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October 5, 2009

Prospectus Today


by Joe Sheehan

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Tossing out the Sunday night opener, MLB teams play 162 games over 182 days, with no scheduled doubleheaders and a three-day break in the middle of the season. That means roughly 19 games every 21 days, with some 21-day stretches that include 20 games. There aren't a whole lot of breaks, and as the schedule has evolved over time, with planes replacing trains, and doubleheaders going the way of pullover jerseys and Ladies' Days, player usage has evolved. The five-man rotation is a rational approach to the elongation of the schedule, and while there's a case to be made for the four-man rotation, this adaptation seems to be permanent.

The postseason circa 2009 is a different animal from that long slog. If, say, the Red Sox were to go the distance in their Division Series matchup, then do the same in the ALCS, they would play 12 games in a 23-day span from today through October 27. Advancing while playing fewer games is, of course, possible, which would make it an even less trying schedule. At no point in there would they play on more than two consecutive days.

Since the 1970s, MLB teams have generally adapted to the postseason by reducing their starting rotations to four men, and on occasion using three. When you look at the modern schedule, though, there is very little reason to concern yourself with a fourth starter until the World Series. As it stands now, a team can maximize the use of its top two starters in most scenarios while rarely asking them to start on fewer than four days' rest. Given the limited role of a fourth starter-occasionally serving as a long man in the first two games of any series or very last game of a best-of-seven in addition to the one start-it's not clear that the roster spot is better used on him rather than on a player who can be deployed in other ways, in more games, in high-leverage spots.

Take the Red Sox as an example. They will most likely open play on Thursday in Anaheim. They can roster Daisuke Matsuzaka with an eye towards having him start the fourth game of the series in Boston on Monday, and have him available in long relief-the need for which is highly unlikely-in the first two games. Or, they can plan to bring back Jon Lester on short rest, one time, and use Matsuzaka's roster spot on a tactical reliever or, better still, a pinch-runner for one of their many slow hitters. If there is a Game Five, Josh Beckett would be pitching on full rest Wednesday. For a team playing the expanded Division Series, the one scheduled over eight days, the choice is even more clear-the first and second starters can pitch games four and five, if necessary, on full rest. Most teams have made this adaptation, as we'll see with the Yankees this year.

Extend this discussion to the ALCS, and you see that the need for a fourth starter becomes even less apparent. The Game One starter would have to come back and throw Game Four on short rest. That's two short-rest starts in a span of about two weeks, which is non-standard usage, but far from abusive. If you win the Division Series in four games, you can have the ALDS Game Two starter start ALCS Game One and take on the short-rest role, spreading the burden between two pitchers. A Game Four LCS starter will get four days of rest before a Game Seven due to the insertion of a non-travel off day between Games Four and Five. This is why there is only one possibility of a short-rest start in the LCS.

Over the first two series, there would be a maximum of two short-rest starts, and they would be given to a team's number-one starter twice, or a number-one starter and a number two. The gain would be in getting more starts from your very best pitchers as opposed to your fourth guy, as well as the roster value in not carrying a pitcher whose job is to start once, and who is expected to go six innings at most. That roster spot can be put to better use.

If you reach the World Series, a three-man rotation becomes a bit more problematic, as all three of your top starters would be needed on short rest, due to the merciful absence of the non-travel offday. At that point, however, you can re-roster that extra starting pitcher to allow your top three full rest if you so choose. Or, you can go to a three-man rotation knowing that your pitchers get four months' rest once the series is over. Flags fly forever, and the pursuit of a championship over a time period measured in days is a time when you can ask more of your players, particularly veteran players. Protecting the arms of pitchers aged 24 and under has been and should be an industry goal, but over-worrying the workloads of those who remember Cosby sweaters is a misapplication of principles. Doing so in October is just silly.

