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One-game play-in? How about starting with your closer?

Sep 17, 2012, 3:42 PM EDT

Craig Kimbrel Getty Images

In a day and age in which managers dare not even use their best relief pitchers in relief situations while on the road because, oh heavens, that would be INSANE, it’s not likely anyone is going to go super radical with the staff to start a game.

But Dave Cameron has a pretty wild suggestion for teams facing the one-game wild card play-in: start with the back end of the bullpen — your team’s best pitchers on a batter-per-batter basis — and work backwards.  Ensure that the opposition doesn’t score early and then see where you are from there.

It’s an interesting idea. Fun, in fact. Even though (a) it creates late inning problems, as the manager would have to decide which starter would close the game, which tends to unnerve people; and (b) I can’t feature any manager in the game today having the stones to try it because if it blows up it’s gonna be a HUGE story.

But again, fun to think about.

  1. psr179 - Sep 17, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    You also have to take into account that most closers have a mentality geared toward high pressure situations. Closers typically want to be the guy with the ball in their hand at the end of the game with a 1 run lead. Also, closers face batters that may be tired or worn down which makes that 98 mph fastball look like its 110 mph. I’m all for trying new things in baseball because lord knows, they love to say “well this is how its been and how it always will be” (except Joe Madden). It’s an interesting idea for sure, but I don’t think you can say a closer will perform the same in the first frame as opposed to coming in for the 9th with the adrenaline pumping and the crowd amped up.

    • rooney24 - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:29 PM

      Maddon was the only one to come to mind that might try it. But, he has enough good starters to not need to do that.

      • indaburg - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:02 PM

        Agreed. Dave Cameron’s reasoning is that “except for in a few cases – Justin Verlander in Detroit probably the most notable one – the team’s most effective pitcher is hardly ever a member of the starting rotation.” That’s definitely not the case for the Rays. They’re also not likely to make the post-season, the way they’ve played the last week. The Orioles have had a fantastic bullpen all year and would be a better test sample, but I can’t see Showalter trying such tomfoolery.

      • hittfamily - Sep 17, 2012 at 6:29 PM

        What I would love to see Maddon do one time is to announce the starting pitcher, then immediately swap to one who throws from the other hand. For example, James Shields is right handed. Have him throw 1 pitch, then bring in Price. Price would then get to throw to a lineup that was set up for a right handed pitcher. Now the other manager has to decide if he wants to blow all his bench bats in the first and second inning, or let Price face 6 or 7 lefties.

        Also, I’d like to see a manager move the starter to the field for a batter. Example: Let’s say the a team is playing the Tigers. Miggy is right handed, and Prince is left. If a righty is pitching, move him to left field when Prince comes up, bring in the lefty specialist for Prince, then move the starter back to pitching, and replace the left fielder. Prince doesn’t hit it to left, and 5-9 in the Tigers lineup is a cake walk. Rinse and repeat.

      • jashton11 - Sep 17, 2012 at 6:33 PM

        Maddon was my first thought, too, because he’s willing to be unconventional and live with whatever happens.

        From an analytics standpoint, the whole idea doesn’t seem too far fetched. As Cameron pointed out, Ivan Nova only threw 2 innings in Game 5 of the ALDS last year. It seems like most managers have a quick hook in elimination games anyway, so why not turn it into a bullpen game from the start?

        From a perception standpoint, though, I think it would actually be harder for a team like the Braves to try this without significant blowback. They’re so far ahead that they can set up their rotation however they want for an elimination game. It would be easier to justify for a team that has to burn up its best starters just to sneak into the wild card game in the first place.

      • tomgallagher76 - Sep 18, 2012 at 1:39 PM

        Regarding hittfamily’s suggestion about having 2 pitchers in the game and swapping them as a lefty righty matchup presents itself (and leaving the other in the outfield), that was tried successfully by Davey Johnson (with the Mets)in 1986. In one game he brought in both Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco and would put 1 in the outfield and pitch the other one. They were swapped back and forth for 4 innings (also switching between RF and LF).

    • madhatternalice - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:34 PM

      Playoff game, sellout crowd, (one would assume) the three best on-base hitters in the 1st inning: isn’t that the very definition of a “high pressure situation?”

      Of course, I think the Save stat needs to be retired, along with the Kardashians and “jorts.”

      • psr179 - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:53 PM

        Ok nitpicker. One could argue it’s high pressure, but in no way does pitching the opening frame of a 0-0 game equate to pitching the 9th inning of a 1-0 game. Hey, maybe you’ll have the top 3 in the rotation coming up at that point in the game too? The crowd will also probably be louder at that point too.

