CLEVELAND — Playoff baseball today is to playoff baseball just three years ago as the iPhone is to a rotary phone. Among the early adopters, no team has mastered the modern game better than the New York Yankees.
Those traditionally quaint notions of playing small ball, bunting, hitting behind runners, stringing hits together and counting on starters to pitch deep into a postseason game are antiquated. Ever since a hotter, tighter version of the baseball appeared in the second half of the 2015 season, what wins now are home runs (a record number of which were hit this year) and relievers (who pitched a record number of innings with a record number of strikeouts).
The Yankees, who led the world in home runs and built the second-toughest bullpen to hit all-time, have figured out this equation. They displayed their firm grasp of the modern game yet again Wednesday night with a 5–2 win over Cleveland in ALDS Game 5, clinching a spot in the championship series against Houston.
Shortstop Didi Gregorius, who was such a lousy hitter when he arrived in New York in 2015 that he needed remedial hitting lessons, smashed two homers off tarnished Indians ace Corey Kluber to account for a 3–0 lead, and that was that. No need for rallies. Two swings were enough to win because relievers David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman faced 14 hitters while allowing no hits and only one ball to even leave the infield.
“Once I saw this team had like four closers,” said designated hitter Matt Holliday, “and really five with the emergence of Chad Green, I knew this was a team that can win the World Series.”
The poor, tortured Indians lost their sixth straight potential clincher, and 18th such game in their past 22 tries, starting with Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. On to a 70th year trying to win their next World Series. They went home having failed to hit a home run in Games 3 and 5 in their latest three-game postseason losing streak. Over the past two postseasons, teams are 6–30 when they don’t hit a home run, an 83% consignment to defeat.
But another force is at work that makes this Yankees team so dangerous. It is a Yankees team unlike any other, which was evident before the game, when facing their fourth elimination game in nine days they exhibited all the tension of a fraternity house on a Saturday night. Some players played video games. Some played arcade games stocked in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field. Gregorius was drawing on his spikes with a marker, turning them just the right shades of blue and gray that he wanted. The clubhouse stereo, often manned by Aaron Judge, cranked out, as Gregorius said, “all kinds of music,” including old school disco such as the Bee Gees. And guys like reliever Tommy Kahnle acted like, well, Tommy Kahnle.
“Tommy and a few other guys are live wires and were having a good time,” Holliday said. “The vibe here is loose because of all the young guys. I heard things about this team before I got here, about how the Yankees are buttoned-up. But this team is loose. I’ve found the best combination to have is a mix of veterans and young guys. That’s what we have. These young guys have never won before. They’re just having a good time and being themselves.”
Said Gregorius, “Oh, man, what was it like in here before the game? Put it this way: if you saw it you wouldn’t believe it.”
Chapman, who won the World Series with the Cubs last year, said he saw “a lot of similarities” between the Cubs and the Yankees.
“It’s a mix of veterans and young guys who get along very well,” Chapman said.
Said one veteran Yankee official, “Those teams that won [in the 1990s], when they won there was no music in the clubhouse, and when they lost they were downright ticked off, mad. These guys, when they win they play music and celebrate like they never won before. They’re young and don’t know any better.”
Such insouciance served New York well. This Yankees team has a unique identity already. It became the first Yankees team to win four elimination games in one postseason.
How in the world do you go 4–0 in win-or-go-home games in a span of nine days?
You do it the modern way, like this: you out-homer your opponents 7–4 in those games while your bullpen allows one run in 17 2/3 innings (0.52 ERA) while striking out 28 batters (14.5 per nine innings). The Yankees never trailed at the end of any of the 36 innings when they faced elimination.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman swung the balance of postseason power last year when he traded Chapman to the Cubs and Andrew Miller to the Indians. He might have done the same this year, but did so in the acquisition phase this time. To an already monster bullpen, he added Kahnle and Robertson in a trade with the White Sox. They have been more impactful than the big-time starter he acquired, Sonny Gray. Ever since Cleveland manager Terry Francona masterfully leveraged Miller in October last year, people have wondered about “the next Andrew Miller” of the new paradigm. So far it is Robertson who has raised his hand and said, “Here I am.”
Robertson, with his curveball, and Miller, with his slider, had the toughest pitches to hit in all of baseball this year: an .094 batting average allowed on their featured selection. Like Miller, Robertson throws multiple innings because he is a platoon-neutral pitcher who is efficient throwing strikes. Manager Joe Girardi smartly had him ready in the fifth inning in Game 5, and deployed him after a stout CC Sabathia suddenly surrendered four singles, in as old school a rally as you can find these days. Robertson immediately doused the Cleveland uprising by getting Francisco Lindor to ground one of his cutters into a double play. Robertson threw 6 1/3 innings in the elimination games without allowing a run.