Now, back to the original issue, and let's squeeze it a bit and look at the NL, which this year is the "early" series. An NL team going the distance would play its first 12 games in 20 days, from Wednesday through scheduled NLCS Game Seven on October 24. At no point will a National League team play on more than two straight days, which means that no reliever will ever be asked to work more than two days in a row, or four days in five.

So what the hell is Tony La Russa thinking? Per Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals are leaning towards carrying 12 pitchers for the first round of the postseason. The Cardinals' championship hopes, mind you, are pretty much entirely reliant on their top three starters, two of whom will finish in the top three in the Cy Young voting, being effective and working deep into games. But come Wednesday, La Russa plans to have nine guys ready to pitch behind them, including potential Game Four starters John Smoltz and Kyle Lohse. That's nine relievers in the bullpen, which would mean having just five position players on the bench.

This is patently insane. Having 12 pitchers on the roster is overkill in the regular season, when you're playing every night and carrying five starters. Most teams end up not getting their back-end relievers enough work, or worse, changing pitchers' roles on a week-to-week basis as a reaction to the last three outings. In a postseason, however, when you'll never have to use guys for more than two straight days, this is madness. So you have a closer, in Ryan Franklin. You have four set-up or situational matchup guys in righties Kyle McClellan and Jason Motte and lefties Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes. You have the two Game Four options as long men. That's 10 pitchers, none of whom could possibly end up worn out by playing five games in seven days. That's 10 pitchers backing up three starters who averaged just shy of seven innings per start.

What in god's name is Brad Thompson adding to that mix? When are you ever going to bring Mitchell Boggs into a game? And Todd Wellemeyer? And Blake Hawksworth? If one starter gets hammered early, well, you have two starters in the pen as long men. If two starters get hammered early, you're not advancing no matter what, anyway. You can't justify this many pitchers based on playing National League baseball, because you don't have enough hitters on the roster with which to pinch-hit or double-switch anyway. Meanwhile, you won't be able to hit for the many crappy OBP guys on your roster because you were too concerned about what would happen to your bullpen in a second straight 17th-inning game.

Maybe La Russa will rethink this. Maybe Hummel has it wrong, although I don't think that he does, based on other places I've seen this notion. Carrying a dozen pitchers to play five games in seven days, or seven games in 10 days-when all the games are high-leverage and you never play more than two days in a row-is the kind of roster management that should get you fired on the spot. There is no possible use for that many pitchers, even granting La Russa's matchup-centric approach to the late innings. Even a team with lesser starting pitching would be hard-pressed to justify carrying that many relievers. No team has a dozen pitchers good enough to be used in post-season games. Some don't have a half-dozen, but we'll let one in tomorrow anyway.

There are real costs to this kind of elective post-season roster construction. Teams have given away the ability to counter bullpen moves by having quality pinch-hitters on their bench. They have lost the opportunity to take advantage of high-leverage situations on offense because they have to let glove men bat. Managers seem to have forgotten that pinch-hitters can be used for position players as well as pitchers; it's as if they've calculated that the potential offense taken by the player means more than the potential offense taken away by the player. In post-season games often decided by one run, one plate appearance, one base, that's malpractice. In building a post-season roster, teams have to stop worrying about what will happen in one highly unlikely situation, some series of injuries and/or extra-inning contests that leaves them short an arm, and focus on what will happen in almost every game: they'll have a bad hitter due up in a situation where a run will be needed. Win that battle, win it because you did a better job constructing your roster than the other guy did, and you might just win the war.


I'm late getting to this, but I want to make mention of it while we're still a month away. As many of you know, I go to the Arizona Fall League every November as part of Baseball HQ's First Pitch Arizona program. Ron Shandler has been inviting me for eight years now, and it's a pleasure and privilege to attend. The program consists of panel discussions and seminars with an all-star team of baseball minds, tickets to a number of AFL games, and the opportunity to spend four days with people who love baseball.

This year, the schedule provides a bonus in that the weekend, November 5-8, coincides with the AFL All-Star Game, which will no doubt be the greatest concentration of prospects this side of the Futures Game.

