In the 1990s and early 2000s, the teams which were thought to have a clear advantage were the teams that learned to take a lot of pitches, learned to only swing at the pitches they were looking for and, if they never got those nice fat pitches, were quite happy to take their walks. Take-and-Rake baseball was the order of the day and teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Athletics all pulled the rest of baseball into a “Moneyball”-driven era in which plate discipline ruled.
Baseball strategy is a cyclical thing, of course, and in recent years teams have found other means of finding an edge. As much of the league filled its rosters with big, lumbering pitch-taking sluggers, new inefficiencies were created, giving way to a period in which clubs with deep pitching staffs, highly-specialized bullpens and good defense had an advantage. A brief era in which run scoring plummeted to the lowest level seen since the 1980s ensued and putting the ball in play and winning close games was seen as the key to advancing in the playoffs. The Kansas City Royals and their famous Relentlessness of 2014-15 was considered by many to be a repudiation of plate discipline and OBP uber alles, and were considered a new model of winning team. Last winter multiple clubs were said to be trying to do what they do in terms of collecting hitters who put wood on the ball and ran like mad and collecting an array of top relievers to shorten games.
Last night’s Game 4 between the Cubs and the Giants was evidence, however, that claiming any given strategy passe and another ascendent is kind of a sucker’s game. Better players win games and better players can do it in any number of ways, regardless of the fashionability of the strategies employed. The ninth inning was a microcosm of that.
Kris Bryant worked himself into a 2-1 count and then led off the ninth with a single. Then Javier Lopez came on to face Anthony Rizzo. Lopez is a lefty-killer, and a prime example of the sort of bullpen specialization people talk about so much. Rizzo worked a six-pitch walk off of him, steadfastly refusing to chase four pitches which were not in his sweet spot. Then came Sergio Romo to face Ben Zobrist who, like Rizzo, took four pitches that were off the outside corner and got himself into a 3-1 count before hitting a double which plated the Cubs’ third run. By this point the Cubs had seen 15 pitches from Giants pitchers. Only five of them were strikes and two of those were smacked hard. If you squinted, you might’ve thought that the Cubs were the 2001 Yankees or something. The game unraveled for the Giants after that. Put enough men on base and a lot of those men are going to score.
The Giants’ downfall was, quite obviously, their historically unreliable bullpen. If you’re not going to bash your opponents into submission by hitting a lot of bombs, and the Giants didn’t this year, you had at least better be able to win the close games which inevitably ensue. That sort of an approach worked just fine for the Royals, but not having Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera — or anything close to them — makes that a lot harder. Meanwhile the Cubs, at least in the ninth inning were taking pitches they didn’t like and squaring up solidly once they got the pitch they were looking for, even if that’s not something you hear a lot about in the baseball press these days.
The next time you hear someone saying that there’s a clearly ascendant strategy in baseball or arguing that doing it the way this team or that team does it is necessary, pay them no mind. You can’t win with the latest state-of-the-art strategies if you don’t have players who can execute them well. And you can win with strategies some claim to be out of date as long as you have great baseball players. The Giants didn’t have the personnel to be the 2015 Royals. The Cubs have players who can do basically everything. It’s really that simple.