Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2022

A Thoroughly Modern World Series

It will be this weekend before we know which team will win the World Series, but we can already say with certainty that this year’s Fall Classic accurately reflects the Great Game as it is played in the early part of the 21st century’s third decade.  Noting the timeframe seems important, for as much as some fans love to cite a prior period as an era when the style and pace of the sport was, to their mind, far superior to what is currently on display, baseball has always been subject to change.  Modern day aficionados who lament the demise of bunting and the hit-and-run as strategic staples doubtless had predecessors, a few generations ago, who decried the end of the dead ball era. 

That is not meant to denigrate any fan’s preferred style of play, only to emphasize that a sport played under the same basic rules for almost a century and a half is, despite that seeming constraint, constantly evolving.  The next stage in the Great Game’s metamorphosis is likely to come as soon as next year, when MLB drastically curtails defensive shifts.  The requirements that two infielders be stationed on each side of second base and all four have their cleats on the infield dirt will almost certainly reopen lanes for base hits that have been closed for the past several seasons.  For now, though, baseball is all about power – both at the plate and on the mound.  The importance of each role was on vivid display during Games 3 and 4.

Hitters took their turn in Tuesday’s Game 3, specifically the batters wearing the home white uniforms with red pinstripes, much to the delight of most of the nearly 46,000 fans crammed into Citizens Bank Park for the first World Series game in Philadelphia since 2009.  It had been nine days since the Phillies home had seen action.  In that last contest, Game 5 of the NLCS, Bryce Harper sent the Phils to the Series with an 8th inning blast to left field, propelling Philadelphia to a clinching 4-3 win over the San Diego Padres.  The ensuing wait proved immediately worthwhile for the local faithful when Harper smacked the very first pitch he saw from Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. into the right field seats, staking his team to a 2-0 1st inning lead.  While that would prove to be more than enough run support for starter Ranger Suarez and the four relievers who followed him to the mound, Philadelphia batters were just getting started.  Third baseman Alec Bohm and center fielder Brandon Marsh followed with solo shots in the 2nd, doubling the Phillies advantage.  Then left fielder Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Rhys Hoskins added back-to-back home runs three frames later, with Schwarber’s two-run blast sailing 443 feet to dead center.

The fine performance by Suarez and the Phillies’ bullpen was an afterthought in coverage of Game 3, which understandably focused on the homer barrage.  But one night later, there was no overlooking the even better pitching by Astros starter Cristian Javier and three Houston relievers.  The same Philadelphia hitters who had sent five spheroids sailing into the stands Tuesday could not manage so much as a single base hit against Javier and company Wednesday.  Just three walks, a pair by Javier during his six innings of work and one in the 9th by Ryan Pressly, kept the combined effort from being a perfect game.  Instead, the Astros foursome goes into the record books as having collectively tossed the second no-hitter in World Series history.

Javier, who is just 25 and in his third big league season, has given fans glimpses of his enormous potential.  He finished third in the voting for 2020 AL Rookie of the Year, and in an outing early in the 2021 season struck out the first eight batters he faced. This season, he was the starter in another combined no-hitter, that one coming against the Yankees back in June.  Because of its extremely high spin rate, Javier’s fastball appears to rise on its way to the plate, an illusion that often leaves hitters flailing.  Before Pressly mopped up, Javier was followed to the mound by Bryan Abreu and Rafael Montero, both of whom have fastball speeds that nudge up against triple-digits.  The quartet combined for 14 strikeouts, a common enough outcome when power pitchers are on the mound.  

Not surprisingly, there were scattered voices protesting the no-hitter designation, since the effort involved multiple moundsmen.  But whether accomplished by one pitcher over nine innings or nine throwing an inning apiece, the outcome – a line of zeroes for the opposing team – is the same.  To be sure, the achievement by the four Astros is not the same as Don Larsen’s 1956 outing, and not just because of the three walks.  A combined no-hitter is not identical to one thrown by a single hurler, but it is still worthy of celebration. 

It is also a far more likely outcome in the modern game.  While 100-mile-per-hour fastballs and high spin rates are now common, the counterbalance to that power and the strikeouts it produces is fewer innings pitched.  Larsen needed 97 pitches to complete his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.  Javier threw the same number navigating six frames, a pitch count that is by no means abnormal these days.  More strikeouts almost certainly mean more pitches, since each at-bat that ends in a “K” requires at least three offerings from the mound, and usually more.  Larsen fanned just seven Brooklyn Dodgers.  And while modern power hitters may ultimately be overwhelmed, some will surely not go down without a fight, fouling off multiple pitches as they try with uppercut swings to lift the ball over the heads of shifted defenders. No manager interested in staying employed would allow a starter’s pitch count to climb to 134 in pursuit of a no-hitter, as the Mets Terry Collins did in 2012 with Johan Santana in the first and, until a combined one involving five pitchers last April, only no-hitter in that franchise’s history.

Power hitters driving the ball deep into the night in Game 3.  Power pitchers mowing down the opposing lineup in Game 4.  Whether next week’s championship parade is in Houston or Philadelphia, this year’s World Series has already been a victory for the current state of the sport.  Love it or hate it, this is the way the Great Game is played these days.  At least until next season.


Responses

  1. Being from Ireland I have always wondered why it is called The World Series when it’s an all-American competition?

    • Partly an exercise in American hubris, no doubt. But mostly because when the season-ending series was first so named, initially for a few years in the late 19th century before the game’s modern era, and then starting in 1903 in the line that runs to today, organized professional baseball was only played in the U.S. and Canada. The Series was thus a battle for a “world” championship by default. A handful of baseball historians contend it was named after the New York World newspaper, but there is no real evidence to support that theory.

      • Great. Good to know the context of things. Thanks. I guess it’s the same with Gaelic games only played in Ireland, so if you win the county championship you are technically, World Champions.


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