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2010, The Postseason of the Pitcher

Last week we began a discussion on baseball’s finances and business practices, and I will return to that subject, but not today. The postseason is here, and it’s just too exciting to ignore.

Already we’ve seen that if 2010 was The Year of the Pitcher, then the 2010 playoffs could be The Postseason of the Pitcher. For the Texas Rangers, Cliff Lee resumed his postseason dominance he showed with Philadelphia last season as he stymied the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1, and lefty C.J. Wilson and the bullpen were even better in Game Two. As I write this, the Rangers are on the verge of winning their first postseason series in history (they are the only franchise never to have done so), but the Rays’ showed an uncooperative attitude in Game 3, putting on a late rally to stave off doom.

As for the Twins, their hopes were dashed, once again, by the Bronx Bombers. Questions abounded regarding the Yankees’ pitching this postseason, but staff ace C.C. Sabathia was good enough in Game One, stalwart Andy Pettitte was better than expected in Game Two, and young Phil Hughes was best of them all in Game Three. The Yankees now have a week to rest and recoup before the ALCS.

The best pitching stories were in the National League however, and involved two storied hurlers making their postseason debuts in auspicious fashion. They represent, in many respects, the “long and short of it” when it comes to pitching in the big leagues.

For over a decade now Roy Halladay has been a premier moundsman, winning the Cy Young Award in 2003 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Traded to the Philadelphia Phillies last winter, he responded with a brilliant 21-10 season that included a Perfect Game, only the 20th in MLB history, and is the likely winner of this year’s Cy Young Award. At six-feet-six and two-hundred thirty pounds, Halladay is commanding presence on the hill, a baseball Marshall Dillon who enforces order through a bewildering array of pitches that all move and all are strikes (well, when he’s on, anyway). Not for nothing is his nickname “Doc” to recall Gunfight at the O.K. Corral protagonist Doc Holliday.

Early in his career, Halladay was an over-the-top hurler who used his impressive reach to drive off the pitching rubber and come right at the batter. It would be how most pitchers gifted with his height would be trained to pitch. Unfortunately it led to his ball being rapid, but flat, with little movement and up in the zone, and that made him hittable. After the 2000 season, he went to Blue Jays’ pitching coach Mel Queen and worked to alter his delivery, changing to a three-quarters motion from a more compact windup, and concentrating on locating his pitches low and on the corners of the plate, with late movement. It worked, and he became dominant.

He was one pitch away from another Perfect Game on Wednesday, his ball four to Jay Bruce giving the Reds their only baserunner of the night, and while there was little dispute the pitch was ball four, there were questions as whether ball three was really strike three. Still, John Hirschbeck, the homeplate umpire, is known as a top-flight balls-and-strikes caller who doesn’t let batters stand around without getting involved. Overall and certainly many of the Reds felt this way, Halladay may have gotten the bulk of the questionable calls, but to his and Hirschbeck’s credit, there weren’t many, as 25 of 28 Reds’ hitters saw Strike One as their first pitch from Halladay. It was in all respects a masterful performance, supremely notable as only the second no-hitter in over 2,200 postseason games in MLB history.

Halladay’s counterpart Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants couldn’t be more removed from Doc’s stature physically. The two-time Cy Young Award winner is generously listed as five-eleven, one hundred seventy pounds.

The most disdained prospect among big league scouts is “the little righty”; right-handed pitchers of slight build who lack height. Conventional wisdom holds such prospects are just never going to succeed even if they get to The Show. Such players are usually discouraged from pitching, urged to take up switch-hitting, learn to play a middle infield position or, if they have good speed, move to the outfield, especially center field.

Tim Lincecum and his father would have none of that. His father taught him an orthodox delivery where he hides the ball in his windup then comes over the top and finishes with his hand near the ground, leaving him in good position to make fielding plays. Getting maximum extension, he actually strides and has his hand at a height to make him virtually six-four. His mechanics fly in the face of baseball’s received wisdom, but like the bumblebee who manages to frustrate the laws of aerodynamics by flying, Tim delivers four, maybe five explosive pitches that constantly frustrate hitters. Drafted first by the Cubs, then by the Indians, he refused to sign until the Giants selected him in the first round with the 10th pick of the 2006 draft. A condition of his signing was that the Giants would do nothing to try to alter his delivery. That is one codicil you can be sure they’re glad they agreed to!

We’ve seen a number of commentaries and statistical analyses of both of those games, the first trying to compare Halladay’s gem with Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series. Some of curmudgeonly disposition rank Larsen’s game above Doc’s because (1) it was perfect, and (2) it came in the World Series, not the first round of the playoffs. Those are certainly arguable positions. In 1956 of course there was only the World Series, and it occupied a much bigger stage in American life than does the baseball postseason today, but certainly TV’s reach then was far smaller and the media, by comparison, was conducted with papyrus scrolls and bird’s-feather pens using berry-juice ink. Plus, the Dodgers were a declining team while the young, sassy Reds were the top offensive group in the National League. I will say that if the Phillies go on to the World Series and win it and Halladay continues to pitch well, that will burnish his achievement.

The second item strives to compare Halladay’s no-no with Lincecum’s brilliant 1-0 shutdown of the Atlanta Braves. Many of the measures employed score Lincecum’s two-hit, one walk, fourteen strikeout effort as fractionally better than Halladay’s, but again I submit that Halladay accomplished his feat against an offensive juggernaut, while Lincecum beat a depleted lineup known for frequent offensive short-circuits, and the objective for the pitcher is to get outs by any means, not necessarily strikeouts.

Finally, we can point to the one absolute similarity between two such different pitchers: their middle names, Harry Leroy Halladay and Timothy LeRoy Lincecum.

In baseball, the wonders never cease to amaze us.

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