The first World Series in baseball history was played in 1903. In the 116 years between then and last season, only two players made their big-league debuts in the postseason.
Already this year, three have.
Minnesota Twins outfielder Alex Kirilloff made his own list of one, as the only player ever to start a postseason game, filling in for Byron Buxton in right field in the second game of the wild-card series last week. The 22-year-old’s first game ever was the Twins’ last of the year as the Astros eliminated them, but he had a couple of hard-hit balls, including a hit, and diving catch.
Twenty-three-year-old southpaw Shane McClanahan became the first pitcher to debut in a postseason game in the Tampa Bay Rays’ Game 1 loss to the Yankees in the Division Series. He gave up a walk, a hit, and a stolen base in his ninth-inning mop-up duty Monday, but escaped unscathed after recording the last out of the inning.
Ryan Weathers hadn’t pitched above Class A before the San Diego Padres’ first NLDS game this week. An aggravated arm injury forced Mike Clevinger from his start after only 24 pitches, necessitating yet another bullpen game for the Padres. Weathers, a 20-year-old left-hander, ended up throwing 1 ⅓ hitless innings.
With Clevinger off the roster for this series and the next round if San Diego advances, Padres’ top prospect MacKenzie Gore has a chance at making it four big-league debuts in the postseason, twice as many as had ever come before.
It’s tempting to chalk this up to the seemingly limitless weirdness of 2020. Right now, teams are facing off in empty neutral-site stadiums after a 60-game regular season and a 16-team wild-card round. Baseball organizations are such delicate, fine-tuned machines that any shift in environment will change the equations used to determine things like call-up dates. But if anything, the circumstances this year, which included a cancellation of the minor-league season, seem to make prospect development more difficult than ever.
So why this small but sudden trend of players debuting the postseason?
Eyes on the alternate site
“One of the most formidable challenges this season was losing the minor-league season and trying to correlate time spent at an alternate site, and how did that compare to time spent in Double-A or Triple-A,” Twins general manager Thad Levine said, referring to the training camps teams ran internally for up to 32 players in the absence of affiliated seasons this year.
“I think the superficial easy answer was to say, these guys have not had an opportunity to play games and develop, and you would rarely bring up a player straight from Double-A, or even Triple-A to make their major-league debut in the postseason or even in a playoff stretch,” Levine said. “But I think we tried to take a little bit more of a below-the-surface, sophisticated look at what the competition was like at the alternate site.”
There are two big differences between the alternate sites and the affiliated teams where these players would have been in previous years during the regular season: Proximity and control. The Twins’ alternate site was in St. Paul, 13 miles from their big-league ballpark. The Rays’ training camp was in Port Charlotte, 80 miles from Tampa Bay. And the Padres’ was just seven miles from their home stadium at the University of San Diego.
“And so major-league coaches and front office people were able to go over and watch him play and watch him develop,” Levine said about Kirilloff. “Where normally, you're relying on minor-league staffers exclusively and scouts — obviously we trust those groups — but it's even more magnified, I think, when major-league coaching staff members and/or major-league front office people are able to lay eyes on a player.”
“There was probably a little bit more familiarity,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of McClanahan’s development at the alternate site. “We had staff down there that got to see countless reps with him, and we could control the environment a little bit more than maybe playing in Double-A and Triple-A. That might have played a little bit of a benefit.”
Those big-league evaluators weren’t just able to see a player in person, they were also able to dictate the circumstances. Replicating the full intensity of a real game without a season may have been impossible, but at least in some instances the flexibility of training camp outweighed that.
“The fact that we were able to kind of control the competition,” Levine said, “ratchet it up at times, challenge him by having him play multiple different positions, that gave us enhanced confidence that when the opportunity presented itself that we would go to him.”
Kirilloff plays the outfield and first base, valuable versatility in the event of injuries that might have proven even more applicable had the Twins advanced. But even, if not especially, for pitchers, being able to prepare for a range of roles at the alternate site — closely monitored and specifically guided by the needs of the big league club — presented a clearer path to a postseason debut.
“We’ve challenged him with some different roles and he’s shown us versatility. And I think we valued that versatility in putting him on the roster here tonight,” Padres GM A.J. Preller said before Weathers made his first appearance Tuesday. “We put him in some different spots in the last couple months, so I think he’s more comfortable pitching in more like a starting-type situation where he’s gonna give you some length.”
All arms on deck
The previous players to debut in the postseason — A’s infielder Mark Kiger in 2006 and Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi in the 2015 World Series — were added as late-game defensive replacements or pinch-runners. This year’s playoffs are creating opportunities for first-timers in bigger roles.
Pitchers are particularly in demand this postseason. Both the Padres and the Rays fast-tracked their prospects at least in part because of the potential number of innings they need to cover over the next two weeks. Unlike previous years, the Division Series and Championship Series will be played without any days off between games. That could mean five games in five days and as many as 12 games in 13 days. This happens in the regular season, of course, but with the ability to cycle through arms on the active roster and without such high stakes.
McClanahan and Weathers will likely at least try their hands in big-league rotations eventually. For now, though, that makes them especially well-suited to covering a number of innings out of the bullpen, hopefully giving established relievers an opportunity for a day off, and aiding their teams in what is ultimately a make-the-best-of-it kind of season.
“I'll be the first to say, none of us think that it's the most ideal situation to bring a kid that's never pitched in a big-league game into a postseason game,” Cash said, “but sometimes you deal with the cards the way they're dealt to you.”
At least they don’t have the pressure of a packed playoff ballpark, potentially full of rival fans. It’s possible teams would be more hesitant to promote a prospect straight to the postseason in a normal stadium environment.
“I would say if we were contemplating promoting some of our other players, perhaps [we’d be concerned],” Levine said. “Alex's demeanor is exceptionally even keeled; it certainly belies his actual chronological age, how he composes himself and his poise is really one of his best attributes. So I'm not sure it would have mattered if there were someone sitting three inches away from him with a bullhorn, I think he'd perform at that same level.”
And that’s ultimately every team’s evaluation. Even in a year where unprecedented circumstances make a postseason debut possible, it’s the unique talent of the individual player that convinced his manager or general manager to put him in the game.
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