As an added bonus, Ron has generously offered a discount to people who sign up through Baseball Prospectus, making what is already a weekend worth the money that much more so. To get more information or to sign up, follow this link to the Baseball HQ site and read all about it. If you have any questions for me, you can click the link at the bottom of this page to ask me directly. Thanks, and I hope to see you out there next month.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

32 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I guess the other side of the argument would be to reduce some of the off days. (Not that I'm looking for a way to convince managers to carry 12 pitchers.) Yeah, I know, TV, but I think it's madness to have so many days off in October just so you could play a Boston-Colorado World Series in November. And don't get me started on today's off day.

Oct 05, 2009 15:57 PM
rating: 2

Today's off-day is caused because the Vikings are playing at home for Monday night football IN THE METRODOME, and the Twins' lease agreement does not allow them to bump them out or play the same day, and they get home field for the tiebreaker.

Oct 05, 2009 17:55 PM
rating: 2
Michael Bodell

I agree. I'd like to see each series played with no off days (and more games as a result). You can do best of 7 (with no off days) in the first round, and best of 9 (with no off days) in the second. You give teams 1 off day in between rounds plus as many off days as they get for finishing the series early. I'd have thought MLB owners would like that as it means more tickets and playoff games.

The other side of roster management would be to allow more than 25 men on roster in each series. In "normal" baseball you can have more than 25 men on your roster over a given 7 or 9 day period as you can call up replacements for injured/ineffective players. We see a few times a year a minor league pitcher come up for one game to help a team with rotation freshness issues. Allowing 25 men per game, but from a list of 30 men or something, would allow more flexibility.

Oct 05, 2009 18:43 PM
rating: 1

Agree with the 2nd part.

But 9 straight hugely significant games? That's a little much.Part of the reason you can play every day over the course of the season is that you can rest certain guys on one day because it's only 1 game out of 162. But in a 9 game series, with no off-days, can you really go to your top bullpen guys every single day That's a little bit ridiculous.

And you do realize that teams travel cross-country, right? If you have an extra-inning game in LA, then a cross-country flight, plus the time change, and a prime-time start in Boston the next night, that seems like you're asking for worse baseball, honestly.

Oct 05, 2009 21:31 PM
rating: 3

I agree that cross-country trips could be troublesome, which might mean giving off days for travel. However, I disagree with the thinking that 9 straight days is too much to play your top guys every day. I'm pretty sure that's part of the point. Over 162 games teams are rewarded for their depth, for their pitching staff rather than their top 3 starters and top 4 relievers. Making the postseason more like the regular season is something a ot of ppl. want I think.

Oct 06, 2009 07:08 AM
rating: 0

Actually, its quite feasible. You play a 3-4-2 arraingement which not only limits travel, but perserves the kind of series that teams are already used to. Then, to make things make even more sense, you make game 3 and game 7 DAY GAMES!!!! Of course, the other reason for off-days is for weather purposes, but playing in, say, Colorado or Detroit in late October/November and not expecting white fluffy stuff from falling from the sky falls under the heading, "Idiocy"

Oct 06, 2009 08:20 AM
rating: 0
Matt L.

As any Cardinals fan could tell you, LaRussa is obsessed with match-ups, often to his and the team's detriment. I agree that carrying 12 pitchers is ridiculous, but LaRussa clearly relishes his match-ups and in-game managing. This is the same guy who carried 13 pitchers for weeks this season, which is similarly hard to justify.

Oct 05, 2009 16:02 PM
rating: 1

Right - outside of one or two relievers, he sees his pitchers as situational commodities and he doesn't care if he uses one guy for one batter and moves on the next guy. With hitters however, I think he's going to be reluctant to remove all but one or two of his guys from the game permanently so he'll go in intending many fewer moves. I can actually see his point - he'll use Ankiel and Rasmus off the bench, and he needs a defensive infielder. But what other moves is he seriously going to contemplate? I suspect that, while a 12 man staff is overkill, for him so would a 6 man bench.

