Yesterday, I took a look at an idea that will probably never happen — lineup optimization by wOBA. Today, I wanted to explore another out-of-the-box idea dealing with the Wild Card play-in game and the starting pitcher.
The new wrinkle this year with a 1 game play-in game to determine which team gets to go further in the playoffs presents a huge conundrum to a manager: Do you pitch your staff ace in the play-in game or save him for the start of the true playoff series? The kicker is that if you save your ace for the start of the traditional playoff series, you risk not even getting to that point if your nominal 2nd best starter doesn’t do well.
For a team like the Phillies, this isn’t really much of a problem. They have Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels to mix and match. Same with the Giants and Nationals (although losing Strasburg to his shutdown will sting). But the Pirates are a different case.
If the Pirates were to make the Wild Card play-in game, A.J. Burnett would most likely be Hurdle’s choice to take the bump. That game is on Friday, October 5th. Assuming that the winner of that game goes to the listed Sunday, October 7th bracket for Game 1 of the NL Divisional Series and carries forth from there, Burnett would not be able to pitch until Game 3 on normal rest. Theoretically, he could go on 4 days rest and pitch Game 2, but that’s not how you would normally want to set up your rotation in the playoffs.
Compounding things further, if the Pirates were to make the Wild Card game, they would presumably be on the road for the 1 game pre-playoff. Here’s the road splits for each of the Pirates’ 4 main starters by ERA/FIP/xFIP:
Burnett — 4.38/4.07/3.67
McDonald — 5.40/4.82/4.56
Karstens — 5.95/3.82/4.13
Rodriguez — 4.15/3.56/3.92
I suppose you could make the case that Wandy on the road would be an acceptable option for the play-in game, but that is still not a confidence-inspiring option.
What if the Pirates decided to treat the Wild Card play-in game as “found money” and went with a totally different strategy of using their bullpen to pitch that game? If they won, the Pirates would be able to have their ideal rotation all set up, rested, and ready to go. If they lost, it would still be an amazing cap to an unexpected season. The downside would be the public relations flak from doing an unorthodox move and not putting forth the perceived “best effort” to win that play-in game.
The bullpen game could look something like this (remembering that Locke, Leroux, and Wilson are not eligible as a result of being called up on September 1st):
Chris Resop “starter” – 2 innings
Kyle McPherson – 2 innings
Tony Watson – 1 inning, to give opposing manager pause about flipping batters
Jared Hughes – 2 innings
Hisanori Takahashi – 1 inning
Chad Qualls – 1 final inning if winning by large margin (Grilli/Hanrahan if is tight)
Under this hypothetical scenario and assuming the Pirates win, Hurdle would be able to start A.J. Burnett in Game 1 and have both Grilli and Hanrahan on full rest.
However, that gets right back to the problem of the Pirates’ starters not being as great on the road as they are at home. But at that point the Pirates are in the Divisional Series 5 game series and would be a true playoff team. The fans would be assured of at least 2 home games. If the Pirates really wanted to analyze this through, here’s the Home splits for the 4 starters by ERA/FIP/xFIP:
Burnett — 2.94/3.49/3.40
McDonald — 2.60/3.31/3.58
Karstens — 1.76/2.89/3.69
Rodriguez — 3.43/4.15/4.27
If Burnett is most likely the Pirates Game 1 starter in the NLDS, a strong case should be made for Wandy Rodriguez to be the Game 2 starter on the road (see above) and then have Jeff Karstens be the Game 3 starter at PNC Park, followed by McDonald as the Game 4 starter at PNC Park. It would be possible based on the days in between games 2 and 3 that Burnett could be the Game 4 starter at PNC Park, as well.
All of this is just a thought exercise and not one that I would expect the Pirates to consider using, based on the aforementioned public relations nightmare that would ensue from the general public if the Pirates lost the play-in game with “a bunch of nobody bullpen guys” instead of A.J. Burnett. But it will be interesting to see how the 4 play-in game managers treat that game in the inaugural go around.