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MLB Starting Pitchers Will Have Less Rest This Postseason

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Starting pitching tactics in baseball’s postseason, which starts today, often differ from those of the regular season. Because of the off days needed for travel between cities in a playoff series, pitchers typically enjoy more rest. That allows teams to lean on their best pitchers more than they can in the regular season. For instance, en route to a World Series championship last fall, the Washington Nationals’ top three starting pitchers — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — started 13 of the team’s 17 postseason games. The three combined for 58.6 percent of the Nationals’ postseason innings, vs 40.5 percent during the regular season.

But this year, teams will not be able to avoid their weaker links as easily. Much of this season’s playoff games will be played at neutral bubble sites due to COVID-19 concerns. Teams, therefore, won’t travel as much, and so they won’t receive as many off days. In fact, there are no off days built into the wild-card round or the Division and League Championship Series.

Clubs will have to go deeper into their starting pitching rotations, which will likely help some teams and hurt others. Which teams could benefit, and which might be hurt? Let’s look at this question in a couple of different ways.

First, let’s use FiveThirtyEight’s pitcher ratings, which are based on rolling game scores.see here.

“>1 These scores try to predict how a pitcher will perform in a typical start; they’re not perfect — because of the shortened season this year, performance during the end of last year’s season still contributes to each pitcher’s rating — but they offer a good first cut at the question. We looked for teams that had at least one high-end, ace-type starter2 and depth — meaning four or more active starters with average-or-better rolling game scores. When examining MLB playoff rotations, there are clear haves and have nots.

In the American League field, the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays all appear to enjoy the greatest advantage from the playoff format, based on our criteria.

Cleveland is the only AL club with three starters boasting rolling game scores of 55 or better, including AL Cy Young — and perhaps MVP — candidate Shane Bieber, whose 63.1 rolling game score trails only New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the AL. Behind Bieber are Carlos Carrasco, who has been among the best pitchers in the AL over the last 30 days, according to FanGraphs’ wins above replacement (WAR), and Zach Plesac, who had the 10th-best ERA among starting pitchers this season.one of the greatest all-time for homegrown pitching development.

“>3 Cleveland’s pitching juggernaut doesn’t stop there, as Aaron Civale ranks as one of the top No. 4 starting options in baseball, while rookie Triston McKenzie gives the Indians another league-average option.

The Rays have a top-end option in 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and two near-elite options in Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow. (Among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, Glasnow trails only Bieber and Jacob deGrom in strikeout percentage.) And though the Rays lost a quality option in Yonny Chirinos to Tommy John surgery, they still have Ryan Yarbrough, one of the better fourth options in the game.

The Twins’ offseason acquisition of Kenta Maeda, meanwhile, has yielded great returns, as he’s employed his elite split-changeup to rank third among AL pitchers in WAR. The Twins have allowed him to work deeper into games, while his former club, the Los Angeles Dodgers, approached his workload cautiously and curiously (transitioning him into the bullpen late in recent seasons). He will get a chance to start this postseason. Maeda is backed by four good-if-not-great arms, including Michael Pineda, who has been among the top pitchers in the game over the last month. The Rays and Twins also have two of the best bullpens in the AL, sporting the best and second-best relief units by WAR.

Other teams shouldn’t be penalized too sharply by having to go deeper into their starting rotations. The Yankees, for example, have one of the top arms in Cole, whom they signed to a record contract in the winter, and three quality starters behind him. But James Paxton, who they hoped would be a co-ace, has again landed on the injured list. The Astros have lost their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, who is out for the season, but their five active starting pitchers all rate as above-average arms, according to our ratings. (More on the Astros in a bit.)

What about AL teams that could face uphill challenges due to the format change? According to our ratings, the Blue Jays and White Sox only have three and two starting pitchers, respectively, who have rolling game scores above 50. While each team has an ace-caliber option in Hyun Jin Ryu and Lucas Giolito, each also lacks depth. The Oakland A’s have the opposite problem: They have five starting pitchers performing at average or better rates, but not one with a rolling game score of 55 or greater.

In the NL, the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds stand out as clubs with the rotations best suited to take advantage of this fall’s format. Each has multiple elite starters and depth. (The San Diego Padres did too, but we’ll get to them in a second.)

The Dodgers have three pitchers with rolling game scores of 55 or better: Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and rookie Tony Gonsolin. In total, the Dodgers have five average-or-better starting pitchers, including Dustin May, their fifth-ranking arm, whose fastball averages 99 mph, tops in the majors. Yep. That’s L.A.’s fifth-best option.according to Baseball-Reference.com, meaning better than league-average performance when adjusting for ballpark factors and run environment.

