So the playoff rosters are likely coming sometime on Thursday and at that point we’re all going to spend way too much time analyzing whether or not Matt Tuiasosopo made the cut. But for now, let’s talk about something a bit more consequential – how Leyland should deploy his pitching staff.
Let’s draw the boundaries of the discussion by recognizing that he’s already set hit starting rotation for the entire series.
Game 1: Scherzer
Game 2: Verladner
Game 3: Sanchez
Game 4: Fister
Game 5: Scherzer
I’m not going to quibble with this order too much because it doesn’t make a big difference. I’d have led with Sanchez and then pitched Scherzer and then Verlander, but re-litigating that choice isn’t very exciting. Instead, let’s consider how to use what he has in the framework he’s established. For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume Porcello, Smyly, Benoit, Veras, Alburquerque, (lefty), and (long man righty). The last two don’t really matter, because you’re only going to use them in blowouts when everyone else is tired.
So I want to address two key premises that Leyland should employ during the first round, which begins on Friday.
USE YOUR STARTERS
This can be easily broken down into two categories. First, Rick Porcello is your best reliever, use him like it. Last year, Leyland didn’t use Smyly and Porcello as late inning relievers because he thought of them as his long-men/insurance policy. They were starers, so they didn’t pitch in tight games. They only got called on in the 4th inning or in blowouts. This is fundamentally flawed. Your starters, especially someone like Porcello who has a bit of an endurance issue as a starter, are going to become dynamite relievers. Their starting days are over until April, deploy them as high leverage relievers. Leyland needs to use Porcello like he’s a fireman. When the game is on the line, whether it’s inning four or inning eight, Porcello is the first guy you should call. He’s the best and you need to use your best when it matters most.
Second, Leyland needs to make use of Fister in relief. He threw one inning on Sunday and isn’t due to pitch again until Tuesday. That’s an eight day layoff between outings and the initial outing was only an inning long. Fister is well-rested and ready to go. Two things can happen here. One, if Scherzer doesn’t have it early, Leyland needs to be ready to go to Fister. Don’t wait until it’s too late, bring in another starter right away. During the season, you can sacrifice a game now for long term stability, but you can’t do that in the playoffs. Don’t be afraid to do something unorthodox. Two, get Fister an inning or two in relief anyway. We’re talking eight days between appearances and close to two weeks between starts. Get him in the game and let him throw 25-35 pitches on Friday. He’ll be plenty fresh for his schedule start and you won’t have to rely on the bullpen as much.
This is vital to postseason bullpen management. Roles should be completely outlawed. This is about the situation in the game at that exact moment. There is no context, there is no future. If that means you bring in Benoit in the third inning, you do it. If it means Smyly for four outs and Porcello for seven based on the matchups, you do it. Need a strikeout, call Al-Al. You don’t have a closer or an “eighth inning guy” anymore. You have pitchers. Think of them as tranquilizer darts. Some are more powerful than others and some are designed for certain types of animals. When you only have a certain number of them and your life depends on not getting eaten alive, you need to choose which ones to fire when and you can’t decide based on the order you packed them in your bag. That’s not how this works. The playoffs are different than the regular season. You don’t have the luxury of rest or getting comfortable.
Ultimately the key is for Leyland to recognize that Porcello will be an elite reliever and that he needs to worry about the situation instead of what might happen later. Mario and Rod routinely talk about how Leyland likes to think three innings ahead. That can work in the regular season, but it’s wrong in the postseason. You have to empty the chamber when the lion is bearing down on you. You can’t save a dart because a cheetah might come later.
I have some hope that he knows what Porcello can be after watching Bochy use Lincecum last season, but I’m much more skeptical about the second part. A lot of managers are unwilling to rock the boat this much and Leyland is very much a member of the rank and file. He’s not Dusty Baker stubborn, but he’s not very revolutionary. His virtues are clear – players love playing for him. But he has some clear tactical problems that will be more costly in the playoffs. Hopefully, he’ll make the right calls because if he unleashes this team in the best possible way, there is very little that can slow them down.