      • madhatternalice - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:26 PM

        You’re right, I am nitpicking. Not in a mean way, I hope!

        I do think it’s only a matter of time before teams start to rethink the way a bullpen is made up. Already this season we’ve seen six man and four man rotations. Someday, teams will realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot by saving one pitcher for the end-game, instead of playing favorable matchups throughout the game.

      • madhatternalice - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:27 PM

        Also important to note? In the first inning, it’s 0-0. In the 9th inning, you could be losing 17-2.

      • thereisaparty - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:28 PM

        And the chances of the Braves leading 1-0 in the ninth is …? You can’t presume that situation will arise. But it will be 0-0 to start the game

      • jlovenotjlo - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:28 PM

        Watch it with the “jorts” comment pal. I’m a proud owner of a couple of homemade pairs.

        What better way to make use of worn and torn jeans?

    • Reflex - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:58 PM

      While this is commonly believed, there is zero evidence that closers on balance are worse in non-save situations than they are in save situations. A good manager uses the best pitchers they have in the situations that are most critical. Good pitchers pitch well regardless of what inning they are pitching in. Almost all closers were at one time starters, middle relievers and/or setup men, meaning that they had to be effective at some role besides ‘closer’. Once they start closing, I doubt they magically lose thier ability to pitch in other situations.

    • mogogo1 - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:32 PM

      Interesting idea. On the flip side of the “start the closer” idea, I’ve never understood why in must-win games you’ll see teams go with questionable relievers rather than put a starter in there for an inning or two. Part of the problem of baseball today is there’s so little originality and everything is so cookie cutter.

  2. randygnyc - Sep 17, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    The question I have is this;
    What provisions has MLB made regarding the possibility of having multiple, up to 4, wildcard winners? It’s even possible that it could happen this year. How will the matchups be determined (tie breaking determinations)? Does the playoff schedule allow for this? It’s especially interesting if an odd amount of teams qualify.

    • skerney - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:03 PM

      There are 4 wildcard winners now bub, and no, scheduling does not allow for more.

      • scatterbrian - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:25 PM

        pretty sure he means up to 4 in one league….like the A’s, O’s, Rays and Angels all tying for the wild card.

      • rooney24 - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:28 PM

        There are provisions for breaking ties in the wild card. I don’t recall for sure what they are (single game playoffs, I believe), but I am guessing they can be found with a little time on the internet. But, there can’t be more than two wildcards from each league (after tiebreakers are worked out).

    • jashton11 - Sep 17, 2012 at 6:17 PM

      Not sure about four teams, but Jayson Stark went into some of the details of what a three-way tie in the NL would look like:

      http://espn.go.com/mlb/blog/_/name/stark_jayson/id/8369571/wild-race-second-wild-card-national-league

  3. indaburg - Sep 17, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    Interesting idea, and one I’ve thought about before, but like you said, I can’t think of any manager with the cojones to try it. If pitchers were automatons, I could see this working, but pitchers are emotional creatures of habit. Starters usually have a set routine that they do on game day, and good closers feed off high pressure situations. It would take a unique group of pitchers for this idea to work.

    • skids003 - Sep 18, 2012 at 12:53 PM

      Interesting but stupid.

  4. wonkypenguin - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    Craig – I get the sense, and it may be because I’m just super intuitive and deep like this, that you would like to see Fredi utilize Kimbrel in something resembling a helpful and productive way. But I could be just full of crazy…

  5. thetruth702 - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    Worst commisioner in baseball.. Dumbest idea in history. So the braves are 8 games up and that far ahead and have to play a play in game with a team almost 10 games behind? Our only advantage is home field?? Oooooh big deal… Cant have one game plaoff in baseball. One teams season comes down to a single game.. Top wild card should get in and next two have a plaoff… Or keep it single wild card team. Idiotic. 162 games goes down to 1… What a &+@#*¢ joke

    • rooney24 - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:33 PM

      Then, the Braves should have won the division. Rather than being “up” in the wildcard, they are really “behind” in the division. Win the division, or don’t whine. You had 162 games to win your division, including a bunch of games against the Nats.

      And, when it really comes down to it, every playoff team that doesn’t win the WS has their season eventually comes down to one game, whether the WC game, or an elimination game in some other series. It isn’t any different than when teams have had to play game 163 to decide a playoff spot in the past. One game, man up or go home.

