CLEVELAND — En route to their World Series title last season, the Washington Nationals did something quite simple and fairly common during the baseball postseason: they used their best handful of pitchers, regardless of their regular-season role, as often as possible.
The Nationals’ most talented starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — and their two top relievers — Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — accounted for 72 percent of the team’s 153 innings from the National League wild-card game through Game 7 of the World Series. The feat was only possible because the Nationals had 13 days off sprinkled in between their 17 playoff games, giving tired arms a chance to rest before taking the mound again.
That strategy, however, is now a relic, like so much about this unconventional season in a pandemic.
Any team that aspires to win this year’s World Series will have to rethink its strategy, be more careful with their pitchers’ health and likely need more of their pitching staff than usual.
“Whoever ends up holding the trophy at the end — my vision of it — is you’re going to have to lean on 10, 12, 13 pitchers more so than ever before,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said recently.
“You’re not just going to be riding two starters twice a series and four main high-impact relievers,’’ he added. “You’re going to have to, in given games, lean on the 12th, 13th man on a pitching staff to get important outs for you.”
The reason: this year’s reconfigured postseason format. In part to squeeze in a new best-of-three Wild Card Series round, Major League Baseball eliminated the normal days off during the division and championship rounds.
Those days were meant for travel, of which there will be none during playoff rounds this October. In the past, teams would switch stadiums after Game 2 in the division or championship series and, if needed, return to the higher-seeded team’s stadium in later games.
But in hopes of eliminating travel and preventing any coronavirus outbreaks that could jeopardize the postseason, M.L.B. and the players’ union agreed to host the entire first round at the higher-seeded team’s stadium and the next two rounds at neutral sites in Southern California and Texas.
In other words, teams will only have days off in between the first, second and third rounds but not during them — which would have made it much harder for the Nationals’ five-headed monster to pitch so often last October. The traditional intraseries days off will exist only during the World Series.
“It’s going to be a lot different than in the past,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton said. “Hopefully we get some good length out of our starters and that way we can preserve some of the bullpen. But it’s going to be a challenge. All the teams are dealing with it.”
Take, for example, the Yankees. Gerrit Cole faces off against Cleveland’s Shane Bieber in Cleveland on Tuesday in a matchup of two of the best pitchers in baseball. But imagine if this were a traditional first-round best-of-five division series in 2019. Both could start twice on regular rest during the series thanks to two travel days.
In this year’s format, that wouldn’t be possible. In order to use their $324-million pitcher again in a best-of-five series without days off, the Yankees would have to ask Cole to pitch on short rest — something he has never done in his major-league career.
Because there will be less of a chance to use the same pitchers repeatedly without potentially putting their health at risk, teams may need to use their fourth starter or fifth-best reliever more than originally planned.
“The postseason is more like the regular season this year than any other postseason that I can remember,” said Jim Duquette, the former Mets general manager and Baltimore Orioles executive, who is now an analyst for MLB Network Radio and SNY.
He added later, “This playoff format rewards the better team and the deeper team, not the one that paid for all of this dominating stuff and they weren’t quite as good in other areas.”
This is where teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, a World Series favorite, and the Indians have an advantage. The Dodgers led the majors during the 60-game regular season with a 3.02 E.R.A. and the Indians were second with a 3.29 E.R.A.
The Dodgers’ main five starting pitchers, led by Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May, all had figures under 3.45. After Bieber, the Indians have Carlos Carrasco (2.91 E.R.A.) and Zach Plesac (2.28 E.R.A.) — both of whom have pitched better than the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, their Wild Card Series Game 2 starter, or J.A. Happ.
The teams with stronger rotations may lighten the strain on their bullpens, which may be forced into more duty than usual anyway. During the 2019 and ’20 regular seasons, only once has a Yankees reliever — Chad Green, earlier this month — pitched three consecutive days. That, if not more days in a row, may become the norm in multiple rounds this postseason.
“It’s definitely going to be tricky,” Mike Harkey, the Yankees’ bullpen coach, said earlier this month. “Teams that have deeper starting pitching are probably going to benefit from it more. We’re hoping that with the addition of Cole that will clean some things up for us and hopefully give us a chance to get the kind of rest needed for relievers to win a World Series.”
Teams could end up depending on their best relievers too much. Brandon Morrow, for example, pitched 14 of the Dodgers’ 15 postseason games in 2017, including all seven World Series games in the span of nine days.
Morrow, 36, has not been the same afterward: he appeared in 35 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2018 and hasn’t pitched in the majors since because of injuries.
“The bullpenning will be more strategic than just lining guys up knowing that you have that day off,” Britton said. “We’ll see as it goes. Obviously the bullpen is one of our strengths. It’s going to be a challenge for everybody.”
The Yankees gave Cole a record contract over the winter in hopes of shoring up some of the pitching weaknesses exhibited during their 2019 postseason run, which ended two wins short of making the World Series. They have also invested heavily over the years in top relievers, like Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino and Britton. But their lesser-proven arms may have more of a hand than in a normal postseason should the Yankees secure their first World Series title since 2009.
Had general managers known this year’s postseason format would involve no off days during the first three rounds, Duquette said perhaps teams like the Yankees or the Dodgers would have been more aggressive in bolstering their depth at the Aug. 31 trade deadline.
“That was a curveball that was sent into the baseball operations world after the fact,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said. “There was no discussion about what the postseason was going to be played like and no one ever expected there’d be no off days, but it is what it is. It’s the same for everybody else, but it’s definitely different.”