Sudden Death Games

October 4, 2012
 
Yesterday, during the 162nd game of the regular season, the Atlanta Braves witnessed the best pitching performance they’ve had all season:
 
9 IP, 4 Hits, 0 walks, 0 runs scored.
 
All of those four hits were singles. Moreover, none of those hits came in the same inning: the Pirates never had a rally going.
 
On Friday the Braves will be one of four teams playing ‘Sudden Death’ Wild Card games, along with the Cardinals, Orioles, and A’s Rangers. Considering the importance of this win-or-go-home game, it might be useful for the Braves (and future Wild Card teams) to consider how the Braves put up such a notable performance.
 
Here’s the pitching box score for Atlanta’s 162nd game:
 
Pitching
IP
H
R
ER
BB
SO
Ben Sheets
1
0
0
0
0
2
Luis Avilan
1
1
0
0
0
1
Julio Teheran
2
1
0
0
0
0
Randall Delgado
1
0
0
0
0
3
Cory Gearrin
1
0
0
0
0
0
Eric O'Flaherty
1
0
0
0
0
0
Jonny Venters
1
1
0
0
0
2
Craig Kimbrel
1
1
0
0
0
3
 
Atlanta used eight pitchers to dispatch the Pirates. They had no ‘starter.’ And they got one of the best pitched games of the season.
 
(We need a term for this. Let’s call this ‘bullpenning.’ Bullpenning is when a team deliberately doesn’t use a starter, and instead gives everyone in the bullpen one or two innings. Describing yesterday’s game, you could say: “The Atlanta Braves bullpenned the Pirates, 4-0.’ Bullpenning: it’s a real thing.)
 
The other Wild Card teams should do exactly what the Braves did.  They should bullpen (v).  
 
*          *          *
 
The ideal scenario for a Wild Card team would be starting their #1 pitcher. Unfortunately, only one of the four Wild Card teams this year (the Braves) had enough breathing room to set their rotation. The Rangers didn’t know they were the Wild Card until halfway through game 162. The Orioles had to consider the possibility of two games, a tie-breaker for the A.L. East, and a sudden-death game for the Wild Card. The Cardinals had a bit more breathing room than their AL counterparts, but they were battling the Brewers and Dodgers through the weekend.
 
It’s probably rare that Wild Card teams, in this new format, will have the luxury of having an ace to throw out for the sudden-death game….the furious battle down the stretch will be an annual occurrence in the coming years.
 
Considering that, it’s worth considering some alternate theories on how to maximize one’s chances in the sudden-death game. As I see it, there are numerous advantages to ‘bullpenning’
 
-You can take significant advantage of platoon splits. In just about every inning, at least two of the players scheduled to bat will have a distinct platoon advantage/disadvantage. If there are two right-handed batters and a lefty, you have a right-hander start that inning. You can also adjust based on other strengths and weaknesses of the hitters due up. If two of the hitter struggle against off-speed stuff, bring in a pitcher who has a good changeup.
 
-You are bringing pitchers in pitchers who are fresh, and you can take them out at a moment’s notice. This is a biggie: with starting pitchers, there is an obvious tendency, in the early innings, to let the pitcher ‘work through’ early struggles. Can’t find the plate? We’ll give you another inning. Give up a few hits? Well, no one’s warmed up, so go ahead and pitch to a few more. This tendency buries teams…it’s a big factor why the A’s were behind early yesterday, and it’s a big factor why the Rangers lost the division late. ‘Bullpenning’ allows to you stop the bleeding immediately.
 
-You are able to set a rotation for the next round of the playoffs. If you’re a team lucky enough to have a #1 or #2 guy available for the Wild Card game, you won’t be able to start that pitcher until late in the Division Series. Why not save your best starter for Game #1 and #4?
 
-Relief Pitchers are better than starters. Okay, that’s not true. What is true is that using a pitcher for one or two innings is vastly more efficient than using a pitcher for 5-6 innings. Starting pitchers in baseball last year had an ERA of 4.19. Relief pitchers had an ERA of 3.67.
 
This isn’t because starters are worse that relief pitchers. It’s because using a pitcher for one or two innings is more efficient than using them for 5-6 innings. The usage is actually greater than the disparity of quality between starters and relievers. Starting pitchers are certainly better pitchers, as a whole, but how relief pitchers are usedmore than makes up for any disparity in talent/ability.
 
*          *          *
 
There are, I’m sure, more reasons to try ‘bullpenning’ in one-game playoffs. But I wanted to post this before the playoffs start, so I have to wrap it up.
 