      • tgthree - Sep 17, 2012 at 6:06 PM

        You’re wrong that “it isn’t any different” from previous game 163s. Game 163, if played, was played between two teams with the exact same records in the first 162 games, not between one team that was 10 games better than the other through the first 162.

        And no, when it really comes down to it, not every playoff team has its season come down to one game. Check your math: having one opportunity to win one game is very different than having seven opportunities to win four games, or five opportunities to win three games.

        Letting a fifth team into the do-or-die playoff is great for money and excitement, not for getting the four best teams in each league into the playoffs. Which is what thetruth702 is lamenting here.

      • rooney24 - Sep 17, 2012 at 9:49 PM

        tgthree – By your definition, why does MLB even have playoffs? If some team finishes with a better record in the regular season, no other team is worthy to play against them.

        As to checking the math, my post referred to elimination games as coming down to one game. If it is an elimination game, and they were to lose, they would be out. Hence, that comes down to winning one game to have a chance to move on. It might only be to move to the next game, not the next series, but you still need that one game or you go home. Sorry, if I didn’t give the definition of “elimination game” for you earlier. I thought anyone on this site would know that.

  6. beefytrout - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    “I can’t feature any manager in the game today having the stones to try it”

    Oh I can… here’s a hint: February 14th.

    • ugglasforearms - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:34 PM

      I believe the post was about doing this in a one game playoff situation. I don’t see Bobby V. getting any team in that situation in the near or far future. However, he IS wacko enough to try it, so you get a thumbs up.

  7. frenchysplatediscipline - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    What a horrendous idea. Have you never seen what its like when a closer comes in for a non-save situation? It’s usually not very pretty.

    In past years both Smotlz and Wagner had this problem for the Braves. Both are future HOF’ers and both had trouble getting outs when the pressure wasn’t on.

    Yes, there will be pressure in the playoffs – but its not the same focused, intense pressure that the 9th inning exerts on a pitcher…

    • Jeremy Fox - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:47 PM

      “Have you never seen what its like when a closer comes in for a non-save situation? It’s usually not very pretty”

      Umm, no. What’s going on here is that people tend to remember when closers fail in non-save situations, and forget when they succeed. That’s why we keep track of stats: because we can’t remember everything.

      For instance, Mario Rivera’s career numbers in save vs. non-save situations:

      save: 784.1 IP, 1.92 ERA
      non-save: 385.1 IP, 2.34 ERA

      Jonathan Papelbon:
      save: 298 IP, 2.30 ERA
      non-save: 178 IP, 2.43 ERA

      Craig Kimbrel:
      save: 94.1 IP, 1.72 ERA
      non-save: 58.2 IP, 1.23 ERA

      Billy Wagner:
      save: 514.2 IP, 2.43 ERA
      non-save: 388.1 IP, 2.16 ERA

      Trevor Hoffman:
      save: 698.1 IP, 2.71 ERA
      non-save: 391 IP, 3.15 ERA

      I could keep going, but I think it’s pretty clear that there’s not much of a pattern here…

      • paperlions - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:05 PM

        “Have you never seen a person make a blanket statement without bothering to check the facts? It’s usually not very pretty”

      • skids003 - Sep 18, 2012 at 2:23 PM

        While this small number is compeeling, it’s still justa small sample. You can make stats look any way you want to. And while these 5 seem to have no problem with it, others may, or do. What are facts to paperlion may not be to someone else, but your sample of these greats is compelling.

  8. shaggylocks - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:26 PM

    mind = blown

  9. Jeremy Fox - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    It’s a fun idea. I like the intuition behind it–the idea that the only reason we have starting pitchers at all is because teams have to play games that matter many days in a row.

    But two big reasons your late inning relievers are usually your best pitchers on a batter-for-batter basis are that they can air it out because they only have to pitch one inning, and they only have to face a given hitter once. So if your plan for the one-game playoff is “do everything possible to hold down the opposition early, and then see what happens”, I think you do it just by starting your best starting pitcher but having a really quick hook. Tell your starter to go out there and air it out, and the moment his stuff and command starts to fade even a bit, maybe go to your second-best starter. Go to your best relievers later. This would be a lot less unorthodox than starting your closer, and would mess with guy’s routines less, so I could see a manager actually giving it a shot.

