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Play-In Game Strategy: Skip the Starter

In a couple of weeks, we’re going to be treated to a couple of one-game, winner-take-all showdowns to determine the final playoff team in each league. The addition of the wild card play-in game changes the context of the playoff races in a new and meaningful way, and also creates some interesting questions for a handful of teams. 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.

Now, however, 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. For instance, the Braves currently have a seven game lead over St. Louis in the wild card race, and even after sweeping Washington this weekend, they’re still 5.5 games back in the NL East. CoolStandings currently gives the Braves a 96.3% chance of winning one of the two wild card spots, but only a 3.6% chance of winning their division. Barring some kind of epic collapse by either the Braves or Nationals, Atlanta is going to be one of the two NL teams in the play-in game, and they can start planning for that game right now.

And, as part of that planning, they should seriously consider the idea of skipping the starting pitcher entirely.

It’s pretty well known at this point that relief pitchers perform better than starting pitchers, as the ability to air it out 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 – Justin Verlander in Detroit probably the most notable one – the 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. 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.

There’s a strong possibility that the Braves will know by October 1st whether they’re going to be in the play-in game or not. That game won’t take place until October 5th. If they win, they won’t play again until October 7th. This schedule — and the days available to prepare for it — means that the Braves should choose to begin the game with their best pitchers, and that means their relievers.

Give Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Luis Avilan, and Cristhian Martinez the last couple of days of the regular season off in order to make sure they’re fresh for the play-in game. Then, announce Kimbrel as the starting pitcher, and tell him he’s getting the first six outs of the game. He’s faced 5+ batters nine times this year already, so it’s not a drastic departure from a quantity standpoint. Then, for the next few innings, you can mix and match right-handers with left-handers, taking advantage of the platoon match-ups to quash any early rallies. You’d hope to get another 9-12 outs from these four, which would take you into the sixth or seventh inning.

From there, you’re dealing with a significantly larger pool of information from which to make decisions about which “starter” you want to use to pitch the last few innings. If the game is still in doubt, you probably want Kris Medlen ready to come in to finish out the final three innings, as he’s been the team’s best starting pitcher for the last few months and has experience out of the bullpen. Paul Maholm and Tommy Hanson both have significant platoon splits, so they could be ready for match-up reasons if Medlen struggles or a need arises in a left-on-left situational spot. If the Braves offense happened to turn it into a blowout, either Maholm, Hanson, or Mike Minor could simply be asked to finish out the final three innings, thus saving Medlen for a Game 1 start in the NLDS.

By flipping roles and begininning 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, the Braves should be able to rest 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.

If they simply went with Medlen or Hudson in the play-in game and treated it as a traditional contest, they’d actually be lowering their odds of winning the NLDS by removing whichever pitcher started the play-in game from the possibility of making two starts in the first round. In starting the game with relievers and only using a guy like Medlen if necessary, they not only give themselves the best chance to win the play-in game, but they keep the possibility of their two best pitchers starting games one and two of the first round alive.

The Braves aren’t the only team in this situation either. The Orioles bullpen has been dramatically better than their starters, and this should also be a consideration for the A’s, whose best chance to advance deep in the playoffs comes from Brett Anderson getting two starts in the ALDS. By shifting innings to the relievers to start the game, these teams can ensure that their best pitchers pitch the most innings in a win-or-go-home contest while also gathering more information on whether to deploy their best starter or save him for the start of the division series two days later.

Last year, the Yankees effectively used this kind of all-hands-on-deck approach in Game 5 of the ALDS against Detroit, as Ivan Nova only went two innings and no pitcher faced more than nine batters in the contest. However, the Yankees offense was never able to score more than the two runs Nova allowed in the first inning, and so the one run allowed by the non-starters in that game proved to be the deciding margin of victory. With a little more time to prepare for a winner-take-all contest, I’d like to see a team like the Braves push this strategy to it’s full potential. Relievers first, then decide which starter is going to pitch based on the score. It might sound crazy, but it really just boils down to one simple plan – use your best pitchers to win a must-win game. And, for teams like Atlanta, their best pitchers are not their starters.