Oct 06, 2009 10:33 AM
rating: 1

So Joe, just who are these "quality pinch-hitters" that La Russa is leaving off the roster to feed his pitching-matchup obsession? The Cardinals' starting lineup is solid, and there are two or three non-starters who can more or less contribute off the bench, but the hitters get pretty thin pretty quickly once the Lugo/Schumaker and Ankiel/Rasmus cards are played. Are you really trying to claim that Troy Glaus, he of the .491 OPS in 2009, is more likely to contribute than the last guy in the pen? I really wonder.

Post-season rosters aren't constructed of the guys you'd like to have. They're constructed of the guys you DO have. Sometimes that means making a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Oct 05, 2009 16:12 PM
rating: 1

LaRue, Ankiel, Glaus, Lugo, Thurston are the 5. David Freese and Khalil Greene each make more sense for a roster spot than Todd Wellemeyer. At least you can imagine when they could possibly be used.

Oct 05, 2009 16:40 PM
rating: 1
Bill N

I think the unspoken point here is who cares? The last man or two on the bench is so rarely relevant anyway. Strictly speaking the lineup construction could probably be better, but there is basically no consequence.

I did like the article though, it's still an interesting angle to talk about.

Oct 06, 2009 07:54 AM
rating: 1

I sort of agree with this point. I don't know a ton about the Cardinals, and certainly not the depths of their bench, if you use them as a case study it would have been nice to at least give us a run down of whose left out if they do carry 12 pitchers, and what the potential value of those guys is.
However, in the abstract, I think Joe's point is right on, and I think like a lot of things in baseball, it boils down to managers being set in their ways. They're used to carrying a lot of pitchers, so they do it in the playoffs without really thinking about what all the added off days mean in terms of who will actually be used.

Oct 05, 2009 16:49 PM
rating: 1

Oh, in the abstract, I'd agree with you, and with Joe. However, managers don't make these decisions in the abstract; they make them on the basis of the real, concrete (or, if you prefer, stiff...) players they actually have. The realities of the 25-man roster don't allow for abstractions.

And Clonod, that's my point: Glaus is the last guy on the roster in the field, matching up with either Wellemeyer or Thompson in the pen. Is he likely to be more valuable? I have serious doubts. And I cannot IMAGINE a situation in which Khalil Greene is more likely to be valuable. For one thing, there's every chance that in the post season, Thompson will be a better hitter...

Oct 05, 2009 17:19 PM
rating: 2
David Coonce

HAving just watched a game in which the Twins nearly lost their only remaining shortstop in the 11th inning (Cabrera nearly got tossed arguing balls and strikes) I can see exactly why having a spare shortstop is more important than a 12th reliever.

Oct 06, 2009 20:41 PM
rating: 1
Rowen Bell

If the Cardinals don't have enough "quality pinch-hitters" on their roster to justify carrying as the 14th (or even 15th) position player on a playoff roster, then they made a major tactical error by not trading one of their relievers for a position player prior to the relevant deadline.

Oct 06, 2009 08:21 AM
rating: -1

If only it were so easy.

Incidentally, another point sometimes overlooked in these analyses is that the presence of good-hitting pitchers may also change the way the last roster slot or two are filled. St. Louis has at least two pitchers who are, quite literally, as likely to pinch-hit successfully as a Greene or Glaus, so why keep guys at the back end of the roster who can't even do their specialty as well as the more generally useful guys? Interestingly enough, all of the NL playoff teams except Philadelphia are similarly endowed with hitting pitchers, as were such also-rans as the Cubs (watching Carlos Zambrano bat in the post-season would have been worth the price of admission all by itself), Braves (Lowe), Marlins (J. Johnson), etc. And just thing if the Reds, and Micah Owings, had reached the playoffs...

