In the final few weeks of any season a small number of teams, which this year includes the Yankees, Tigers, Phillies, Cardinals and Dodgers are all but guaranteed playoff spots, and are playing for home field advantage in the playoffs. Another group of teams, which this year includes the Red Sox, Rangers, Rockies, Giants, Marlins and Braves are battling for the few remaining spots. The rest of the teams are thinking about next year.
The teams in the first group, and to a lesser extent, the second group also should be thinking about things like post-season pitching alignments, finalizing their post-season rosters, which are never really frozen on September 1st, and the like. These challenges are made more difficult because the structure of the playoffs requires a slightly different strategy than the regular season, particularly with regards to pitching.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that success in the regular season in determined by the back end of pitching rotations, but that in the playoffs these pitchers barely matter. Successful regular season teams frequently have strong number four and five starters who, while not expected to shut down opposing offenses, can keep their team in the game. Teams with genuinely good four and five starters in the regular season usually are very difficult to beat over the course of a long season. Similarly, good offenses which can consistently beat up on the back ends of opposing rotations can give their teams a real advantage in reaching the post-season.
In the playoffs, however, number four starters, and particularly, number five starters are far less relevant because they start a fewer proportion of their team’s games. Due to the increased number of off days in the post-season, teams can rely on a four man rotation and usually restart their rotation at every series. A team that sweeps all three rounds of the playoffs will only play 11 games, and can set up their rotation so that their top three pitchers star three games each, their number four pitcher one game, while their number five pitcher becomes a long reliever. In an 11 game stretch in the regular season that same team’s ace would start three games with the two through five pitchers starting two games each. Similarly, a team that wins the World Series but takes each series to the maximum number of games will play 19 games. In that run the team’s top pitcher could start six, games, their number two and three pitchers five games each, their number four pitcher three games, while again their number five pitcher would become a long reliever. During the regular season, by contrast, a 21 game stretch would include five starts by the team’s ace and four starts each by the rest of the rotation. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks took seventeen games to get through the playoffs and win the World Series. Their two dominant starting pitchers, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson started 11 of those games. During the regular season, they would have started, at best, eight out of 17 games.
The grueling nature of the regular season forces teams, sometimes mistakenly, to carry 12 or even 13 pitchers, but the post-season has more days off so teams can get away with carrying fewer pitchers and more position players. This is important because in the post-season benches are important in different ways than in the regular season. This is most obviously seen during the World Series where one of the teams always has to play with slightly unfamiliar rules.
American League teams, except for during a few interleague games in National League parks never pinch hit for pitchers. Some AL teams rarely pinch hit except to get an occasional platoon advantage, but in those two, three or four World Series games in the NL champion’s park, pinch hitting can be decisive. It is not enough to have one good DH like Hideki Matsui or David Ortiz who will be reduced to one at bat during the game, so AL teams need more pinch hitters off the bench than they usually have. During the regular season, few AL teams have these pinch hitters on their roster because they often carry 12-13 pitchers leaving only a few bench spots for backup catchers, utility infielders and the like.
National League teams, on the other hand, often find themselves without a middle of the order hitter on their bench who can step in at DH. During the regular season, of course, hitters of this caliber in the NL find their way into the lineup playing a position. Players like Matt Stairs or Greg Dobbs on the Phillies or Juan Pierre or James Loney of the Dodgers, who are the kinds of players who are used as the DH by NL teams in the World Series, are useful players for an NL team during the regular season, but cannot be expected to have an offensive impact comparable to that of most AL designated hitters. NL teams face a more difficult problem, but this suggests that playoff bound NL teams, even if they already have strong offenses, benefit from picking up one more big hitter late in the season. The Paul Konerko acquistion by the Dodgers will take on even greater significance if that team makes the World Series
The different strategic environment in the playoffs should lead playoff bound teams to prepare more appropriately. The strongest teams should focus more on getting their top three pitchers rested and ready for the playoffs and worry less about figuring out the backend of their rotations. Similarly, playoff bound teams should begin to focus more attention to filling out their benches knowing that because of the additional rest days in the post-season means there is little legitimate reason for carrying 12 or 13 pitchers and that the chance of having your 12th, or even 11th, pitcher pitch in a situation that matters in the post-season is less likely than needing one more pinch hitter available. There are currently five teams that are all but guaranteed playoff spots, the ones that use September wisely will have a big advantage in October.