One of the best parts of September is that a group of teams will inevitably play the most important games of their seasons in that month. Seldom is there a season in which the four playoff spots in each league are locked up before the final weeks, and this season has been no different. To start this week, the Phillies were set to battle the Braves in the most important series of both of the National League East rivals' years to date, while the Yankees and Rays fought for American League East supremacy in arguably their biggest series of the season. However, unlike the latter match-up in which both teams are definitely going to the playoffs, the former had more serious playoff implications at stake.
Entering play Monday night, the Phillies boasted the best record in the NL at 89-61, with the Braves three games back at 86-64. The Phillies had been playing out of their minds for almost two months, while the Braves were scuffling a bit. After losing to the Cardinals on July 21, the Phillies had fallen to 49-46, a full seven games behind the 56-39 Braves. From July 22-September 19, they went 40-15 while the Braves managed a 30-25 record. The 10-game swing placed the Phillies three games ahead of the Braves with six head-to-head games remaining, one series on each of their turfs.
From a playoff odds standpoint, before the series began the Phillies had a 79.5 percent shot at winning the division and a 19.9 percent shot at winning the wild card, putting their overall odds at a secure 99.4 percent. The Braves were 20.5 percent likely to win the division but had a 69.3 percent shot of winning the wild card, odds of 89.8 percent. The Phillies were virtually in, and the Braves weren’t far off. In spite of the high odds for both teams, home-field advantage is an important animal, especially given how poorly the Braves have played on the road. If the Phillies swept the Braves they would hold a commanding six-game lead in the division while the Braves, with three more losses, might have to fight to earn the wild card berth. On the flip side, if the Braves swept the Phillies, the teams would be tied for the NL East lead. A sweep didn’t have to occur, of course, but this is what was at stake.
Understanding that the series on their home turf held the possibility of changing their course, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel shuffled his rotation. By flip-flopping Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt last week, Manuel made it possible for the H2O trio—Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt—to face the Braves this week. The Braves had the opportunity to do with ace Tim Hudson what the Phils did with Oswalt, but instead chose to keep their rotation in its normal order. That order involved their three best pitchers—Hudson, Derek Lowe, and Tommy Hanson—pitching against the Mets over the weekend, while leaving Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and Hanson to pitch against the Phillies.
With the off day on Thursday, September 16, the Braves certainly could have gotten creative and found a way for Jurrjens, Hudson, and Hanson to be slotted in against Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt, but they didn’t. In fact, not only was the rotation not shuffled to allow Hudson to pitch in the series, the Braves were forced to go with Brandon Beachy, making his major league debut, in the first game after Jurrjens (knee) had to be scratched, followed by a pitcher with less than two months of major league experience in Mike Minor and then Hanson.
On the surface, this was an incredibly questionable non-move exacerbated by the fact that the Phillies did go on to sweep the Braves, effectively ending any hope of them winning the division. This Phillies team should beat Beachy and Minor, even if they tend to struggle against pitchers they have never seen before. As it currently stands, the Phillies are as close to having a 100 percent probability of making the playoffs as is possible without actually having clinched a berth, with a six-game lead over the Braves, Reds, and Padres with just nine games left to play. The Braves, however, saw their playoff odds drop from 90 percent to 72 percent, substantial but not deadly.
What immediately sticks out as a potential defense for manager Bobby Cox’s decision is that the Braves still make the playoffs in approximately three out of every four simulations. And while the 72 percent likelihood shouldn’t help them sleep too soundly at night, they aren’t exactly clinging for their lives right now. Here is how the remaining schedules shake out for the contenders:
Braves: at Nationals for three, vs. Marlins for three, vs. Phillies for three.
Padres: vs. Reds for three, vs. Cubs for four, at Giants for three.
Giants: at Rockies for three, vs. Diamondbacks for three, vs. Padres for three.
The Giants and Padres have similar schedules, sandwiching each other and a solid team with a poor team. The Braves will play the lowly Nationals, a fairly depleted Marlins team, and a Phillies team likely to be using bench players and pitchers like Vance Worley and Mike Zagurski as they rest regulars for the postseason. Though anything could certainly happen, I feel confident suggesting that the Braves have the easiest schedule of the three teams. Additionally, by virtue of the Giants and Padres playing each other, it becomes increasingly likely that only one of those teams will make the playoffs. Given that line of thinking, was Cox’s decision to not move Hudson around and go with his best pitching weapons all that terrible?
While I was originally in fervent disagreement with the non-move, my thinking has changed since I began researching for this article. There are a few scenarios under which Cox might have been operating that could help explain what happened:
Scenario #1: Jurrjens is a very good pitcher and he was slated to pitch on Monday. That would have given the Braves Jurrjens-Minor-Hanson, which isn’t as potent as a potential Jurrjens-Hanson-Hudson, but is still somewhat formidable. When Jurrjens was scratched, Cox couldn’t go back in time and juggle the rotation. His hand was forced: either go with someone on short rest, go with Kenshin Kawakami, or go with someone new. He chose the third option. This scenario is predicated on thinking Jurrjens would be healthy and that Hudson wouldn’t be needed necessarily.
Scenario #2: The Braves have played poorly on the road and were going into a three-game road series against the best team in their league, which had absolutely been on fire. Cox subconsciously thought they would be lucky to win one of the three games and decided that he would rather ensure as much as he could that they swept the Mets by using the rotation in its normal order rather than shuffle things around, potentially lose a game to the Mets, and waste their ace in a game they might lose anyway.
Scenario #3: Cox thought that youngsters the Phillies haven’t seen before in Beachy and Minor might pose a similar threat to better pitchers they had seen umpteen times over the years.
Scenario #4: Cox realized that the Braves are in a good spot, no matter what happens, because if they lose out on the division they can still get into the playoffs as the wild card. In that event, it wouldn’t matter if they lost to the Phillies so long as they could handle their remaining schedule. Shuffling the rotation around for the Phillies could preclude their best options from being lined up for the Nats or Marlins.
Personally, the fourth scenario rings the most true to me, with some of the second scenario mixed in. Cox obviously had his hand forced when Jurrjens went down, though the situation wouldn’t have been as dire had he done some shuffling beforehand. The Braves are still in the wild card chase even after being swept by the Phillies, and they go into a pivotal series with the Nationals having Hudson and Lowe ready to go. It’s too easy to retrospectively say they were unlikely to beat the Phillies even with Hudson, but it should feel good for them to emerge from a sweep leading the wild card with their ace on the mound in a crucial game. Ultimately, the jury will be out on this decision until the end of the season, when we know if the Braves make the playoffs, because division title or not, making the playoffs is making the playoffs.
If the Braves fall completely out of the picture, the decision to not use Hudson against the Phillies isn’t going to be the sole explanation, but it is likely to comprise a big chunk of that pie, because it wasn’t as if Philadelphia absolutely dominated the series. Who knows what would’ve happened with a Minor-Hanson-Hudson rotation? Maybe the Braves lose the first one and take the next two, changing the entire picture. Each of the games was winnable, and color me skeptical that Hudson wouldn’t have presented a better shot at shutting down that offense than Minor or Beachy. The latter rookie didn’t pitch poorly, but he also didn’t last that long or pitch that effectively, either, both of which are uncharacteristic of Hudson.
So the million-dollar question is: do you think it will ultimately matter? Or will the Braves get in and this will merely be an afterthought?