Oct 06, 2009 08:35 AM
rating: 1
Matt Kory

There is no way that the Cardinals have two pitchers who are as good at hitting as Troy Glaus.

Oct 06, 2009 10:14 AM
rating: -1

Don't make the mistake of confusing the Glaus that was, or the Glaus that (hopefully) will be, with the Glaus that is. His line for the disastrous 2009 season is .172/.250/.241, and he has looked absolutely terrible at the plate. Adam Wainwright has clearly hit better than that this year, and Kyle Lohse has hit as well.

Do I think those guys will be better hitters than Glaus going forward? Of course not. In the here and now, however, he has been so bad since coming back from surgery that I'm actually quite mystified as to why he's on the roster at all. And don't get me started on Khalil Greene...

Oct 06, 2009 16:36 PM
rating: 0

Your point is somewhat well-taken. The
Cardinals don't have a lot of healthy position players on their 40-man roster. but I do think that there are options there that could be put to better use than yet another relief pitcher.

They could certainly use another righthanded hitting outfielder on the roster in this series. They will be facing lefthanded starters in Games 1, 2 & 5, and they have a black hole in CF against southpaws. None of the candidates (Ankiel, Rasmus or Schumacher) hit lefthanders this year. Unfortunately, though, Nick Stavinoha got hurt in late August, and 2009 was a lost season for Joe Mather. They probably should have gone out and picked up a righthanded hitting OF before 8/31, but that's water under the bridge right now.

How about Matt Pagnozzi? Ordinarily I would consider the idea absurd, but Yadier Molina's knee is hurting and I think the team could use a third catcher at this particular time. Suppose Molina's knee worsens during this series to the point where he can't play for a few days. Then your options become playing with just a single catcher (Jason LaRue), or disabling Molina to add Pagnozzi (the only other catcher on the 40-man roster). Unfortunately, if you disable a player, he has to sit out the next series in additon to the current one, so the latter option would put Yadi out until the World Series if they get that far. Even though he can't hit, his ability to catch would surely render Matt Pagnozzi a more valuable insurance policy than a 9th/10th reliever, at least at this point in time on this team.

What about Tyler Greene? He's nothing special but he was good enough to be in the shortstop mix before Brendan Ryan stepped forward and seized the job. If nothing else, he could be used as a defensive replacement for Julio Lugo, and that would be more valuable than a 9th/10th reliever.

What about David Freese? He was hot down the stretch in AAA. Frankly, I'd rather have him on the roster than Joe Thurston, much less a 9th/10th reliever.

So while I agree with your point, I think there are a few palyers available to the Cards that would be of better use to the team than Mitchell Boggs or Blake Hawksworth.

Oct 07, 2009 13:39 PM
rating: 0

I'm pretty sure that last paragraph was a way of getting toward's tomorrow's column, which will be about how Charlie Manuel should pinch-hit for Ryan Howard against a lefty.

Oct 05, 2009 16:52 PM
rating: -1
Mike Petriello

Joe, I've always been firmly in agreement on the "11 pitchers is best" theory, and I remain so here.

However, I can't help but wonder if the Dodgers represent an exception this year. They've had a ton of starting pitching issues and have a lot of good relievers, while on the other side of the ball they have a solid 8 in their starting lineup who don't get platooned and are rarely hit for.

That being the case, wouldn't a 12th pitcher along the lines of Scott Elbert or Guillermo Mota be more valuable to them than the corpse of Mark Loretta?

Oct 05, 2009 17:12 PM
rating: 4

In the 5-man rotation era, we have a number of starters who've gone on 3-days' rest in the post-season. Would seem to me that an article like this darn well ought to include research on how they've done.

Oct 05, 2009 17:29 PM
rating: 2

I seem to remember a statistic floating around a few years ago concerning starting pitchers going on 3-days rest in the postseason, and it wasn't pretty. As is often the case, though, there wasn't much of a sample, but that didn't stop Tim McCarver from rambling on about how it isn't a good idea.

