One trend in the 2017 postseason, which is a continuation of what we saw in 2016, is the eagerness for managers to go to starting pitchers coming out of the bullpen. In the deciding Game 4 of their ALDS, the Red Sox and Astros each went to their Game 1 starters for large swaths of the middle innings. The Cubs leaned on Jon Lester in Game 4, while Dusty Baker gave Max Scherzer the mid-game call in Game 5.
The results haven’t been bad. Only Scherzer really crapped the bed, and his rough outing was aided by a whole lot of weirdness and a few less than well-struck balls. Expect to see more of this as the postseason goes on. Also, expect it to be a mistake.
Yes, we all remember Madison Bumgarner’s remarkable 5 shutout innings to close out the 2014 World Series, three days after winning Game 5. And Randy Johnson had a similarly memorable outing in the 2001 Fall Classic, when he got the final four outs against the Yankees one day after going seven shutout innings. Those outings are a little more understandable (though Bob Brenly’s use of Johnson for seven innings in Game 6 when his team held a 15-0 lead after four frames remains utterly indefensible). As far as those seasons were concerned, there literally was no tomorrow.
This is different. This was the division series. And pushing your best pitchers to throw on less rest when they are at their most tired is a recipe for failure. In all likelihood, it will come back to bite these guys in the ass.
Consider 2016, when Terry Francona won plaudits for his aggressive* bullpen use in the playoffs, as well as his decision to push his injury-hammered starting rotation to go on four days of rest rather than the typical five.
Starting pitchers on full or extended rest in the 2016 postseason threw 287.1 innings of 3.37 ERA baseball. Starting pitchers on short rest threw 40 innings at 6.08, which is even more significant since it’s typically only the best starting pitchers who are asked to go on short rest.
Now, the starters out of the bullpen have pitched better than the guys starting on short rest. Even so, there’s likely to be a cumulative negative effect on these guys.
Jon Lester threw 55 pitches the other night, a move defended based on it being his “throw day.” Now, I don’t know how many pitches a guy tosses on his throw day, but the 55 from Wednesday night didn’t include the balls tossed in the bullpen warming up or the ones before each inning. More important, not a single throw-day pitch is ever tossed under the same tense, high-stakes atmosphere that you find in a Game 4 of the NLDS. It’s simply not the same, which is why managers don’t use their throw-day starters in the middle innings of a July game in Milwaukee.
But this is the postseason, and managers have to do something. And doing what the other guy is already doing is one of their favorite things to do. Thus, I don’t expect managers to stop this trend any time soon. In fact, it’s just as likely to grow in popularity.
However, I do expect the teams that eschew this practice will have a meaningful advantage as the postseason moves on.
*Sports people love aggressiveness. But in my experience with youth ball, aggressive is another way of saying stupidly run into outs on the bases, dive into walls, or take some other ill-advised course of action. You can have aggressive. I’ll take smart.