Peter Gammons: Managing playoff pitching staffs

lester-arrieta

It may be that we have no idea how the World Series can end before the election if we end up with two- and three-way ties when the regular season ends and the play-ins are supposed to begin, but, the six division champions thought to have been determined, the attention has now begun to focus on post-season rosters.

Utilitymen, two-or-three catcher arguments, the dreams of Grant Dayton or Robby Scott—whose first pro manager was Jose Canseco, in Indy ball– becoming the next Javy Lopez and closing arguments rejecting the reincarnation of Herb Washington are conference call subjects being hacked by Twitter Nation, but the real issues are very simple.

One general manager said this week, “it’s practically impossible to get into the playoffs and win it all without four starters, and this year, four starters are hard to find on almost every team.”

Indeed, since the playoffs adopted the wild card in 1995, only one team—the 2009 Yankees—won the world series using three starters through all four series, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte win 11 games and three October three series and 16 games.

Another GM pointed out that with the six division leaders and eight teams that still have wild card play-in fantasies, in reality there are only three of those 14 teams who can list their projected four man post-season rotations, barring further injuries—The Cubs, Nationals and Giants.

When Masahiro Tanaka was diagnosed with an arm problem Thursday, it was emphasized that injuries are a major reason so many rotations could be scrambled and baked with five and six reliever games. Months back, did we not believe the Mets and Indians were serious post-season threats because of their starting rotations? Now, if the Mets get to and win the wild card and face the Cubs in the NLDS Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom are out, Noah Syndergaard is no sure thing, Steven Matz is bullpen-to-bullpen and the Mets rotation hopes are Bartolo Colon, the health of Syndergaard and at least one if not two games where they do a 7 man bullpen chain from Seth Lugo to Jeurys Familia.

And without Carlos Carrasco, the Indians have to use Cory Kluber, Trevor Bauer and, even if Kluber can come back on three days rest, a couple of games where they start Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger and try to win with a five or six reliever link beginning with Dan Otero and ending with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. One Indians official said “if we’re going anywhere, Andrew Miller is going to pitch a lot of innings.” But he also cautioned not to underestimate the impact of Otero and Miller or the way Terry Francona handles the pen. Or Bauer’s potential to rise to the moment.

Besides the Mets and Indians starters, if the Astros were to hurdle four teams and make it, they don’t have Lance McCullers, and the Red Sox likely will be without Steven Wright, 10th in the league in earned run average and an all star. That’s before getting to Stephen Strasburg’s loss.

What’s interesting about what appear to be the six division winners is that all six have clear first and second starters who can start four and possibly even five times in seven game series:

–Boston has Rick Porcello and David Price, 1-2 and 1-4 in quality starts and innings. But the other slots are to be determined between Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz and Clay Buchholz. When Rodriguez maintains his delivery and commands his fastball at 94-95 and throws his changeup for strikes (a changeup that got eight swings-and-misses in Baltimore this week), he is a very good third starter. Buchholz has been excellent in three of his last four starts, working out of the stretch and maintain his arm angle.

Texas has Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, with Colby Lewis coming back with better and better command with each outing off the disabled list, as well , A.J. Griffin and Martin Perez.

Washington has Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, a good matchup if the Nats play Los Angeles because the Dodgers are the worst team in baseball with a .211 average and .620 OPS against lefthanded pitching.

As long as Rich Hill’s blister doesn’t bust open, the Dodgers have one of the best front threes. Clayton Kershaw and Hill are two of the game’s most unhittable lefties, and the post-season days off allow Kenta Maeda his five days rest. If they need a fourth starter? Don’t be surprised if Julio Urias or Brock Stewart comes out of the bullpen gate to attempt a five inning start.

The Dodgers look to the post-season and think that with the extra days between games that Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda could start 13 or 14 games with 11 wins in the maximum 19 over three series necessary.

They have the second best bullpen ERA. We know Kenley Jansen has 45 saves and 97 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. We know Joe Blanton is a workhorse, and that Pedro Baez hasn’t allowed a run in September.

But we may end up seeing some guys we haven’t known. 28 year old rookie Grant Dayton, who throws 93 and hitters seemingly can’t pick him up. In 22 appearances has held lefthanded batters to 4-for-37 and a .364 OPS.

Then there’s 28 year old Josh Ravin. Understand this is a guy whose first 8 pro years were spent going 15-47 in the Reds organization. He pitched 7 games in the Dodger minor leagues this season, got called up, has been in 8 games for L.A., throws 98 and has struck out one out of every five batters he’s faced. No matter whether it’s March or October, when you see the Dodgers, you never know who you’ll see pitch.

Of course, everyone is focused on the Cubs.

Clinching early has allowed the Cubs to give Jake Arrieta breath after throwing 148 2/3 innings last season, get John Lackey and head into October with the Jon LesterKyle Hendricks-Arrieta—Lackey rotation.

But what the Cubs believe is that their bullpen will be a huge factor in long series. “Because every game in the post-season is so important, every inning is a leverage situation,” says Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. “You can’t have mop-up relievers. If you’re down 5-2 in the fourth inning, it’s a leverage situation to stop the bleeding and give you a chance to come back, win and often turn a series around.” Carl Edwards, Jr., with his 46 strikeouts and 14 hits allowed in 32 innings is one of those guys. Or, rested and healthy, Lester, Strop and Hector Rondon getting to Aroldis Chapman.

A bullpen that over the season struck out nearly ten batters every nine innings pitched is, indeed, geared for post-season leverage points.

Others, well, as Joaquin Andujar would explain, you never know. At the end of August, John Farrell had a bullpen that was as easy to navigate as driving around the Fresh Pond Rotary. In September, they have the best bullpen ERA in the league. Koji Uehara, thought to be done, has returned throwing 85 MPH and throwing eight scoreless leverage eighth innings with 10 strikeouts. Joe Kelly came back from the minors with 7 2/3 scoreless innings and 11 strikeouts. Brad Ziegler has a 1.46 ERA. Robbie Ross, Jr. has held lefthanded hitters to a .176 average.

What Madison Bumgarner did in the 2014 remains extraterrestrial. Prorate what he did in the wild card, NLDS, NLCS and world series, prorated to a 162 season, was the equivalent of throwing 502 innings.

A bold prediction would be that that won’t happen again this October and November. In fact, uncovering enough starting pitching for three tiers of series may be something the Cubs and perhaps two or three other team can do.

Comments

  1. David Braica says:

    Hi Peter,

    Will the cool weather once again nullify the effectiveness of The Red Sox’ David Price? Tonight I’m feeling the colder air here in Salem, NH. I was hoping global warming in this case at least,would help us.

    Long, long time admirer and reader.