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Reds-Pirates: The Ultimate Match-Up Game

This evening, the Reds and Pirates will square off in the NL Wild Card game, with the winner advancing to play the Cardinals starting on Thursday. Last week, I wrote up my suggestions for how Clint Hurdle should handle his pitching staff, utilizing an army of relievers to keep the Reds left-handed bats at bay. However, the Pirates are not the only team that can and should go match-up crazy today, as Pittsburgh’s line-up essentially invites Dusty Baker to play the same kind of game.

Cincinnati is starting Johnny Cueto due to some elbow problems for Mat Latos, and Cueto hasn’t exactly been the picture of health himself this year. A recurring lat problem has landed him on the DL several times, and he’s only pitched beyond the seventh inning once this year: back in May, against these Pirates. In fact, Cueto’s only thrown 12 innings in two starts since coming off the DL, so it’s unlikely that the Reds are going to ride him the way the Rays rode David Price last night.

The Reds roster for this Wild Card game includes nine relief pitchers, though Mike Leake is going to be held in reserve in case the game goes to extra innings, so Baker has eight relievers to deploy during regulation. Of those eight, they break down like this:

RHPs: Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover, Alfredo Simon, Logan Ondrusek
LHPs: Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Manny Parra, Zach Duke

Chapman won’t be used situationally, but the Reds have loaded up with three left-handers who can be used as specialists in the middle innings between Cueto’s exit and Chapman’s arrival, and then four right-handers who can be used to help bridge that gap as well. And the Pirates line-up is going to strongly encourage one batter outings, so you may very well see all eight of these relievers tonight.

Pittsburgh’s standard line-up against RHPs since the Justin Morneau acquisition looks something like this:

Starling Marte (R): .344 wOBA
Neil Walker (S): .333 wOBA
Andrew McCutchen (R): .393 wOBA
Justin Morneau (L): .321 wOBA
Marlon Byrd (R): .364 wOBA
Pedro Alvarez (L): .330 wOBA
Russell Martin (R): .315 wOBA
Clint Barmes (R): .244 wOBA
Pitcher: CENSORED wOBA

Doesn’t seem all that scary, right? It’s basically McCutchen and a bunch of average-ish hitters around him, so if you go after McCutchen, you can shut this team down, no? Well, it’s not quite that simple, and the case for specialization shows up more acutely if you look at their performances against RHPs and LHPs:

Name Vs RHP wOBA Vs LHP wOBA Ratio
Starling Marte 0.319 0.456 0.70
Neil Walker 0.352 0.239 1.47
Andrew McCutchen 0.374 0.480 0.78
Justin Morneau 0.355 0.234 1.52
Marlon Byrd 0.346 0.406 0.85
Pedro Alvarez 0.357 0.244 1.46
Russell Martin 0.325 0.282 1.15
Clint Barmes 0.247 0.232 1.06

These are all single year platoon splits, so they’re subject to serious small sample issues — Russell Martin’s reverse platoon split being a great example of those problems — but I’m pretty sure Dusty Baker isn’t going to regress these against their career numbers. Odds are good that if Baker looks at any numbers, these are going to be the kind of numbers he looks at, and on the surface, these numbers scream for bullpen specialization.

The #1/#3/#5 hitters in the Pirates line-up have absolutely destroyed left-handed pitching this year, while the #2/#4/#6 hitters have been completely useless against them. In fact, the Pirates current batch of position players have posted a 119 wRC+ against left-handers this year, #1 in all of baseball. Marte, McCutchen, Byrd, and contributions from role players like Jordy Mercer and Gaby Sanchez have propelled the team’s offense against southpaws into elite territory, even with the significant problems against lefties that Walker, Morneau, and Alvarez have had.

This is not a line-up where you want to leave a lefty out there to work through a long stretch of batters. This line-up is constructed to minimize the number of batters a pitcher can go with the platoon advantage in his favor, and this kind of line-up is just begging for right-left-right-left-right-left match-ups in any kind of rally situation.

With seven match-up relievers at his disposal, there is little reason for Baker to let Walker, Morneau, or Alvarez face a right-handed pitcher in a critical situation. Likewise, there is little reason for allowing the lefty to stay in to face Marte, McCutchen, or Byrd unless the lead is somewhat comfortable and there are no runners on base. Especially if the Reds are willing to use Aroldis Chapman for multiple innings, shortening the game even more.

The Reds could faily easily get Cueto out of the game after five innings, then simply go right-left as needed until Chapman enters, without any of the middle relievers facing more than one batter. This is what allowing a team to set a roster for just the elimination game encourages, in fact. Instead of pushing a pitcher who recently came off the DL, or asking specialist relievers to go after hitters with big platoon splits, this game is setup perfectly for both teams to unload the bullpens and make an unending number of pitching changes.

While I’ve advocated for aggressive bullpen usage in elimination games as loud as anyone, this is one of the reasons why I am not in favor of allowing a team to reset its playoff roster after the Wild Card game. If we’re going to consider this the postseason, then it should simply be counted as Game One of the first round, forcing a team to carry a more normal amount of starting pitchers rather than overloading the game with bullpen arms.

Pitching changes, while strategically wise, are not particularly entertaining. When people complain that baseball is boring, it is hard to refute them when a single inning takes 10-15 minutes simply due to bullpen specialization. It’s good baseball if you want to win the game, but bad baseball if you want to push continual drama to those in attendance or watching on TV.

And, realistically, it’s just not how baseball is played the rest of the year. The postseason is always going to encourage different strategies than the regular season, and you shouldn’t legislate away the motivation for a team to do whatever it can to win, but MLB doesn’t have to give the teams an extra ability to drag things out. And that’s what this single game roster does; empowers and incentivizes teams to heavily specialize, nearly on a batter-by-batter basis.

I certainly won’t blame Baker if this is the tact he chooses tonight. He should be focused solely on winning, and the Pirates line-up is basically asking for him to change relievers after every batter in any crucial situation. My feeling is we’re going to see a lot of pitching changes tonight, and even as much as I am in favor of aggressive bullpen management, this game could easily cross the line from drama into tediousness.

Strap in for a long game. Even if there isn’t a lot of offense, this one is unlikely to go quickly.