Wild-Card playoff offers teams a chance to exploit roster rules
We're about two weeks away from the first Wild-Card Playoff round in MLB history. The two teams in each league with the best records among non-division winners will play one-game playoffs on Friday, October 5 to determine who advances to the Division Series. Because a single game between two playoff-caliber teams is essentially meaningless in determining the relative quality of those teams, I've come to call it the Coin-Flip Round -- one baseball game is more or less a coin flip.
Nevertheless, the arguments against this format have been made and lost, and we're not far from seeing it implemented for the first time. One of the curious quirks in the implementation is that the game is considered one complete round of playoffs. Teams will have the opportunity to set a 25-man roster for the Coin-Flip Game, and then reset that roster for the Division Series. It means that teams, which would normally have a few dead roster spots in a postseason series that go to starting pitchers just used or ones scheduled to be used, or perhaps slots for emergency backups in case of injury, could instead craft a bench on which every player has a specific role in winning one do-or-die game.
The most obvious opportunity this creates is for the removal of starting pitchers who will not be used in the game under any realistic circumstance. With a day off before the game and a day off after -- a very mild schedule that doesn't "punish" the wild-card teams as much as many people would have preferred -- that can save at least two spots in that a team can leave its Game 162 starter, and planned Game 1 LDS starter, off the roster. A team can also leave its fifth starter -- most teams' fifth starter is a position of necessity rather than quality -- off the roster. The role that a fifth starter usually plays in the postseason, that of long reliever who saves the bullpen, is useless in a one-and-done scenario. There are no low-leverage innings in the Coin Flip Round.
Let's look at this using the Orioles as an example. As it stands now, Baltimore may well have to go to the last game of the season to secure the second wild-card -- or settle for it after battling for the AL East crown. Projecting a rotation two weeks out is a challenge, especially for a team with pitching injuries, but let's say that the O's close the year by using Zach Britton in Game 161 and Wei-Yin Chen in Game 162. They wouldn't be able use Chen in a playoff game and would be unlikely to use Britton, still working his way back from a shoulder injury, out of the bullpen on short rest. Neither pitcher should occupy a spot on the roster. In the Orioles' case, they'd probably start Chris Tillman in this scenario, and Randy Wolf could be kept around as a lefty specialist for a single game. Would Miguel Gonzalez warrant a roster spot? He has little tactical value and would be maybe the fifth-best right-handed reliever in the bullpen. In a one-game scenario, there are better uses for that roster spot.
The most critical change that a manager consigned to the Coin-Flip Round will have to make is to not just reflexively take the usual set of pitchers, and instead, fill those spots with players who might be able make a fraction of a percentage chance in winning the baseball game. In an era where managers typically carry 12 pitchers and have built playoff rosters -- for five games in seven days or seven games in nine days! -- with a dozen hurlers, including two long relievers, it will be critical that they separate from this mindset.
There is absolutely no call for carrying double-digit pitchers to play a single must-win game. You have to use all of your high-leverage relievers before even thinking about going to a fourth or fifth starter placed in the bullpen, and you have to use them for longer than you would in a regular-season or even playoff game. The proper mix of pitchers and hitters varies from team to team depending on who is available, but any manager carrying more than nine pitchers in the Coin-Flip Round is wasting space -- and there's a pretty good argument that he should be carrying eight. September insanity aside, there just aren't many scenarios where you're going to use more than eight pitchers to win a baseball game played with 25-man rosters.
The freed roster spots are then to be used on players who have specific tactical value. Again, this will vary from roster to roster. For the Orioles, it may mean keeping spare outfielder Xavier Avery, who can be used to pinch-run in a must-steal, must-score situation for much of the O's lineup. It could mean activating Jim Thome, whose herniated disk has limited him to 18 games since his trade to Baltimore and who may not be able to play a full game, but who could take one critical at-bat if the game situation warranted it.
In building his bench for this game, the question the manager has to ask about every single player is: How would I use this player to create a game-deciding run? Players with broad skill sets but no standout tool are less valuable than players who can do one thing -- run, hit a homer, reach base -- exceptionally well. The tradeoffs are in managing your risks; a generic backup infielder whose primary role is to give the starters a rest or serve as an injury replacement doesn't mean much in the Coin-Flip Round. The tactical value of a player, rather than the strategic one, is what matters. It will be fascinating to see which managers make the adjustments, and which ones go into the game with 11 pitchers and a bench that doesn't actually do anything.
The other opportunity presented by both the scheduling and the roster rules for the game is to manage your pitching staff creatively. As a general rule, pitchers are more effective the first time through a lineup than on subsequent times through the lineup. So a manager without an obvious choice to start the Coin-Flip Game -- whether because there's no clear-cut No. 1 or that pitcher is unavailable -- could choose to make a bullpen game of it, using a different pitcher each time through the lineup. The potential for tactical advantages is obvious; by starting a lefty and then switching to a righty after one time through the lineup, a team could gain the platoon advantage over a few lineup spots. This has been tried on occasion in the postseason -- then-Royals manager Dick Howser beat Bobby Cox and the Blue Jays this way in the 1985 ALCS, and Jim Leyland used it in the 1990 NLCS when he was managing the Pirates.
To bring it back to the Orioles, they could start righty Chris Tillman, then turn the game over to Randy Wolf for the second time through the lineup (or, being more specific, at whatever point it was optimal to switch to the lefty). The O's could then reileve Wolf, presumably in the fifth inning or so, by going to the bullpen that has been such a critical part of their success. Remember: A day off before and a day off after this game, and it is possible that the team will not have had to use its good pitchers in Game 162. So you can turn to Pedro Strop and Darren O'Day and Jim Johnson, in a must-win game, and ask for more than you typically would.
The most important point is this: The Coin-Flip Round is unlike any other playoff we've seen, a one-game round with 25-man rosters and days off on either side of the game. You have to make sure that every single roster spot is optimized towards the goal of winning that one game. Anything less is shorting your team and its fans.