Baseball is pain.
Postseason baseball goes beyond pain and into some other realm of medieval torture, gleefully self-inflicted by ten fan bases every October. What hurts about this game is that it’s not always karmically just. In fact it’s hardly every karmically just. Consider the Mets last night, who did everything they were supposed to do from an approach standpoint, and were left out in the bleak and heartless cold like victims in a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Facing baseball’s Anton Chigurr, the Mets knew that if history was an indicator, they’d not be long for the postseason. Madison Bumgarner has built a resume that puts him shoulder to shoulder (if not above) baseball’s greatest postseason pitchers. He’s also one of baseball’s elite pitchers overall. And even though the Mets were countering with Noah Syndergaard, an ace of their own, this game was always going to come down to the quality of Met at bats against the Giants’ merciless October killer.
The numbers supported an aggressive approach from the Mets. 1st pitches put in play against Bumgarner produced a slash of .304/.309/.424 and an OPS of .732, better numbers than in most other situations. Of course, that presumes the first pitch is put in play. Plate appearances that began with a swung-at first pitch vs. a taken first pitch produced a marginally better result (.631 vs. .611 OPS). Bottom line is that Bumgarner is elite, so there is no surefire “plan” of attack, but the Mets were not wrong to be aggressive.
And aggressive they were, if not effective.
Nine Mets offered at the first pitch Bumgarner threw, and they made nine outs. To be honest, I expected that number to big bigger based on the impression I got watching the game. In only the fourth and ninth innings did every Met batter take a pitch. Advanced metrics strongly support first-ball hitting, so by being aggressive, the Mets had chosen a rational plan of attack against the Giant Ace, and he beat it.
Though nine batters offered at the first pitch, that doesn’t adequately illustrate the extent of the Mets’ aggression. A whopping 16 Met PA’s were over in three pitches or less. The Mets paid a severe price for their failed gambit. They never got Bumgarner out of the game, depriving themselves of their best chance to score by allowing Bruce Bochy to eschew his bullpen altogether.
Again, we come here to praise the Mets approach, though it buried them in Queens last night. First-ball swinging comes with a caveat. Simply offering at the first pitch doesn’t relieve you of the more crucial responsibility of swinging at strikes. The underlying assumption is that you are more likely to get strikes on the first pitch, but it’s still on the hitter to be selective and then to square up the ball. Easier said than done against a pitcher like Bumgarner.
All these strategies are built to help teams succeed over the 1-6-2. All strategies fail at times during the season, which is what makes the postseason so savage. Bumgarner knows his first-pitch numbers, and is free to pitch off that reputation by starting more PA’s with marginal pitches. Moreso than Thor, Bumgarner was the Pied Piper last night, subtly escorting the Mets out of the strike zone and inducing them to chase pitches that were not ideal. Syndergaard, on the other hand, pounded the zone all night and counted on the fact that sitting 98 with just enough movement would do the job, and it did. Just not for long enough, and therein lies the difference.
The Mets had the right approach, and like the relentless antagonist in No Country for Old Men, Madison Bumgarner cared not. He didn’t even offer Chigurr's illusory coin flip before delivering the coup de grace. Such is life in the postseason. It’s a heartless, gut-wrenching odyssey only the Coens would laugh at while the rest of us absurdly sign up for more.