    • natstowngreg - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:55 PM

      If you win, you will need your #2 starter for the next game. Same for your #3 starter. Your #4 or #5 starter may have pitched the previous day. In this situation, where there probably isn’t an off-day before the play-in game, and maybe one off-day after it, the options for using a starter to replace a starter are limited.

      An A+ to Cameron for thinking outside the box, but it’s hard to see how changing pitchers’ roles at the end of the season is doable.

      • Jeremy Fox - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:53 PM

        I was following Cameron in assuming you’re in the position the Braves will probably be in–sure well in advance that you’ll be in the play-in game, so that you can line up your rotation. Including going into the game with several starters rested, if necessary. You’re right that you can’t put this plan into action if you have to fight until the end of the season just to get into the play-in game.

        And while it’s true that somebody has to pitch the next game if you win, you’ve got to win the play-in game first (plus IIRC there’s a day off after the play-in game).

      • natstowngreg - Sep 17, 2012 at 8:49 PM

        Fair enough, though that raises another question. Will some of the starters be too rested before the play-in game?

        It’s one of those things on which baseball people don’t agree. Some will say, a pitcher would benefit from extra rest. Others will say, you shouldn’t take a pitcher out of his routine. There doesn’t seem to be a “right” answer.

  10. rooney24 - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:35 PM

    If your closer starts, wouldn’t your starter have to pitch later? The bad thing there is that some starters take a couple innings to really lock in. If they give up a couple of runs early, you have time to get them back. If your starter gives up those runs later in the game, you may not have time to get them back, unless you scored a lot early (in which case you didn’t need to start your closer).

  11. randygnyc - Sep 17, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    Skerney- yeah, you’ve missed the point entirely, bub.

    My point is what if Baltimore wins WC 1 and the Rays, angels and Oakland then have the same record for wildcard spot 2 (or any combination of 3,4 or even 5 teams having equal records)

    I suspect an extra round of games would have to be played as opposed to tiebreakers eliminating teams before a wildcard game. I’d figure tie breaker criteria would only be issued in assessing who plays first, and where.

    Any thoughts, Craig? The NL has something like 4 teams, beyond the division leaders, separated by only a few games.

    • madhatternalice - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:36 PM

      The internet: now with answers to your questions!

      http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/page/rumblings120907/baseball-potential-postseason-mess

      h/t to me, for doing a 30 second google search.

  12. schlom - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    The problem with this is that I seriously doubt that over short periods the relievers are any better than the starters. The main reason relievers aren’t starters is because they weren’t good enough – therefore almost by definition starters are better pitchers than relievers (of course there could potentially be exceptions). So using relievers only doesn’t mean that you are using your best pitchers, in reality you are just picking between your best washout starters.

  13. sanzarq - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:22 PM

    Fun to think about – NO!

    Stupid – YES!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Jeremy Fox - Sep 17, 2012 at 6:00 PM

      Speak for yourself – NO!

      Assume that anything you don’t like is “stupid” – YES!!!!!!!!

  14. djpostl - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    Showalter might be crazy enough. How many times did the guy intentionally walk Bonds with bases loaded?

  15. randygnyc - Sep 17, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Madhatter- thank you for the link. These scenarios have been running through my head for weeks now. A good article on just how bad a logistical nightmare this could be. It’s even becoming “likely”. Still, my underlying question remains, how is this not being discussed in the sports news/broadcasts more frequently?

  16. dadawg77 - Sep 17, 2012 at 6:46 PM

    Here is why I like this deal with a one game playoff. In a normal world a team starts the best available starter, thus eliminating him until game three of the divisional series if you win. Starting the pen and see where is goes means if the team gets a good lead, then the team brings in non best option and has the best pitcher for game one and four/five of the divisional, or can bring in the best pitcher into the wildcard game and hop he can start game three. Given the tight schedule and high intensity of the playoffs, might as well give yourself as many options as you can.

  17. natslady - Sep 17, 2012 at 7:48 PM

    Rany and Joe suggested this several weeks ago on their podcast.

    As regards closers in “non closing” situations. Is it possible that in “closing” situations (ninth inning of a close game) hitters are more aggressive? So the pitcher can take advantage of that. For example, with a man on 3rd, the hitter is seeing that RBI (and that morning headline) in the ninth inning–whereas in the 8th inning he might be perfectly willing to take a walk. IOW, is the pitcher pitching differently in a “save” situation, or are the hitters approaching their at-bats differently?

  18. djstanger - Sep 18, 2012 at 4:31 PM

    The Nationals could do it. Open with a closer (Storen), end with a closer (Clippard).

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