At the conclusion of Major League Baseball’s regular season, assuming that no tie breakers are required to determine playoff eligibility, the two teams with the best records in each league that didn’t win their divisions will face each other in a one-game playoff, the winner of which will go on to face the best team in the league in a division series.
While this will be the first time that a planned one-game playoff will carry such importance, it also marks the only time that MLB will allow a roster of 25 players to be constructed specifically for a single match up. That’s right, as ESPN’s Buster Olney confirms, Wild Card teams will set 25-man rosters for what is essentially the play-in game, without being bound to the same roster if they’re fortunate enough to win and advance to the League Division Series.
In practical terms, this means that a team won’t have to name starting pitchers who won’t be scheduled to pitch to its roster for the single game, and instead can use the extra spots to fill out their bench or bullpen. All of this lends a bit more credence to the proposed plan of Dave Cameron from Fangraphs, who suggested that teams engaged in the play-in game rely on a series of relievers to start the game rather than a typical starter.
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.
While thinking outside of the box is generally applauded in these parts, I don’t really understand the added benefit over merely going with the typical structure of pitcher usage, but with a much shorter leash than is usually extended.
We often speak of the volatility of relievers, and while such a thought is generally accepted, it has a lot more to do with the limited samples from which we can draw an understanding of a reliever’s true talent rather than an actual characteristic true to relief pitchers, but not starting pitchers. It’s entirely possible for a starter to have a good season, and then be below average the rest of his career. For a reliever to do the same over a similar sample, it might appear as though he had three good seasons when we think about the amount of batters faced or innings pitched.
So, while Mr. Cameron’s assertion “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” is true, relying on six to eight of them to perform at this level over the course of one game is riskier than going about business as normal, or at least as normal as such a game with such rules (as it pertains to rosters) might allow. The more relievers you use, the more likely it is that one reliever’s performance will not be up to expectations.
A much more reasonable strategy to me would be to use a starting pitcher to start the game, and ask that he get through the lineup one or two times, depending on the depth of relievers you have at your disposal who are trustworthy enough to rely on for an inning at a time. Once that goal is reached, then go to the bullpen and use match ups when necessary, all the while invoking the right to remove a pitcher at the first sign of trouble.
While some are suggesting that roster rules for the single game make the entire additional playoff round a further mockery, I can’t really understand their arguments. I suppose I’m too busy excitedly preparing myself for the two winner-takes-all games that will be taking place in early October.