Table-setters to play key postseason role

Table-setters to play key postseason role

Table-setters to play key postseason role
Nothing sets the tone in a postseason game like jumping on the opposing starter right out of the gate and putting up some early runs.

Just ask the defending World Series champion Cardinals. St. Louis scored at least one first-inning run in eight of its 11 postseason wins last year en route to the franchise's 11th title. When it comes to the postseason, striking early not only gives your team a quick lead, but more importantly perhaps, it takes some pressure off your own pitcher while the other team's bullpen starts to stir.

The need for quality pitching in October is well-documented, but the ability to knock out an opposing starter and force a manager to dip into his bullpen earlier than anticipated could be just as vital.

When it comes to working counts, no team has been better this season than the Athletics. Oakland hitters are seeing a Major League-best 3.99 pitches per plate appearance. As a result, opposing starters have lasted an average of just more than 4 2/3 innings against the A's in September -- the best average for any contender.

Part of the reason they see nearly four pitches per at-bat, however, is their propensity to strike out. The A's have struck out an American League record 1,333 times this season.

While the A's have seemingly relied heavily on the home run ball, the AL West-rival Rangers have consistently put runners on base and driven them in all season.

Though Texas doesn't rank in the top five in pitches per plate appearance or running starters out of the game early this month, the Rangers' lineup remains very similar to the one that has led them to back-to-back AL pennants.

"They're solid, one through nine," Indians starter Zach McAllister said after getting shelled for seven runs off 11 hits in five innings earlier this month. "If you don't have your good stuff and make pitches, it's going to be a challenge for you."

Another AL team that has consistently pestered pitchers all season is the AL East-leading Yankees. The Bronx Bombers lead the Majors in home runs and have excelled recently at getting runners on base before going deep.

Entering Thursday, the Yankees' No. 1 and 2 hitters have combined for a .351 on-base percentage, second only to the Angels' .362. Yankees hitters also see the third-most pitches per plate appearance (3.89) and, on average, have knocked out the opposing starter in just under 5 1/3 innings this month.

"Give them credit," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said after his starter lasted just three innings in a 10-7 Yankees victory last week. "That is a deep lineup and they are explosive."

Making the Yanks all the more dangerous is Ichiro Suzuki's .487 average over the past nine games, prompting skipper Joe Girardi to move him up to either leadoff or the No. 2 spot in the lineup for the past week. With Ichiro and Derek Jeter hitting ahead of the likes of Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, the Yankees figure to have one of the most potent postseason lineups.

On the other hand, teams like the Wild Card-hopeful Angels haven't put up much of a fight against opposing starters. Despite having the game's most pesky leadoff hitter in Mike Trout and one of the most dangerous sluggers in Albert Pujols, the Angels as a team see just 3.74 pitches per plate appearance, the worst among all contenders. That low pitch count has allowed opposing starters to pitch an average of 6.23 innings this month, also the worst among postseason contenders.

As for the National League, the Giants and Braves both rank near the top of the league in a number of table-setting categories, but it's the Cardinals who once again appear ready to wreak October havoc on opposing pitching.

The Cardinals' No. 1 and 2 hitters have combined for an NL-best .351 on-base percentage, and no team in the NL has given opposing starters as much trouble this month as St. Louis.

Opposing starters are averaging just more than five innings per outing against the Cards in September and only two -- the Padres' Clayton Richard on Sept. 12 and the Astros' Bud Norris on Wednesday -- have pitched at least seven frames. To put that in perspective, starters have pitched seven-plus innings 10 times against the playoff-hopeful Angels.

Along with working over opposing starters, the Cardinals have the third-lowest strikeout percentage in the NL and boast the best strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Giants are second in both categories.

In the Giants' last 23 games, their opponent has gone to its bullpen in the fifth inning or sooner nine times. One of those unlucky starters was the Padres' Andrew Werner, who said the Giants' entire lineup capitalizes on every mistake.

"I couldn't make an adjustment against them early, and by the time I made an adjustment in the second or third inning, I was 60, 70 pitches deep," said Werner, who lasted just 3 2/3 innings on a night where the Giants scored eight runs on 11 hits despite Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey both being held hitless. "I could never give myself a chance, especially against a good team like that."

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.