Why can some great pitchersperform when it counts most and others can’t?
It’s an age-old question. We saw it on display once again with Madison Bumgarner in his brilliant 3-0 shutout over the Mets in the National League wild-card game.
Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza sees it this way: “Just seems [Bumgarner] has a real confidence in the ability to take more off of his pitches than trying to put more on, possibly flattening out his stuff. He’s got great finish and command of the strike zone and never panics. I don’t know what goes on in a guy’s head, but you have to harness adrenaline and use it to your advantage.”
Former Orioles and Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace, who has worked with the good, the bad, and the ugly, had no answer for why one great pitcher performs well in the playoffs and another doesn’t.
“It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the years,” Wallace said. “We had Curt [Schilling] in Boston and he just excelled when the pressure was at its height. He wanted to pitch. He wanted the ball. Same with Pedro [Martinez]. We’re talking about great pitchers like [Clayton] Kershaw and [David] Price who have struggled in those situations. I don’t get it, because they’re great pitchers.”
Roger Clemens had problems in the playoffs early in his career but seemed to turn it around later. Dave Stewart was 8-0 with a 1.80 ERA in matchups against Clemens. Overall, Stewart was 10-6 with a 2.77 ERA in 22 postseason games, 8-0 with a 2.03 ERA in the ALCS but just 2-4 with a 3.32 ERA in the World Series.
Schilling was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 postseason starts. He was 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA in seven World Series starts, winning two championships.
“I could always exhale when no one else could breathe,” said Schilling. “October is a different season. You either use your adrenaline or it scares you into tightness or you try to act like it’s no different when everyone knows it is.”
Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said he’s been trying to figure out for a while why some pitchers perform better in the postseason.
“If I knew, I’d be running for president,” Maddux said. “[Bumgarner] has had a heck of a run in the postseason. He seems comfortable in the big moment. He’s probably a good Russian roulette player.”
Hall of Famer Goose Gossage broke it down to keeping the same mental approach in the postseason.
“A guy like Bumgarner is a no-BS kind of guy,” Gossage said. “He separates the BS from the things he has to do. It’s a programming of your brain. Guys have a fear of failure. They’re afraid to go out there and screw up. You’re going to screw up once in a while. You need that don’t-give-a-damn feeling. You can’t worry about the outcome of the game.
“It’s this simple: You think good things and good things happen. You’ve got to learn how to take this game in the postseason just like it is in the regular season. You can’t get outside your thinking. When I first joined the Yankees it was a disaster and it was the ugliest part of my career. I put too much pressure on myself. I reached rock bottom with the Yankees. [Thurman] Munson came up to me and said, ‘How are you going to lose this one?’ I said, ‘Get your ass back there and we’ll find out.’ ”
In a one-game playoff in 1978, Gossage beat the pressure and the Red Sox.
“After 2⅓ innings, two guys on base, ninth inning, [Carl Yastrzemski] is up,” said Gossage. “I went to bed the night before and all I could think of was facing Yaz in this situation. When Yaz came to the plate, well, I had a chance to talk to myself. I knew that 14-game deficit we had to overcome was all my fault. That night I had been in bed thinking, ‘Why am I so nervous?’ I realized that I had played since I was 8 years old for the love of the game. So I said to myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ For the first time I relaxed. I got Yaz to pop up. I threw it low in the zone. It was the hardest pitch I’d thrown. Munson said, ‘What took you so damn long?’ ”
The bottom line, Gossage said, is “it’s between the ears. You have to find a way to have fun. That’s easier said than done, but you have to find a way to release that pressure.”
Rick Peterson, one of the great pitching gurus in the game and the Orioles’ organizational pitching coordinator, said of Bumgarner, “His mind is just in a different place than anyone else. He executes the game plan as well as anyone. He doesn’t get into a negative past, though he doesn’t have that anyway, and he lives in the moment. The focus he has is unbelievable. He pitches better in the postseason than the regular season. He sees it as an opportunity rather than a detriment. It’s a great study of the mind and how it can affect performance.”
Peterson added, “I can remember talking to Tom Glavine about it. And his first couple of postseason starts weren’t that good and then it flipped around. He placed the proper emphasis on the postseason.”