“I just want to play,” he said. “I want to win and I want to play, so I’m always ready. The only thing I really want is an at-bat.”
The Yankees’ bullpen this year held hitters to a .204 batting average. Only the bullpen of the 1965 Chicago White Sox in the days when bullpens were afterthoughts, was tougher to hit (.198).
We’re talking serious, hard-to-make-contact kind of heat they bring. There have been 256 pitches clocked at 97 mph or above this postseason. Including Luis Severino, the hardest-throwing starter in the big leagues, New York has accounted for more of those high-octane pitches (54%) than the other nine playoff teams combined.
Chapman, the hardest-throwing man on the planet, is in a class by himself. He has thrown 49 pitches at 100 mph or greater. Everybody else this postseason has combined for just nine.
With Gregorius, the Yankees had all the offense they needed. The Yankees searched high and low for a shortstop to replace the legendary Derek Jeter after the 2014 season. They found few good options. They settled on a trade for Gregorius, then 24, who had just hit .226 with six home runs for Arizona. Well, they figured, at least he was a placeholder who would give them good defense, especially on pop-ups.
One of the hitting coaches at the time, Jeff Pentland, could not believe how technically inferior was Gregorius’ swing. Gregorius left all of his weight on his back side, failing to drive through the baseball. So the Yankees came up with a drill for Gregorius. They brought him into a batting cage and told him to throw the ball up in the air to himself and then hit it as hard as he could with a fungo bat, the way a kid might when there’s nobody around to play with. Think of it as the hitting equivalent of long toss, when throwing a baseball a long distance forces you to lengthen your arm swing and use your entire body.
Tossing a ball to himself and hitting it hard, Gregorius began to drive his back side through the ball, especially his back knee. Then Pentland hung hoops in the cage and told him to hit line drives through them. Pentland quickly learned that not only did Gregorius have a more powerful swing by driving through the ball, but also he had elite hand-eye coordination because he could drive the ball through the hoops all the time.
“Oh, man, I remember!” Gregorius said when asked about those drills.
I asked him if he ever believed back then that he would have this kind of power; he has hit three postseason homers after hitting 25 in the regular season, breaking Jeter’s franchise record.
“To be honest, no,” he said. “But it’s not about hitting home runs at Yankee Stadium, the way some people say. I think I’ve hit more home runs on the road than at home. I just want to hit the ball hard all over the place. I’ve gotten older and developed a plan, too.”
When I asked him about the plan against Kluber, he said, “All the pitches were in the zone. Mistakes. The guy is going to win the Cy Young so you have to take advantage of any mistakes. I just tried to stay short and quick through the zone.”
Said teammate Brett Gardner, “I’m happy for him, because when he first got here everybody in the stands every night was chanting Derek Jeter’s name at him. And it’s not just the offense. His defense is one of the best of any shortstop in the game. He’s also a lefthanded hitter who gives you great at-bats against lefthanded pitching. He came through in a big way today.”
Nothing about what wins and loses will change in the ALCS. Girardi and Houston manager A.J. Hinch will lean heavily on their bullpens. Other than the lower-seam baseball, nothing has changed how a game is run more than the analytics of the deep, modern bullpen. Girardi and Hinch know that relievers facing a batter for the first time (.244 batting average, .720 OPS) are a much better bet than a starter facing the lineup for the third time (.272, .800).
It’s not that starters can’t pitch longer; it’s that managers have so many good relievers that they would rather begin the relay race of fresh arms than to stick with a fatiguing starter. With extra off days, the postseason enhances this get-to-the-pen-quickly mentality.
There have been 36 starts made this postseason. Only once has a starter made it through a lineup three complete times (Kyle Hendricks, 27 batters faced). Three years ago— another era —there were 18 such postseason starts. Fourteen years ago— a virtual Pleistocene epoch ago— there were 49 such starts!
Now think about the ALCS, which begins Friday in Houston, and how we wound up with the Yankees playing the Astros.
Here are the two teams with the most home runs in all of baseball this year:
1. Yankees 241
2. Astros 238
Here are the two greatest strikeout bullpens of all-time:
1. 2017 Astros 662
2. 2017 Yankees 653
(The 2017 Dodgers, by the way, rank third all-time; that’s right: three of the final four teams standing rank 1-2-3 all time in strikeouts from their bullpen.)
The modern game is a brutally simple one. Home runs and power arms have knocked out subtlety, lessened the impact of our hallowed “little things” that for generations we liked to believe made the difference between winning and losing. It’s smashmouth baseball now. And nobody plays it better than the New York Yankees.