Roster and Gameday Strategies for One-Game Playoffs

Previously, I took a look at the benefits of a legally nebulous, but somewhat unlikely nine-man defense. In this piece, we’ll look at a group of other tactics that can be employed in the new one-game Wild Card Round that the MLB has created. This time, we’ll take a more traditional “outside the box” approach, if such a thing is possible.

With the addition of the new playoff round comes the opportunity for roster gaming. Being AL-centric here for a moment, we saw this last year in particular on the AL side. While the other three teams (Cardinals, Braves, Rangers) selected 3 starting pitchers to their Wild Card roster, the Orioles went with only 1, Joe Saunders. Sure, Arrieta, Hunter, Matusz all had starts in the year, but by September they were all in the pen. This freed up some roster room for Buck, which he primarily filled with other relief pitchers.

Now, that’s not the worst idea in the world, but given the uniqueness of the one-game playoff, why not make unique roster decisions?

First, as I mentioned above.  The selection and usage of pitchers seems paramount.  I’m of the opinion that one should almost play the entire game as if it were a game in extra innings.  Limit your pitchers to 2 innings or so, potentially even starting with your closer.  Now, that gets into the mental preparedness issues as to whether or not a closer could appreciate or handle coming into a game in the first inning. However, if he were aware that he is only going to be pitching the first inning, perhaps this may not be as big of an obstacle.

The main benefit to this is that you are able to rest your starters for a potential 5-game series against the best team in the league.  Additional benefits exist in the ability to play matchups, and remove a pitcher who gives up more than a run or two.   I would imagine this would result in selecting mostly (all?) relief pitchers, with an “emergency” starter, similar to how the All-Star Game has worked as of late. I would imagine employing this strategy would lead you to want to carry 11 or 12 pitchers on your roster.  That may limit your options for position players, which brings us up to point two.

Second, depending upon the comfort one has with their team’s starting lineup, the logical roster choice is to select speed.  In a one-game scenario, the likelihood of needing a hot bat to add to the lineup is low, and the value of a stolen base, potentially late in the game, can be incredibly high, as we saw in the 2004 ALCS.  Perhaps the inclusion of an emergency catcher would be a good idea, if you’re one of those who lives in perpetual fear of random foul tips and collisions.

The third and final element is for managers and players to put their ego at the door.  Here we live in the age of the immense infield shift, with the third baseman playing behind second base in some instances.  In a one-game playoff, the correct move is for the player to bunt the ball down the line where no defensive player exists.  Sure, I agree that over the long term of a season, you’re better off with the potential for a double or home run, but given the difference in value of having a player on the bases in one game (plus the potential that for the next at bat, the defensive team would not shift as dramatically) increases the likelihood of success for the team as a whole.  And besides, it even opens up the opportunity for the rare bunt double.   I’m not the first to make this argument, though.  This has existed since at least the 1946 World Series, when Ted Williams was out-dueled by Manager Eddie Dyer of the Cardinals.  For the record, Williams batted .200 that Series, with all of his hits being singles.

Ultimately, this boils down to one thing: small ball is the name of the game.  Even teams full of power hitters can benefit from not having to rely on the long ball to win a ball game, especially one as important as the Wild Card Game.   We only have to look back one year to see an example of a power team’s bats going cold at just the wrong time, with the Rangers, the MLB’s best offense in runs per game, only able to put together one run, while their opponents scored five with only one extra-base hit (and three sacrifices!).

What do FanGraphers think?  What strategies that are not typically employed would be worth the effort in a one-game playoff?

28, Baltimore Orioles fan living in Phoenix (for now). My wife advises me to tell everyone I'm married. I run and in my spare time, which practically doesn't exist.

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10 years ago

Fairly obvious strategy for the NL: pinch hit for the pitcher every single time.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
10 years ago
Reply to  Bryce

I don’t know that NL teams have the offensive depth to do that. At least, the batters would provide such little value over just letting pitchers hit, that it’s likely more valuable to carry a lot of specialists to neutralize the other team’s batters.

10 years ago

Well the RPs aren’t batting anyway, so this is entirely dependent on how long you keep your starter in for. “Every single time” really only comes down to one or two PAs in the first half of the game. So if you’ve dumped four of your ordinary SPs from your roster, you can add back on a couple of extra hitters, which in turn can handle those PAs.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
10 years ago

This came up last year as well. If you’re subscribing to the thought that your best pitcher should be on the mound for the highest leverage situation, then your closer probably should be starting. Especially if your closer is someone like Kimbrel. The first batter of the first inning would present the highest leverage situation, as it’s the only leverage. You then work your way down the chain from there. Of course, no manager would ever do this (especially not Fredi, The Tinkerer).