About time Ng got a GM job
Some team has got to make Kim Ng baseball’s first female general manager, don’t they? The latest possibility are the Diamondbacks, who fired GM Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale, and likely will part ways with chief baseball officer Tony La Russa.
Ng, 47, has interviewed for many jobs. She had a long stint as assistant GM with the Yankees and recently has worked for Major League Baseball in the operations department. She is incredibly qualified to be a GM — more so than some of her younger counterparts who have been hired in recent years — and this time she might be given a legitimate shot.
The Diamondbacks are also considering their assistant GM, Bryan Minniti, and farm director, Mike Bell. Also in the mix is another MLB employee, Peter Woodfork, who has served as an assistant GM in Boston and Arizona in the past. And Brewers scouting director Ray Montgomery, who once worked for the Diamondbacks and is responsible for bringing many of the young players in that organization to Arizona, would also be a good fit.
Diamondbacks ownership didn’t give La Russa and Stewart much time to turn things around, but there were missteps, such as the Shelby Miller deal, in which the Diamondbacks gave up a lot. Miller had a horrible season but is not a lost cause.
Since the great run of former GM Joe Garagiola Jr. (who would be a good candidate for a return), the Diamondbacks have gone through a series of GMs, including Josh Byrnes (2005-10), Jerry Dipoto (2010), Kevin Towers (2010-14), and Stewart (2014-16).
Garagiola now works for MLB handing down discipline for various violations, and also oversees ballparks. Dipoto had a very good first year with the Mariners, who just missed the playoffs. Byrnes has joined the Dodgers’ ample roster of front office executives. And Towers is now a special assistant to the GM for the Reds.
Apropos of nothing
1. Commissioner Rob Manfred painted a positive picture of the collective bargaining talks and even hinted both sides wanted something done shortly after the World Series. But one major league baseball executive who requested anonymity said there were a few issues that weren’t going as swimmingly as being depicted. When Manfred was asked whether there was anything big that could come out of the talks, he mentioned that both sides were generally satisfied with the current agreement and that major changes didn’t seem to be necessary.
2. I wonder if Xander Bogaerts will wind up a third baseman after all. He didn’t have a good year at shortstop according to defensive metrics, with a minus-0.1 WAR and minus-10 runs saved. It didn’t look that bad, but if you go by the numbers it wasn’t great. The one thing about defensive metrics is they tend to change from year to year. We’ve seen plenty of examples, including Dustin Pedroia. His defensive metrics weren’t good in 2015, but they were spectacular in 2016.
3. Our friend Rick Swanson, an adviser to Larry Lucchino, makes a great point about checked swings. There’s no rule focused on them, so why don’t we come up with one? “A few years ago I sat with the commissioner of Japan and his top assistant,” said Swanson. “The commissioner fell asleep, but his assistant told me that Japan’s rule for a checked swing is based on bat angle. If the umpire thinks the ball would go fair, then it’s called a strike. If the umpire thought the ball would go foul, they call it a ball.” There should be some clarification of checked swings. You watch replays and what’s called a checked swing should be a swing, and vice versa.
4. Buck Showalter did the best job of any manager in the regular season. In my opinion, he should be AL Manager of the Year, though I suspect Terry Francona will get it even though he had a far superior starting rotation and won an inferior division. Showalter stuck to his philosophy to a fault about when to bring in his closer. He just wouldn’t do it in a tie game, and for that he lost his chance to advance to the Division Series and left himself open to criticism that likely will stay with him throughout his career.
5. One of the big guessing games involves how much the luxury tax threshold will increase with the new collective bargaining agreement. At $189 million now, there are reasonable estimates that it will rise to more than $200 million, but not in excess of that figure. That would allow for more big free agent signings, though not likely in this current market.
6. One of the great scouts of all time, and one of baseball’s all-time gems, Tommy “T-Bone” Giordano, is still going strong with the Braves and is turning 91 on Sunday.
Updates on nine
1. Ellis Burks, special assistant, Rockies — Burks should be considered for the managerial opening in Colorado, or elsewhere. He has been working with the major league team for most of the season. “I would love the opportunity to manage,” Burks said from his suburban Cleveland home. “I want to get into that mix of people being considered. I’d love to get an interview just to be able to share my ideas on managing and get them out there. I feel I’m ready for it. It’s just a matter of opportunity now. I hope I’m considered.” Rockies Triple A manager Glenallen Hill, former Padres manager Bud Black, and Rockies third base coach Stu Cole and first base coach Eric Young are names that have been speculated in the media.