“>4

The Reds rank second only to Cleveland in FanGraphs’s starting pitching WAR this season. They are led by NL Cy Young contender Trevor Bauer, who has a 58.9 rolling game score, with Sonny Gray (57.2) and Luis Castillo (56.7) just behind him. The Dodgers are the only other playoff team with three pitchers with scores of 56 or better. The Reds have a fourth above-average arm in Tyler Mahle. The Cardinals don’t have multiple aces but they do have one in Jack Flaherty, who is backed by a deep rotation.

Just days ago the Padres looked to have an excellent staff for October, but they’ve recently run into some poor luck on the injury front. The Padres attempted to improve their World Series chances by acquiring top pitching talent Mike Clevinger from Cleveland prior to the trade deadline. But Clevinger was pulled from his start on Sept. 23 after one inning due to tightness in his right biceps. The club hoped he would team up with breakout star Dinelson Lamet to give the Padres two potential difference-making arms in the playoffs, backed by two other pitchers (Zach Davies and Garrett Richards) who have been above-average this year. But not only is Clevinger’s status in doubt, Lamet also left his start on Sept. 25 due to biceps tightness, though the team is optimistic he can make his first playoff start.

NL Teams that might not care for the new format include the Miami Marlins, who have just three pitchers who rank average or better according to our ratings (though one of them, rookie Sixto Sanchez, has the talent to dominate in any start). The Braves, meanwhile, already had starting pitching questions before an injury to Cole Hamels. They now have just two healthy pitchers (Max Fried and Ian Anderson) with better-than-average ratings. The Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers have strong options at the top of their rotation in Yu Darvish and Corbin Burnes, respectively — but Burnes, one of the most improved pitchers in the game, is out for the wild-card round of the playoffs and, should the Brewers advance, doubtful for the divisional round with an oblique strain. The Cubs have only two pitchers (Darvish and Kyle Hendricks) performing at average-or-better levels, and the Brewers have three. That might have been OK a year ago with more off days, but it makes a run in this year’s condensed playoff schedule more difficult.

Again, since our pitcher ratings have certain limitations, let’s also gauge each playoff club’s depth according to WAR.

Some playoff teams have deeper starting pitching

Average and total wins above replacement (WAR) of starting pitchers on playoff clubs, among top starters by WAR on each team

Average War Total WAR
League
Team
Top five starters
top four starters
top five starters
top four starters
NL Reds 1.64 1.93 8.2 7.7
AL Indians 1.56 1.85 7.8 7.4
NL Brewers 1.30 1.50 6.5 6.0
NL Cubs 1.12 1.38 5.6 5.5
AL Astros 1.12 1.33 5.6 5.3
AL Twins 1.16 1.28 5.8 5.1
NL Dodgers 1.04 1.20 5.2 4.8
AL White Sox 0.98 1.18 4.9 4.7
NL Padres 0.96 1.13 4.9 4.8
AL Yankees 0.92 1.00 4.6 4.0
NL Marlins 0.84 0.95 4.2 3.8
AL Athletics 0.84 0.93 4.2 3.7
NL Braves 0.68 0.83 3.4 3.3
AL Rays 0.70 0.80 3.5 3.2
NL Cardinals 0.64 0.70 3.2 2.8
AL Blue Jays 0.54 0.63 2.7 2.5

Source: FanGraphs

Just as they did in FiveThirtyEight’s rolling pitcher game scores, the Indians and Reds stand out with talented and deep rotations per FanGraphs’ WAR. Cincinnati and Cleveland rank first and second, respectively, in average WAR per starting pitcher among four-man rotations.

If clubs are faced with lengthy series and no off days, they could elect to pitch starters on short rest as teams sometimes do in the postseason, or even throw bullpen games — efforts cobbled together by relievers. Starting pitchers don’t often pitch on less than the typical four days between starts, but when they do, their performance tends to decline. That was true last regular season and again this season.

However, the Cubs and Astros — even without Verlander — are the fourth- and fifth-best positioned staffs when looking at average WAR of a team’s top four pitchers, while the Rays, who look formidable in terms of rolling game scores, rank near the bottom half of that measure. While the Astros lost their star pitcher, their No. 4 and No. 5 options — Lance McCullers and Framber Valdez — have combined for 2.9 WAR. And though the Cubs lack the Astros’ depth, Darvish and Hendricks are a formidable one-two combo in a playoff series, having combined for 4.9 WAR in the regular season.

There may never be another playoff schedule quite like this one. So it’s hard to say exactly how the condensed schedule and lack of travel will affect different teams. But teams with deeper starting pitching staffs — and bona fide aces — should start with an advantage.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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