Can so-so pitching rise above its station in the playoffs? Yes. Since 2005, seven World Series champions had ERAs ranking outside that season’s top 10. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but postseasons are weird.
We in Atlanta bore witness to the classic case of good pitching > good hitting. The 1995 Braves finished below the MLB average in runs, hits, on-base percentage and OPS. Their lone Silver Slugger winner was Tom Glavine, a pitcher. They hit .250 as a team, third-worst among 28 clubs.
Cleveland led the majors in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, OPS and homers. Albert Belle finished a close second in MVP voting. He and Manny Ramirez won Silver Sluggers. Those two were 1995 All-Stars. So were Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga. Jim Thome and Eddie Murray are Hall of Famers. It was among the most frightening lineups ever.
The Braves beat Cleveland 4-2 in the World Series. The mighty hitters who batted .291 over the regular season hit .179 in the Fall Classic. In Cleveland’s four losses, it managed seven runs. In the climactic Game 6, it mustered one hit – Tony Pena’s sixth-inning single off Glavine.
So we ask: If those Braves could do that to Cleveland, who’s to say some opponent couldn’t do as much to these bashing Braves, their .501 slugging percentage and 307 homers notwithstanding?
We’ve just seen what we already knew: Runs come harder in postseason. Tuesday saw eight playoff teams score 22 runs – an average of 2.8 per club. Over the regular season, teams averaged 4.6 per game. Pitching staffs contract in October. There’s no need for a fifth, and sometimes a fourth, starter. Off-days allow relievers to work often. In 2021, Tyler Matzek appeared in 13 of 16 postseason games. (And was immense.)
But this October/November might be different. The 1995 World Series wasn’t just good trumping good. It was GREAT pitching stopping GREAT hitting. Of the six Series games, the Braves deployed a Hall of Fame starter in five. We recall Glavine’s eight innings of one-hit ball in the clincher. We might have forgotten that Greg Maddux threw a two-hit complete game in the opener.
Who has such pitching today? The MLB-leading ERA in 2021 was 3.01 by the Dodgers. In 2022, it was 2.80, also by L.A. The leading ERA this season was Milwaukee’s 3.71. The banning of shifts has had an effect. Run prevention became more problematic for every club. The always-stingy Dodgers had an ERA of 4.06, their worst since 2007.
The teams with the second- and third-best ERAs – San Diego and Seattle – missed the playoffs. The Phillies and Dodgers, seen as the biggest threats to the Braves in the National League bracket, were 12th and 13th in ERA. L.A. is running low on starters. Beyond Zach Wheeler, Philadelphia’s rotation is nothing special.
Yes, the Braves have issues. Max Fried is dealing with a blister. Charlie Morton has a sore finger and will miss the NLDS. Bryce Elder’s second-half ERA was 5.11. Spencer Strider’s September ERA was 5.60. In last season’s LDS, the Braves fell behind so early that their bullpen wasn’t a factor.
The belief is that only one team can outpitch the Braves enough to beat them. That’s Milwaukee, which has four excellent starters and splendid closer. But the Braves can’t face the Brewers in a best-of-five, which can – as seen last year with Philly – get scary in a hurry. And if Arizona wins one of the next two games, Milwaukee will be gone by Friday.
The Braves’ ERA gives me pause. Still, it didn’t blow up until September – through Aug. 31, it was a tidy 3.81 – and some pitchers who worked the final weeks won’t be seen again soon. With the absences of Fried and Kyle Wright, this team never found a fifth starter. Sixteen different pitchers started a game in 2023; the total in 2022 was 12.
In a Q&A soon to appear on this site, general manager Alex Anthopoulos says of the playoffs, “At the end of the day, you have to pitch.” I believe the Braves can and will pitch better in October. If they do, they’ll win. If they don’t, they won’t.