After 162 games, the Indians will play a 1 game wild-card play-in game to determine if they, or the Rays, will travel to Boston to play the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. While MLB has had tie-breaking games before, they’ve never been known to be necessary until the final day of the regular season, and teams simply had to make adjustments to play an unscheduled game at the last minute. But, with the recent addition of a second wild card team last season and the guaranteed play-in game, it’s likely that one or more teams are going to head into the final few days of the regular season essentially certain that they’re going to be involved in the play-in game. Indians fans have witnessed this first-hand this season.
Since the Indians have known, for the better half of a week, that the likelihood of of winning 1 of the 2 wild card slots was high, a big part of the planning was to essentially set up the starting rotation and bullpen for a war-like, dog eat dog 9 inning winner-take-all ballgame.
It’s pretty well known at this point that relief pitchers perform better than starting pitchers, as the ability to let it go for 15-20 pitches leads to increased velocity and better stuff for most pitchers. Additionally, relievers more often face same-handed hitters, so they get a larger advantage from platoon splits, and they hardly ever face the same batter more than once in a game. These advantages add up in a hurry, which is why quality relief pitchers can sustain performances that even the best starters can’t come close to.
Except for in a few cases such as Justin Verlander, a team’s most effective pitcher is hardly ever a member of the starting rotation. In reality, the more innings you can allocate to good relief pitchers, the less likely the opposing team is to score runs. In fact, as baseball writer Dave Cameron has stated: "Starting pitchers are essentially a necessity born out of the need to play many days in a row without a day off, but that restraint doesn’t exist in the play-in game."
With that in mind the Indians should seriously consider the idea of skipping the starting pitcher entirely for Wednesday night.
Although I believe the theory of skipping the starter in an elimination game, the reality is that the participants in these games are people, and they are used to set routines because of the 162 game schedule, and divergence from their established roles might have a negative impact on their performance. It is probably too crazy of a strategy for any team to actually adopt.In fact, I believe Danny Salazar is a great fit to start the game considering his pitch selection and arm strength.
But that doesn’t mean that the Indians have to just stick with the conventional in-game approach that they used for the first 162 games of the season. The modern starting rotation is entirely a function of keeping 11 or 12 pitchers healthy and productive over a six month time frame, and it is simply not the most effective way to limit the opponents from scoring in any single game. With 9 innings that decide the fate of the Indians season, full year strategy should go out the window.
The rules surrounding the Wild Card Game rosters favor a significant turn away from standard operating procedure. The 25 man roster that will be set for Wednesday’s contest can be completely overhauled for the division series, so Wednesday’s roster only has to play on Wednesday. After that, the winner can go right back to a more normal construction for a best-of-five series. So, instead of carrying several starting pitchers who won’t actually pitch in that days game, as every team does in the regular season, the Wild Card participants can simply load up their bullpen for a war of match-ups.
Last year, for instance, the Cardinals carried 10 pitchers and 15 position players into the Wild Card Game, but 8 of those 10 pitchers were relievers. Kyle Lohse started for St. Louis, and then Lance Lynn was around if the game went extra innings, but their ability to omit three other starters from the game allowed them carry eight relievers and still have room for a designated pinch runner and extra bench depth. And I think you could even argue that a team like the Indians might be better off punting one of those bench players because of overall bench depth.
One of those 11 pitchers should be a starter held in reserve in case of extra innings, leaving the team with 10 pitchers that they actually want to use in the Wild Card Game. And with 10 arms available to get through nine innings, there’s simply no compelling reason to manage the game like a regular season affair. In particular, the Indians have a strong incentive to make numerous pitching changes because of the platoon splits.
According to Cameron, by flipping roles and beginning the game with the relievers, the opposition wouldn’t be able to set their line-up to maximize platoon differential, and "...you’d ensure that the game wouldn’t be lost before the team’s best pitchers got a chance to pitch." Additionally, you’d ensure that you’re never wasting an at-bat on a pitcher, giving your offense a boost in the process as well. And, because of the predictable nature of the schedule and the aforementioned likelihood of them making it this far, the Indians have rested their bullpen before and after that game takes place, meaning that they’ll all be available for the entire division series, so that this usage pattern wouldn’t have an adverse affect on the team’s chances of winning the first round of the actual playoffs.