There have always generally been two popular schools of thought when it comes to which players to start in the postseason. The first is “go with the hot hand,” a plan that essentially leads a manager to start whichever players have performed well in the tiny, tiny sample sizes leading up to the promised land. The second is “go with the guys who got you there,” a plan in which the manager sticks with the players who had the best regular seasons and lets them prove themselves in the playoffs after earning it all year long. The 2012 version of Bruce Bochy has left me guessing exactly what plan he’s been using all postseason long.
I guess I should say that I’m more or less an advocate of a third plan, one that seems so obvious but honestly never gets discussed. I call it the “go with the best baseball players” plan, because the basic concept of it is to, um, go with the best baseball players on the roster. Usually this route is going to leave you with the same lineup you would get by using the “guys who got you there approach,” but with a special eye toward not believing randomly inflated seasons by previously poor players who slumped down the stretch (or actually returned to their true talent levels).
When Madison Bumgarner struggled down the stretch in September, I never would have believed Bruce Bochy and the San Francisco Giants would have benched him in the postseason. Bumgarner, slow finish aside, has developed into one of the best starters in the game. This is a guy who finished 2012 season with extremely respectable strikeout and walk rates (8.25 K/9 and 2.12 BB/9 respectively), has breezily logged over 200 innings the past two seasons, has been worth nearly 9.0 WAR per FanGraphs over two years, and has already pitched in the World Series before.
But no. Bochy went with the “hot hand” and subbed in Barry Zito after Bumgarner started to falter in the playoffs. Or was it Tim Lincecum who actually got subbed in? There’s really no telling, although I want to believe it was Zito simply because I start getting lightheaded when I think about Bochy already having penciled the soft-tossing left-hander in the postseason rotation. Strangely, Zito has done nothing but reward Bochy for his vote of confidence, allowing virtually no one to hit him despite the fact that I think the Call to the Pen staff itself might fare well against him at the plate. Then, as the Detroit Tigers and their deadly lefty Prince Fielder came to town, Bochy decided to give M-Bum another shot in game two of the World Series. He didn’t disappoint.
Bumgarner’s game two start was a wonderful one. He went seven shutout innings, allowed just two hits and two walks, and struck out eight. He only needed 86 pitches to get the job done, and he may have wound up with a complete game if Bochy hadn’t needed to pinch hit for him in order to trip across some more awkward Giant runs. It was an incredible effort to see, and it’s further proof that hey, once in a while maybe just start your best players. I really believe managers can overthink things in a deadly manner, especially when it comes to October baseball. But when you have a starter who’s proven himself as often as Madison Bumgarner, let him take the mound. Bruce Bochy did that Thursday night, and it couldn’t have gone any better.
I’ll be the first to tell you, as a Cardinals fan who watched the entirety of the NLCS, that the Giants have won in some strange and smirk-inducing ways this postseason. There have been lots of infield singles, weirdly successful bunts, errors by the opposing team, and RBI at-bats from pitchers. But the Giants have made it this far, to their second improbable World Series in three years, and it’s nice to see Bochy going with Madison Bumgarner, having the common sense to realize Brandon Belt is his best first baseman, and just letting them play. Believe it or not, that’s how players develop confidence, and what better time to get them confident than now?