2. Dave Wallace, former pitching coach, Orioles — Big loss for the Orioles, as Wallace kept that pitching staff together, working miracles at times. He just couldn’t get into Buck Showalter’s head when it came to not using Zach Britton in the wild-card game. Wallace doesn’t want the daily grind of being a pitching coach at 69, but he would like to remain in the organization in some way. Wallace already has received inquiries from other teams who would like to hire him in some capacity. Wallace endorsed bullpen coach Dom Chiti as a replacement. The organizational pitching coordinator is Rick Peterson, who is brilliant, but some in the organization are not sure he’d be compatible with Showalter.
3. Jacob Gonzalez and Peyton Glavine — Gonzalez, the son of Luis Gonzalez, is an 18-year-old senior at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. Glavine, the 17-year-old son of Tom Glavine, lives in Alpharetta, Ga., and will attend Auburn as a (what else?) lefthanded pitcher. Gonzalez, who is 6 feet 4 inches and 215 pounds, is a corner player with immense power, while Glavine’s velocity keeps ratcheting up. The offspring of two great ex-players will be interesting to watch as they develop.
4. Walt Weiss, former manager, Rockies — Weiss couldn’t take any more front office interference and the constant emphasis on analytics. It wasn’t baseball anymore for Weiss. It became a clash of ideas with general manager Jeff Bridich, and Weiss had enough.
5. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Red Sox — Sandoval didn’t make it onto the roster for the Division Series even though his shoulder rehab was ahead of schedule. The Red Sox do expect him to compete for the third base job in spring training with Travis Shaw. The Red Sox also will have a DH vacancy, but they’re expected to fill that from the outside, with Edwin Encarnacion the leading candidate. There are rumblings in Toronto that the Blue Jays may make Encarnacion an offer given that he’s been so productive.
6. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays — It seems that Bautista’s time in Toronto is over, unless he accepts a qualifying offer of $16.7 million. There’s also no guarantee that the Blue Jays will offer that, because Bautista just might accept it. Bautista has clearly cost himself millions of dollars as a result of an injury-filled campaign, though he could still be a force in the postseason. I’ve indicated before that he seems like a good fit for the Orioles, as Dan Duquette likes rebounding sluggers.
7. Brad Ausmus, manager, Tigers — Ausmus’s option was picked up after GM Al Avila decided that the Tigers not making the playoffs was not a reflection on Ausmus. Like his predecessor, Dave Dombrowski, Avila is a hands-on GM who traveled with the team and saw Ausmus’s performance and how he solved problems. Dombrowski did the same in his time with Jim Leyland and Ausmus, and also traveled with the Red Sox and saw how John Farrell operated, which is why he was fully behind Farrell.
8. Rick Renteria, manager, White Sox — It was good to see Renteria get a managing job again after he was fired by Theo Epstein with the Cubs when Joe Maddon became available. Renteria did receive what was believed to be a $1 million parting gift from the Cubs, on top of his salary owed, to basically not complain about being fired. He wound up being Robin Ventura’s bench coach, until Ventura and the White Sox mutually decided to part ways. Renteria actually did a good job with the Cubs. He had been hired to help work with the young Latin players, which he did well.
9. Matt Holliday, OF, Cardinals — There’s always been that notion that the Cardinals know when it’s time to say goodbye. They reached that place with Holliday and announced they would not be picking up his $17 million option and would buy him out for $1 million. Holliday now becomes an intriguing player on the market who won’t be as costly as other righthanded power hitters such as Encarnacion.
From the Bill Chuck files: “The average AL team had 23 sacrifice bunts, but the Red Sox had only eight.” . . . Also, “The Indians and Braves were the only two teams in baseball without a grand slam.” . . . Happy birthday, Jim Tatum (49).
All or nothing
For the ninth straight year the league-wide strikeout rate went up, this season to an all-time high of 8.02 per game. But when batters made contact, look out: A record 12 teams hit 200 or more homers, led by the Orioles’ 253, and the 5,587 total homers was second all time to the 5,693 hit in 2000.