Steve Ewen: What to watch for in the ultimate chess match, the World Series

The World Series is prime viewing for armchair managers. We got some local experts to provide a few intricacies of the game to watch for.

Tanner Rainey of the Washington Nationals is one of the hardest throwing pitchers in baseball, hitting 100 mph or more 15 times already in the postseason. Harry How / Getty Images

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Sports fans, by nature, are playoff junkies. The World Series is no different.

People are going to be glued to their televisions to check out Houston Astros duelling the Washington Nationals in a best-of-seven series for the game’s grandest prize starting Tuesday. But what are folks who make their living in baseball going to be focusing on when they watch? What are some of the game’s intricacies?

We asked local baseball personnel for their take and here’s some of what we came up with.

PITCH TIPPING

It wasn’t all that long ago that a 90 mile per hour fastball was the standard. One hundred miles per hour, which once seemed improbable, is starting to become routine. According to mlb.com’s Statcast, Washington reliever Tanner Rainey has thrown 15 pitches at 100 mph or better in these playoffs alone and Houston ace Gerrit Cole is averaging 97.7 mph on his four-seam fastball in the post-season. And that’s after throwing it 196 times.

So, yes, hitting a baseball continues to be the toughest thing in sports and hitters are looking for any advantage they can get, and that includes trying to figure out if pitchers are giving away what they’re throwing before they’re throwing it.

Brooks McNiven, a former UBC Thunderbirds ace who is coaching with the North Shore Twins of the B.C. Premier League and with the West Vancouver Schools Baseball Academy, says that opposing teams can zone in on a hurler’s habits and look for the tiniest of tells. There were reports, for instance, that the Astros could read whether Tampa Bay Rays starter Tyler Glasnow was throwing a fastball or a curveball by his glove position in his windup earlier in these playoffs.

“You look for anything different in a pitcher’s mechanics,” said McNiven, a one-time San Francisco Giants farmhand.

SIGN STEALING

With a runner on second base having full view of home plate, opposing catchers go through a whole rigmarole of signs to avoid giving away what they want their pitcher to throw. Terry McKaig, the longtime UBC coach turned director of the program, guesses that pro baseball folk can break those codes in 15-20 pitches, so teams change it up multiple times a game.

“When you see a pitcher and catcher get crossed up and the guy throws a fastball when the catcher is expecting a curve, that is what’s happened,” McKaig explained. “Somebody’s on the wrong system for that inning.”

As for signals in general, McKaig says, “you can get pretty paranoid.”

MEETINGS AT THE MOUND

One of the most compelling things about this World Series is it features two veterans with possible Hall of Fame credentials in Houston’s Justin Verlander and Washington’s Max Scherzer.

Verlander’s 36. Scherzer’s 35. These are two hard-nosed guys and, at some point, their managers might have to come to the mound to bring in a reliever. Count McKaig, who made his fair share of pitching changes in his time at UBC, among those who want to surmise how those conversations might be playing out while they’re going on.

“There’s nothing good you can say at that point, and especially to guys like that,” McKaig laughed. “You know they aren’t about to tell you, ‘Hey, thanks … you’re making a good decision here.’”

MEASURING MEETINGS AT THE MOUND

Mound visits without pitching changes have been cut from six per nine innings to five this season in MLB. To McKaig, it’s a further strategy thing. When do you go? Do you risk using one early?

“When the pitching coach goes out there do you really think he’s going to try to change some sort of mechanical flaw in the middle of an inning? No. Not in the middle of inning,” McKaig explained. “Mound visits are generally about trying to calm your guy down and give him a break and give your reliever a chance to warm up more, or they’re about trying to break the momentum of the opposing team.”

KNOW THEIR ROLES

Vancouver Canadians president Andy Dunn is into the pitch-by-pitch analysis. With something like the World Series, he knows the rosters of the two teams, he focuses on the “situational matchups.”

For instance, it’s seventh inning and Houston is up by one. Verlander’s on the mound. He had 300 strikeouts in the regular season. Trea Turner is on first base for Washington with none out. He’s quick. Adam Eaton is at the plate. He’s a career .285 hitter over eight years in the bigs, but he’s hitting .194 in 10 playoff games this season and he’s a .226 hitter (7-for-31) against Verlander all-time.

Do you put Turner in motion, try to hit and run and get something going? Or do you play it safe, particularly with potential regular season most valuable player Anthony Rendon coming up after Eaton?

For those interested, Rendon comes into the World Series with an 0-for-3 career mark against Verlander, including two strikeouts.

“I like the chess match of trying to avoid the easy outs,” Dunn said. “I like to see to see how teams are going manufacture runs.”

sewen@postmedia.com

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