The new existence of sudden-death playoff games in baseball presents an interesting new challenge for managers and players. The four Wild Card teams experience a strange ‘shift’ in mindset: they have to go from trying to win a long, 162-game season, to trying to win a 1-game season.
 
Because there have been so few one-game playoffs in history, no one has spent too much time examining optimal or alternative strategies that a team could use in sudden-death scenarios. Now that a one-game playoff will be a twice annual events, it’s time to start thinking about strategies for a one-game season.
 
Yesterday, the Atlanta Braves inadvertently tried a very interesting strategy....to surprising success. It is unlikely that any of the Wild Card teams will use that strategy tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries ‘bullpenning’ in the sudden-death game in years to come.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveFleming
Thanks for the comment, Gregg.

A little add-to....you imply that the way pitchers have been used over the 'last century' has been somewhat stagnant.

I think, actually, that the usage patterns for pitchers in major leauge baseball have been progressing in a mostly linear fashion towards shorter pitching appearances, and more pitching changes. I would consider that 'radical' concepts like three sets of paired pitchers or pitchers going two innings are actually the natural progression of things...the logical evolution of 'pitching.'

It seems radical, of course. I think that's the main reason no team has made significant efforts to try unorthodox strategies. But....there is a 'next step' that will occur in the evolution of pitching. It is, I think, of considerable value for teams to a) figure out what that next step is, and b) decide to be on the cutting edge of that next step.
6:11 PM Oct 7th
 
greggborgeson
Dave, your fine article opens up thought, and sheds a little bit of light, on what I think is the darkest corner of knowledge about baseball -- how best to optimize utilization of pitchers.

We understand so little about the relative advantage of four-man versus five-man rotations, optimal pitch count limits, best utilization of the most effective reliever. More radical concepts, like having three sets of paired pitchers who share each game, going just four or five innings each -- remain almost complete speculative. Who knows, perhaps to sets of five pitchers, each pouring it on with everything they've got for two innings each, would ultimately be more effective than the way pitching talent has been managed for the last century.


7:56 AM Oct 7th
 
DaveFleming
Right on the DH possibility for NL teams, Jack: it allows you to use a pinch hitter every time the pitcher comes up.

I like the idea of using a starter first (like the Braves did with Sheets) and then passing it to the bullpen. I think it's wise to have a starter 'start', but pull him quickly....​
1:36 PM Oct 5th
 
Zeke**
Jack, that's why it's only really suited to the wild card round, with it's unique roster...you don't need the extra starters, so you can jam 10 relievers into your 25 and still have room leftover for an extra pinch hitter.
11:14 AM Oct 5th
 
Jack
Another advantage is that the bullpenning team can pinch-hit for the pitcher every time that spot in the order comes up, and likely gain a platoon advantage doing so.

Assuming a team has 12 pitchers, five starters and seven relievers, on its 25-man roster, you'd need to use all seven of your relievers to get through nine innings, with two pitchers going two innings each. I suppose you might have a starter or two available to throw into the breach. If the game goes into extra innings, a bullpenning team would be in danger of running out of pitchers.
9:59 AM Oct 5th
 
sansho1
It may be "easier" to pitch out of the bullpen, but that doesn't mean the back end of your bullpen is staffed with better pitchers than your #1 or #2 starter, and you're guaranteeing those guys are going to see action. And while I agree a one-game playoff is no time to allow your starter to work through too much trouble, the more pitchers you arrange to use beforehand the greater the possibility someone you put on the mound isn't going to have it that day. I say start the best starter you can arrange for, be ready with the hook, and "bullpen" from there if you have to.
6:30 AM Oct 5th
 
DaveFleming
Ohhhh....that's a good point, about inhereted runners. I forgot about that. Thanks for mentioning it, hotstatrat.

10:04 PM Oct 4th
 
hotstatrat
Cool. You (and the Braves?) may be on to something.

The reason relievers pitch as well as starters is the reason you stated - they can pitch all out stronger for one or two innings than a starter can for 5 or 6. However, the reason their ERA is even lower is because inherited runs are charged to the pitcher who put them on base. Starters never get a break for letting inherited runners score, but they do get charged for the ones they leave on base while they get the hook, then eventually score.
9:40 PM Oct 4th
 
tigerlily
Another favtor regarding what you call bullpenning for the last regular season game that is do-or-die for a playoff spot is that with September call-ups, it's almost impossible to go through your bullpen.
.
9:36 PM Oct 4th
 
 
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