault a hitter for cheating by starting his swing early. Bautista, though, did not, taking two consecutive balls to work the count full. He’d ultimately strike out on the sixth pitch, Bush’s 34th of his stint. Bush threw 30-plus pitches only twice during the regular season: 33 against the Astros on August 7, and 31 against the Mariners on August 30.

Martin, in what would become the final at-bat of the game, saw eight pitches from Bush. Like Bautista, he fell behind 1-2, then took two fastballs to work the count full. He fouled off two more fastballs before putting the eighth pitch in play. It should have been an inning-ending double play, but Rougned Odor made a throw wide of first base, allowing Donaldson to score on a heads-up base running play.

Let’s count it up: Jays batters saw 156 pitches in Game 1, 130 in Game 2, and 151 in Game 3. That’s a lot of pitches! Beyond extending an at-bat, allowing more opportunities for the pitcher to make a mistake, racking up the opposing starters pitch count can force him out of the game early. As a result, more strain is placed on the bullpen. Racking up the relievers’ pitch counts can mean they’re unavailable the next day or at the very least can’t be used for very long.

While the Blue Jays’ offense isn’t as good as it was last year, they still may be among the most frustrating for opposing teams to face. If you’re going to get them out, you’re going to break a sweat doing it. The Indians or Red Sox can’t be thrilled at the prospect of having to face them in the ALCS.

Nationals succeeded by spending money

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Throughout the playoffs, the Nationals have been cast as plucky underdogs fighting and scrapping their way into the World Series. It’s somewhat true: the Nats overcame a dreadful start to the regular season after losing their star outfielder in Bryce Harper, and were heavy underdogs in the NLDS against the Dodgers, who won 13 more games. But the Nationals are not David in a David vs. Goliath story. They’re closer to Goliath because they have flexed their payroll muscle to fill the roster with talented players.

The Nationals didn’t come close to matching the 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies wound up agreeing to with Harper, instead offering a 10-year, $300 million deal of which about $100 million was deferred. Losing Harper has somewhat defined their 2019. But they did sign starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and they’re paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg $38.33 million and $37.4 million, respectively. As we saw in the NLCS, it was the starting rotation that carried them into the World Series.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will not win the award again this year most likely, but he once again ranked among the game’s best pitchers. During the regular season, he posted a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts across 172 1/3 innings. Strasburg led the league in wins with 18 and innings with 209 while authoring a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts. Corbin continued to impress with a 3.25 ERA and 328 strikeouts in 202 innings. As a unit, the Nationals’ 3.53 ERA from starting pitchers ranked second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. Sounds about right for a rotation collectively earning about $100 million.

We — the royal we — have been quick to point out when an uncommon strategy works, like the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilding strategies before they came in vogue or the Rays’ use of the “opener.” It’s only fair to point out that a time-tested strategy, spending money on good baseball players, also works. The Nationals’ current payroll of about $204.5 million is third-highest in baseball, according to USA TODAY.

In September, the Nationals’ NL East rival Phillies were reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal to have curtailed efforts to compete for a Wild Card because of a lack of certainty. The front office didn’t want to invest significant resources into grabbing a lowly Wild Card only to have to match up with the behemoth Dodgers in the NLDS. But that’s exactly what the Nationals did. The Nationals also swept the slumping Phillies in a five-game series September 23-26.

The Phillies aren’t alone. We’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams have become loath to invest in free agents, particularly ones 30 and older. Even Scherzer took notice. Asked about the Nationals’ collective age, Scherzer said via The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, “It just seems everybody wants younger and younger players. And everybody wants to forget about all the old guys. We see it in free agency, we’re not dumb. And the fact (is) we’re the oldest team and we won the National League.”

Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson will highlight the upcoming free agent class. They could be joined by Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez if they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts. In the cases of Cole and Rendon, at least two-thirds of the league should be actively pursuing them but if the past few years are any indication, the actual interest will be muted and they won’t end up signing until after the new year. Front offices have continued to blindly recite the phrase “aging curve” while pointing at the Rays in an effort to scale back payroll. The Nationals, meanwhile, are putting the “money” back in Moneyball and they might win a championship because of it.