I think this is part of a bigger problem: the failure of teams to adequately measure strengths and weaknesses, and then make decisions that maximize the strengths while minimizing the weaknesses.

Take the Tigers. Justin Verlander is, without a doubt, one of the five or ten best starting pitchers in the majors. Rick Porcello is a solid youngster. From there, though, it gets ugly. Edwin Jackson had a good (and hit-lucky) first half, and now looks like the 4.50 ERA pitcher he used to be. I don't even know who the 4th starter would be. They're catching a break, in that the Yankees will certainly choose the extended LDS, allowing them to utilize a 3-man rotation.

But assume they win and make it to the ALCS: could they gamble and start Verlander 4 times, Porcello twice, and whomever else once? It seems that would give them their best chance at winning - I don't care what Jackson's SNWP is in '09, because it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to what he posted in '08, '07, and prior. Would throwing Verlander 4 times, on a loose-ish 100 pitch limit, within 10 or 11 days do irreperable damage to his arm? I don't know, I just wonder if there's ever a team smart enough to try something like that.

Oct 05, 2009 19:07 PM
rating: 2

Joe, in focusing on pinch-hitting only, is underselling his point. In the playoffs, when the importance of a single run is magnified, both pinch- runners and defensive specialists matter more as well. The opportunity costs of a shallow bench can be pretty massive.

Oct 05, 2009 18:11 PM
rating: 1

Joe, if you watch the Cardinals regularly, you would understand that to Tony Larussa, well, I'll quote something he said earlier this year "You can never have too many relief pitchers." My father and I, long-time Cardinal fans, sometimes talk about teams adding another roster spot so they can have a larger bench again, but we always conclude that it would not help the Cardinals, because Tony would simply fill it with another pitcher. If you added two roster spots, he would give them both to pitchers.

He constantly switches pitchers, often for no apparent reason, and to obvious tactical disadvantage. He has gone from playing match-ups to blind, rote, thoughtless, stupidity. A man who can use three pitchers in a 3-up, 3-down inning, needs a big bullpen.

Larussa has a lot of strengths, but like many talented people, he has aged into a parody of himself.

Nice column.

Oct 05, 2009 18:52 PM
rating: 3

Joe is completely right about this issue, and the lunacy of a 12-man pitching staff in the postseason becomes even more obvious when you consider the rules have now changed to allow mid-series roster replacements.

Oct 05, 2009 19:27 PM
rating: 1

Isn't that only in the case of injury, though?

Oct 05, 2009 21:34 PM
rating: 0

As far as I know, but that's my point. There's nothing stopping a team from employing Rule 5-style "injury" shenanigans to conjure up an immediate roster replacement if a random 16-inning game suddenly occurs.

Consequently there's no need to carry TWO "in case of emergency break glass" pitchers. Have, say, just Boggs on the roster. If disaster strikes, just toss him onto the phony-injury discard pile and replace him with Hawksworth for the next doomsday scenario.

Oct 06, 2009 19:44 PM
rating: 0

I think focusing on pitchers' health and using starters on short rest isn't the issue. I think the issue is how effective the starters are on 3-days' rest.

Oct 05, 2009 19:44 PM
rating: 2
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff

There's not nearly enough data to conclude upon, and I say that as the guy who reamed McKeon for using Beckett on short rest in 2003.

There's absolutely not enough information to reach conclusions when it comes to individuals.

Oct 05, 2009 21:35 PM

So here is a question.

Has anyone looked back at the last 10 division series and see how many pitchers pitched on each team? That might tell you if you actually use 10 pitchers or not.

Oct 06, 2009 09:39 AM
rating: 0

How about you show us the data, then from that posit how it entails not nearly enough? If there's so little of it, then it shouldn't take an intern very long to get it together.

Not trying to be snarky. To me, it just seems self-evident to put out here what data is out there.

Oct 06, 2009 09:57 AM
rating: -3
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