Ideas From the Fringe (Part 2) – The Wild Card Starter

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.




About Kevin Creagh

Kevin Creagh resides in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and has been a Pirate fan since the mid 1980′s. Kevin joined Pirates Prospects in July 2010 and enjoys writing about the economic side of baseball decisions. Many of Kevin’s articles focus on the long-term decisions that the Pirates and other organizations may need to make in the future, in order to balance escalating player salaries with built-in payroll limitations. Kevin also enjoys following prospects throughout the Pirates’ minor league system and forecasting their potential to help the major league team.
  • L G

    I say the Pirates aren’t strong enough to look to far ahead in the playoffs.
    That will be the time when they should really “play one game at a time.”

    We’re going to be using a 4 man rotation max anyways.
    I say start AJ but with a short leash. If he shows signs of faltering, or if we get a big enough lead, i say pull him, and try to see what’ll happen 4 days later. Use him for only 4-5 innings if it gets to that.

  • leadoff

    We should first analyze who the best 4 pitchers are that we have pitching at this point in time. Hurtle will go by stats, I go with who is doing the best job at the time!
    1. Rodriguez
    2. Burnette
    3. Correia
    4. Karstens (if healthy)
    I don’t like McDonald unless necessary because right now he is far too erratic, I don’t care what he did in May, October is a different animal. In fact if they want to get to the promise land might be a good idea to skip McDonald for a turn somewhere along the way. Karstens being hurt as much as he has been is turning out to be a real disaster for the Bucs this year, think where they might be is he was healthy all year?

  • leadoff

    The fact that the Pirates can’t even go 4 deep in quality pitching this time of year is a good reason for their decline of late.

  • Brian

    No team would use their worst pitchers in an elimination game in this manner. The top rested SP would start that game.

    However, it’s looking like Burnett would not be available for that game anyway. If he’s kept to a 4 day rest schedule his starting spot would come up Tuesday the 2nd. Friday the 5th, I’d expect Burnett to be available out of the bullpen on two days rest.

  • John Lease

    Didn’t work when Ted Power started a game, no dice.

  • Ian Rothermund

    Just like in any playoff, you go with your best first and foremost. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.

    A one game playoff is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. If I’m a Braves fan, I would be irate if my team finished 5 games ahead of the other wild card spot just to lose. Thank you, Bud Selig for marginalizing the regular season. This added hype about another wild card is just an artificial sense of excitement, without any real, tangible improvement to the game.

    • Luke

      I’d disagree that it marginalizes the regular season. I look at it that it has added a great deal of value to winning the division. In the past the Wild Card was just as good as a division title which was pretty dumb.

  • Rick Peluso

    Before you make all these projections you must acknowledge that the Pirates will most likely still be in the thick of the wild card push leading up to October 5th. The Braves are in town until the 3rd and with four teams realistically vying for the two wild card spots you must assume that the race will not be decided until those games. Keeping this in mind, like Brian projected Burnett will not be available so making analyzing these possible scenarios is a waste of time.
    Also, the bullpen will most likely be taxed as the games leading up to the play-in game are not going to be 8 shutout innings from starters so projecting the ‘pen to complete a entire game is asking too much. Furthermore, a bullpen by committee approach is just the wrong way to go IMO. I still get nervous watching Resop, let alone have him start, while neglecting the fact that Hughes is hit or miss lately, and Takahashi is anything but a sure thing based on his small sample size here. Go with a starter who was brought onto this team to do just that; start.

  • duckwoes

    I thought the lower seed will play the first two games at home in the division series for this season only

  • VRR Cards

    Thoughtful idea but reality is doing something this far out of the box is the type of thing that gets someone fired if they lose. So no one would do it unless they are entrenched in their job or coming close to retirement.