Look for Boston's Kike Hernandez to keep flexing playoff muscle
At a certain point, you can throw "regression to the mean" out the window. Certain players are just so hot in the playoffs that regular season statistics don't apply when anticipating how they will fare in clutch October moments.
Think Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 playoffs, which he capped by throwing five innings of shutout relief in Game 7 -- on two days' rest -- to secure the World Series title for the San Francisco Giants over the Kansas City Royals.
Or Mookie Betts, whether defensively, offensively, or on the basepaths -- any time the calendar flips to October. In his last 15 regular season games, the Dodgers right fielder batted .194, with an OPS of .609, more than 100 points below the major league average.
Through his first six playoff games, Betts' 11-for-24 resulted in an OPS soaring over 1.000.
But nobody is flexing more Mr. October muscle than Red Sox outfielder Kike Hernandez. After a fantastic division series in a four-game triumph over the Tampa Bay Rays, Hernandez upped it a notch in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series Friday night.
He went 4-for-5 with two home runs and a clutch, first-inning, bases-loaded, rally-killing diving catch in center field. About the only thing he didn't do was throw out a runner at the plate, though he came close in the eighth inning of Houston's 5-4 win.
Look for Hernandez to continue to thrive. Heading into Saturday's Game 2, he was 14-for-28 in the playoffs with an OPS of 1.571. Perhaps most tellingly, he's struck out only three times. In short, he is seeing the ball extremely well.
Sort of how it was for him on Oct. 19, 2017. Chicago Cubs' fans may recall that's the night Hernandez hammered three home runs and drove in seven runs in the Dodgers' NLCS-clinching 11-1 rout of the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Time to reconsider pitcher qualification minimums
More than a few times, television coverage of the American League Division Series touted Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. as holding opposing batters to the lowest batting average in the American League.
And it's true -- as far as it goes. Among hurlers with enough innings to qualify (one inning per team game) for league leader consideration, he was tops by limiting opponents to a .205 average.
However, his 162⅓ innings (over 162 Houston games) barely qualified. And hardly any other pitchers were in this select group: in the AL, only 15 pitchers threw enough innings to qualify.
White Sox pitcher Dallas Keuchel ranked 15th in ERA (5.28) and innings pitched (exactly 162) among this group, while Lucas Giolito (6th, with a 3.53 ERA) and Dylan Cease (9th, 3.91) were also in this collection of "workhorses."
By contrast, 20 years ago, 35 AL pitchers logged at least 162 innings of work, including 21 who had 200-plus. And a decade ago: 42 and 19 AL pitchers attained those levels, respectively. This year, for the first time in 12 decades of AL history, nobody reached 200 innings.
In 2021, of all AL pitchers with at least 50 innings, 33 held batters to a lower average than McCullers did. Increase the minimum to 100 innings, and he was fifth, behind teammate Cristian Javier (.186), the Sox's Carlos Rodon (.189), Toronto's Alex Manoah (.192), and Cleveland's Triston McKenzie (.194).
This isn't a jab at McCullers, whose two strong starts fueled the Astros' 3-1 ALDS triumph over the White Sox. But it's all preamble to this observation: When it comes to pitching categories, such as earned run average and other data points, it may be time to consider reducing the qualification threshold.
My suggestion: 120 innings.
• Matt Baron supplements his baseball brainpower with Retrosheet.org for research.