It's the final 2017 edition of The Rotation! Here's a starting five of topics worth bantering about as Major League Baseball's postseason begins this week.
1. Going long
There will be pitching probables that understandably pique our collective interest this October, just like every other. But baseball is, more than ever, a bullpen-oriented game, and that's especially so when the odd October schedule, with its proliferation of off days and ramped-up pressure, arrives. Last postseason, starters accounted for just 56.8 percent of innings pitched and faced a record-low 255 batters the third time through the lineup. Aces are aces, but by and large October has become all about early hooks and deep bullpens.
Arguably the biggest game-changer in the 2016 playoffs was Andrew Miller, who gave the Indians a postseason-record 19 1/3 innings of sweet relief in their march to Game 7 of the World Series. Beyond Miller himself, here are some of the most interesting men in the 'pen:
Chris Devenski, Astros: Less effective in the second half (.719 opponent OPS) than the first (.517), but his 24 multi-inning outings are proof that he can bridge wide gaps.
Archie Bradley, D-backs: A 1.73 ERA in 73 innings this season, and the D-backs are going to let him fly if they advance out of the Wild Card Game.
Mike Clevinger, Indians: With Miller's knee an iffy proposition, it could be this converted starter (0.81 ERA in last 33 1/3 innings) who does some of the multi-inning lifting.
David Price, Red Sox: In this environment, Price could arguably have a bigger impact in a relief role than he would have as a starter. He's tossed 8 2/3 scoreless relief innings so far.
Chris Rusin, Rockies: He delivered 85 relief innings this year (second-most in MLB) and had the highest adjusted ERA+ (191) on the team.
Chad Green, Yankees: He logged multiple innings 30 times, and the only reliever with a lower WHIP (0.74) was Craig Kimbrel (0.68).
2. Sure thing? Not so fast
Consider these facts going into the Yankees-Twins AL Wild Card Game in New York on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) …
• The Yankees were not only six games better in the regular season, but they had a run differential that was 171 runs better than that of the Twins.
• They are playing in the Bronx, where the Yanks had the AL's best home record this season.
• The Yankees have won an incredible 89 of the last 122 meetings between these two teams, including three postseason series in the 2000s.
• The Yanks will oppose Ervin Santana, who has had a great year but who has a 6.43 ERA in six starts in new Yankee Stadium, where his flyball tendencies simply don't play well.
• If it comes down to the 'pens, the Yankees' relief ERA (3.28) this season was more than a full point better than that of the Twins (4.39).
All of the above leads me to one unmistakable, unavoidable, unassailable conclusion:
The Twins are winning this game.
"Oh," one of their players told me, "we're totally winning it."
Before we get knee-deep into the postseason, let's just take one moment to reflect on the incredible year Joey Votto just had. If this guy doesn't figure prominently into the final National League MVP Award voting (candidates for the 2017 Esurance MLB Award for Best Major Leaguer haven't been announced, as of this writing, but you can vote on other categories), it's a shame. The Reds lost 94 games? So what? Without Votto, they might have lost 144. Look at what this dude did:
• Led the NL in wOBA (.428), wRC+ (165), OBP (.454), OPS (1.032) and OPS+ (168) and walks (134).
• Played all 162 games.
• Reached base (without the benefit of an error) in all but 12 of those games, becoming just the fourth player to reach base in 150 games in history, the first since John Olerud and Jeff Bagwell in 1999 (151) and falling just two shy of Wade Boggs' 1985 record.
• Walked 134 times and struck out just 83.
• Lowered his K rate by 6.0 percent while raising his home run total from 29 to 36.
• Finished third in NL in FanGraphs' WAR (0.4 wins behind Giancarlo Stanton and 0.1 behind Kris Bryant) and second in Baseball Reference WAR (0.2 behind Stanton).
• Had one of the great fan interactions of the season (a nominee in those aforementioned Esurance MLB Awards).
And even made amends with another fan he had trolled.
• Reached 100 RBIs, hopefully silencing all his Cincinnati skeptics overly obsessed with that particular stat.
Votto's season ought to be appreciated all the more given the context of his times, the Three True Outcome age in which we live. He's a future Hall of Famer. Enjoy him.
4. Nats where it's at
The Indians have the longest championship drought in the game, the Dodgers are trying to avoid more high-financed frustration after posting the most regular-season wins since their move to L.A. and the Astros, who have never won it all, have a hurricane-ravaged city supporting them in what will likely be the most emotional of postseason environments.
But it's the Washington Nationals (another title-less team) who might have the most on the line this October, if only because of the advanced career innings tally of their ace Max Scherzer, the uncomfortable injury history of Stephen Strasburg and, of course, the post-2018 free agency of Bryce Harper.
Oh, and the Nats have never advanced past the Division Series and have a manager in Dusty Baker whose so-far fruitless search for a ring has been a gut-wrenching endeavor. So there's a lot going on here.
In recent days, there has been drama adding nuance to the Nats' quest. Harper returned from a 46-game absence with a hyperextended left knee and went 1-for-his-first-14 with six strikeouts. Not an encouraging return from the guy who might very well be the biggest October X-factor of them all. And then Scherzer tweaked his hamstring Saturday, putting his Game 1 start in question.
But take heart, Nats fans. Harper scorched two singles with exit velocities above 110 mph, as measured by Statcast™, on Sunday. The first was his second-hardest hit of the season (114.8 mph). Scherzer, meanwhile, had an MRI that did not reveal a major strain. If their two signature stars are intact, the Nats have ample ability to reach a Promised Land on the Potomac.
5. And now for something completely worthless …
AL Wild Card: Twins over Yankees (baseball, man)
NL Wild Card: D-backs over Rockies (Greinke stifles a lineup that doesn't produce as well on road)
ALDS 1: Indians over Twins (even baseball's craziness has its limits)
ALDS 2: Astros over Red Sox ('Stros win one for Houston)
NLDS 1: D-backs over Dodgers (D-backs match up well)
NLDS 2: Nationals over Cubs (finally, the Nats get over first-round hump)
ALCS: Indians over Astros (AL's strongest pitching staff takes over)
NLCS: Nationals over D-backs (NL's strongest pitching staff takes over)
World Series: Indians over Nationals (start etching that Terry Francona Hall of Fame plaque, if it wasn't in the works already)
Confidence level: 0 percent.
Confidence level that I have just cursed my hometown of Cleveland: 100 percent, but it's the Tribe's own fault for finishing 33-4.
Thanks for reading The Rotation this year. Here's to another awesome October!
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.