A few considerations for a one game playoff

In the last few days, I've posted links to a couple of wild card game strategy pieces (FanGraphs, Beyond the Box Score). Both of the articles mainly advocate that the Pirates use as many pitchers as possible, both to maximize results from starters like Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole (that is, knowing that they'd throw fewer pitches they could theoretically be more effective over six innings if the two of them go three apiece at maximum effor than if Liriano goes six with the usual reserve required to start), and to maximize results against the Reds' lefties. 

To be blunt, Clint Hurdle is not going to do this. He's not going to limit Liriano to 14 hitters and pull him as soon as he sees Jay Bruce for the second time. He's not going to piggyback Cole and Liriano to get six or seven innings between the two of them. The Pirates and baseball in general have moved quite a ways towards sabermetrics in the last decade, but we're not quite that far yet. Still, thinking along those lines, I've been thinking about some things that Hurdle might do that could give the Pirates an edge in this game. 

The first one is this: disregard the fifth inning as a line of demarcation for the starterWe've got a pretty good indication that Hurdle will be willing to do this because he did it on Saturday when Charlie Morton got into trouble in the fifth inning with a lead (though I'd still argue that he left Morton in two hitters too long because letting Morton pitch to Bruce was playing with fire at that point). Alternately you could think about this point this way: pre-emptively pull Liriano under any circumstance other than that he's completely dominating the Reds. Sometimes, Liriano takes the mound and it's obvious that he doesn't have his best command, but he still manages to move through the lineup twice by sheer force of talent. Last Wednesday against the Cubs was a great example of this; he got through five innings pretty OK, but it was obvious he was laboring a bit and he'd thrown a bunch of pitches. He took the mound in the sixth against the heart of the Cubs order, seeing him for the fourth time, and things went sour. A similar thing happened on September 4th against the Brewers (the Bucs' first shot at winning 82); Liriano breezed through the first, hiccuped in the second, and got slammed in the third when the Brewers' lineu turned over. That leads to the third piece of advice I'd have regarding Liriano, which stems from the second: when in doubt, do not let the lineup turn over. 

Moving beyond Liriano, the next thing I'm interested in is this: don't be afraid to use Gerrit ColeI understand that a lot of people are worried about using Cole in relief because it's not a role that he's used to, but we've seen Gerrit Cole pitch in a couple of huge spots this year (his debut, the gigantic "stopper" start in Arlington when the Pirates were scuffling, and even the start against the Padres after that when the Bucs had lost a game and fallen one game out of first place), and the kid is a flat-out fire-breathing monster. My gut feeling is that if Liriano makes a decent start but can't quite get through seven innings, there will be a big situation in which it will be appropriate to use Gerrit Cole in this game, even if it's only for one or two batters. I say do it. You do not want this game to end with the Pirates on the wrong side of the score thanks to a middle-bullpen malfunction and Gerrit Cole sittung unused in the bullpen. 

The final point that I think Hurdle can use to the Pirates' advantage is this: embrace the matchup. Hurdle has, on occasion, defaulted to Tony Watson and/or Justin Wilson as "seventh inning" guys and Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris as "long guys", regardless of who the opponent has coming up. The Reds' offense relies heavily on Choo, Votto, and Bruce (Brandon Phillips huge RBI season is a function of Choo and Votto always being on base), and the Pirates have three relievers that are incredibly tough on lefties (Watson, Wilson, and Melancon) in the bullpen in addition to Liriano starting the game. No matter the inning, that's likely something that can be used to their advantage. The same is true on the other half of the lineup card; the Pirates have 16 position players available to them in this game. I think that the Beyond the Box Score post is very right that the Pirates should play for the lead early, as that let's them set the tone they want to set with the bullpen. If Cueto comes out of the game early for whatever reason and a lefty comes in to face Justin Morneau, use Gaby Sanchez, even if it's the fifth inning. Heck, consider using Sanchez in place of Pedro Alvarez late in the game against a lefty with Harrison and Barmes on the bench to play defense behind him, if that's an option. Use the unique roster, whatever it is that that might entail, is the point here.

Of course, the maddening thing about a one-game playoff with against a very good team like the Reds is that it's possible none of this will matter. Hurdle might pull every right string and lever tonight and be done in by a big lefty-on-lefty hit. He might pull every wrong string and get bailed out by a bad play in center by Shin-Soo Choo. In a one game playoff, all you can do is try your best to tilt the table in your direction and hope that the water flows in the direction you've got your bucket set up. I think that there are a few places where the Pirates have advantages over the Reds in this game(of course, there are also a few places where the Reds have advantages over the Pirates — particularly in Liriano's control vs. guys like Choo and Votto, and with the Pirates' middle relief if they elect not to use Cole); hopefully the Pirates can exploit them and hopefully if they do, that will make a difference in the outcome of this game.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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