Mazz: Astros, Nationals proving why starting pitching still matters in October

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By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Somewhere up there, apparently, there is indeed a baseball god - or maybe several of them. Because what they’re telling us now may save the game if anyone is paying attention.

Let’s start with this: starting pitching still matters.

Don’t look now, stat geeks, but the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals are now one Houston victory from meeting in the 2019 World Series. And if there is one major thing those teams share in common, it is this: big-name, frontline starters who all but spit at the notion of bullpen games and are true horses pulling their teams toward the final games of October.

In fact, we’d go so far as to tell you this has now happened two years in a row. The 2018 Red Sox – like the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers, whom Boston defeated in the 2018 Series – also were built around their starting rotations. Of course, for anyone to acknowledge that now would cause the paint-by-numbers nerds to puke up their watercolors.

But we digress.

Here’s the point: baseball has gotten so smart that it’s downright stupid, overthinking things to the nth degree. Analytics often work. We’re all smart enough to know that now. But the insane quest for more, more and more information has led to a level of mental paralysis never before seen in professional sports. Things have gotten so supersaturated and downright twisted that it’s bogged the entire sport down.

Red Sox executives Sam Kennedy, Tom Werner, John Henry and Dave Dombrowski watch a three-run home run by Yan Gomes of the Cleveland Indians in the eighth inning on August 19, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Red Sox executives Sam Kennedy, Tom Werner, John Henry and Dave Dombrowski watch a three-run home run by Yan Gomes of the Cleveland Indians in the eighth inning on August 19, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Know why the Astros and Nationals are 7-1 combined in this year’s League Championship Series? Because they have Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and even Zack Greinke. All six of those pitchers ranked in the top 16 in the majors in ERA during the regular season.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:

Fine, but what if you don’t have that kind of starting pitching?

My answer: don’t kid yourself. Most relievers suck, too. With all due respect to some extremely bright baseball minds in the major leagues at the moment – and I’m being sincere – the game isn’t about you. Once the players become cardboard cutouts acting out a computer simulation, we don’t want to watch. The unpredictability of human behavior is what makes the game entertaining.

But again, I digress.

With the Astros about to eliminate the Yankees – and it seems inevitable – here’s another thing the Astros and Nationals do better than most any other team in baseball: they put the ball in play, which is another lost art in the never-ending quest for the three “true outcomes” – home runs, walks and strikeouts. Know what those things are? Boring. Black-and-white. As we all learned in the movie Pleasantville, the real beauty in anything comes in the many colors in between the extremes.

This year, the Astros struck out fewer times than any club in baseball. The Nationals struck out fewer times than all but one team in the National League. In Game 3 of the ALCS a few days ago, one of the pivotal moments in the game came when Jose Altuve executed (gasp!) a real, bona fide hit-and-run. If the (over)analysts knew what it was, I’m sure they thought it was mathematically stupid.

Let me say this again, just because everyone always takes this sort of stuff the wrong way. This isn’t an attempt to eliminate analytics in baseball. Quite the contrary. It’s an attempt to save many of the once-fundamental beliefs that made the game more enjoyable: good starting pitching, offensive creativity, a little less thinking and a little more action.

Somewhere up there, the baseball gods are speaking.

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.