MLB's Updated Playoff Schedule Helps Solve Postseason Pitching Management

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The pandemic has ruined most things. But it may have inadvertently helped solve one of MLB’s recent problems: excruciating postseason pitching management.

MLB released its playoff schedule on Tuesday. Much of the announcement confirmed the rumors that had been swirling for weeks: The first-round, three-game series will be played entirely at the home of the better seed, after which the league will move to four neutral sites. (It is incorrect to refer to these setups as bubbles, since they are not sealed.) The American League Division Series will be held at San Diego’s Petco Park and at Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium, the National League Division Series at Houston’s Minute Maid Park and at Globe Life Field, in Arlington, Texas. The ALCS will be at Petco and the NLCS at Globe Life, and then the teams will converge at Globe Life for the World Series. (The thinking here is that no one will have home field advantage unless the Rangers pull off one of the most impressive comebacks in sports history.)

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (second from left) talks to starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) before replacing Kershaw during the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.

But the schedule contained an additional wrinkle: Because there will be no travel, there will be no travel days in the first three rounds. (They will retain the off-days after Games 2 and 5 of the World Series.) This adjustment could change the entire postseason.

Over the past half-decade, managers have begun using the off-days to reshape their bullpen management. If you only play three games in a row twice in October, you can get away with relying only on your best three starters and a handful of relievers. If you run into trouble late in a game, bring in whichever starter is on his throw day.

This strategy had been showing up in isolated cases over the years: Randy Johnson saved Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks. Madison Bumgarner did the same in Game 7 of the ’14 World Series for the Giants. Clayton Kershaw saved Game 5 of the ’16 NLDS for the Dodgers. But those were last-resort situations. Astros manager A.J. Hinch began deploying his starters as relievers more regularly in ’17, and Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Nationals manager Davey Martínez built the practice into their plans in ’18 and ’19, respectively. All three won it all.

That won’t be an option this year, at least not until the World Series. Teams need four starters unless they plan to start their ace on short rest in each series, and they will be forced to rely on more than just their top two or three firemen. They will have to use all the pitchers on their roster. In other words, they will have to play the kind of baseball in the postseason that got them through the regular season.

The league’s only real misstep here was not making the change before the trade deadline, since it might have affected how general managers built their teams. Starters Lance Lynn, of the Rangers, and Dylan Bundy, of the Angels, were trade candidates who stayed put; if contenders had known how valuable the rotation would be, they might have been more inclined to deal for them.

Still, on the whole, it’s a good move. It might even give us more offense, as we see more of each team’s 14-best pitcher. Here’s hoping the league finds a way to retain the change, or some version of it, in non-pandemic seasons. (At a minimum, MLB should eliminate one of the travel days in the division series—you don’t need two rest days in five games.)

In such an unprecedented year, it will be nice to see a return to some normalcy.

Quick Hits

  • Braves left fielder Adam Duvall hit his 10th home run of the month on Tuesday. It’s Sept. 15th. He had five total in July and August.
  • Rumors of the Yankees’ demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated. They beat the Blue Jays 20–6 on Tuesday to overtake them for second place in the AL East.
  • The Giants-Mariners two-game series scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday was postponed because the air quality in Seattle remains dangerous as wildfires continue to rip through the west coast. The teams hope to play Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco. Keep an eye on this in both the short term (nearly half the playoffs are set to take place on the west coast) and the long term (the acceleration of climate change means we will probably be dealing with this for the foreseeable future).