What MLB’s new playoff format has revealed about the dangers of getting clever with a postseason rotation

A new playoff format is providing a lab for teams to learn how to handle this structure going forward.

And one lesson that should be absorbed when it comes to using your starting pitching is this: Don’t get cute.

The Mets and possibly the Blue Jays were considering not using their best starters for Game 2 of the wild-card round if they won Game 1. The theory being that if they lost Game 2, they still had that starter (in this case, Jacob deGrom and Kevin Gausman, respectively) lined up for the decisive Game 3.

But if they swept the wild-card round, they would have one of their two best starters to open the Division Series against a theoretically better division-winning team.

Both the Mets and Blue Jays lost their wild-card openers and ultimately their series, so we did not see this enacted.

Obviously, we need far more information to make definitive statements about how to handle all elements within this new format, including starting pitching. But based on the subset of games so far, an argument is forming to stay in order with your best starters and not try to game the system. Two reasons:

1. The top division winners have been inactive for five days while the wild-card round is being contested. No matter how many workouts and simulated games are played during those off-days, it is not easy to stay at a peak for game sharpness.

Despite the rest advantage they had over the Phillies, Max Fried and the Braves found themselves down 7-1 by the fifth inning of their Game 1 loss in the NLDS.
MLB Photos via Getty Images

This could just be coincidental and, thus, would have happened with no days off. But in the first two Division Series games, the winner of the wild-card round Phillies ambushed the Braves to take a 7-1 lead in the fourth inning before Atlanta rallied to fall short 7-6, while the wild-card round Mariners took a 6-2 lead in the fourth and were ahead 7-3 through seven before falling 8-7 to the Astros.

Again, this could be just coincidence, since the Yankees and Dodgers had the same five days off and handled their openers well. But playing after not facing real-speed action for nearly a week has to be considered in this equation.

2. Having your best two starters lined up on full rest for Division Series Games 2 and 3 provides a terrific benefit.

If you lose Game 1 of the best-of-five, your team now has its best two starters to try to right themselves against likely the Nos. 2-3 starters of the higher division winner.

If you win Game 1, your team now has not only removed the home-field advantage from the division winner, but potentially gained the starting pitching matchup edge in the next two games.

Think about how the first two games of the Phillies-Braves series went. Philadelphia did not get complicated in Round 1. The Phillies beat the Cardinals in Game 1 behind ace Zack Wheeler and did not overthink Game 2 — they went with co-ace Aaron Nola, who shut down the Cardinals to sweep St. Louis out of the playoffs.

Aaron Nola #27 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the Wild Card Series game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Saturday, October 8, 2022 in St. Louis, Missouri.
After getting past the Cardinals in Game 1 of the Wild Card with Zack Wheeler, the Phillies closed out the series quickly by sending co-ace Aaron Nola to the mound in Game 2.
MLB Photos via Getty Images

In Division Series Game 1, Philadelphia starter Ranger Suarez toyed persistently with trouble, but Atlanta was not initially sharp. The Phillies won and had Wheeler going in Game 2 against the Braves’ No. 2 starter Kyle Wright. Wheeler pitched well enough to give the Phillies a chance to steal both games in Atlanta. But the Phillies were held down offensively.

The Phillies now have Nola in Game 3. The problem for the Phillies would come after that and this is why teams were thinking of gaming the system. In Game 4, Philadelphia would have to start Bailey Falter, Kyle Gibson or most likely Noah Syndergaard and then in Game 5, they will have to decide whether to bring Wheeler back on short rest (he only threw 79 pitches in Game 2) or go with Game 1 starter Suarez.

But a few things: If the wild-card series goes three games rather than a two-game sweep, then even if you try to game the system you will be using your two best starters in that round. And even if you start your two best in Games 1 and 2 of the wild-card round, you are assured of having them on full rest in Division Series Games 2-3, plus the Game 2 starter is an option on short rest for Game 5 or perhaps to provide something out of the bullpen.

It is imperfect, but it should be remembered when trying to line this up that the higher-seeded division-winning opponent might be quite imperfect as well. Charlie Morton is Atlanta’s likely Game 3 starter and he allowed four homers and nine runs over nine innings in his last two starts, including six runs in 4 ⅔ innings to the Phillies on Sept. 25 at Citizens Bank Park.

Spencer Strider, who has not pitched since Sept. 18 due to an oblique injury, is Atlanta’s most probable Game 4 starter. That, plus considering who the Phillies starter will be, probably turns that game into a heavy bullpen usage affair in the middle of what could be three games in three days if the series goes the distance. So both the Phillies and Braves could be in a pitching scramble over the weekend.

New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer #21, reacts after giving up a 3-run homer to San Diego Padres left fielder Jurickson Profar #10, in the 5th inning.
Max Scherzer’s disappointing Game 1 start against the Padres forced the Mets to go with Jacob deGrom in Game 2 instead of saving him for a potential date with the Dodgers.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

This isn’t to say the Mets’ potential pitching plan was outlandish. If it all went ideally against the Padres, they would have swept behind Max Scherzer and Chris Bassit, then had deGrom to start Game 1 against the mighty Dodgers, Scherzer on full rest in Game 2 before the series shifted back to New York and then deGrom would be on full rest if there were a Game 5 back at Dodger Stadium.

The Mets felt they were built to win a championship this year and their chances of getting through Los Angeles were going to be greatly diminished if they did not start deGrom and Scherzer three times (all on the road) in that potential series. The plans were scuttled when the Padres beat up Scherzer to win Game 1, forcing deGrom into Game 2 of the wild-card round. Plus, of course, the Mets were eventually eliminated.

Going into the playoffs, this strategy made sense to me and I endorsed it. But now seeing how this format is playing out I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes that comes from the economist Paul Samuelson: “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

It is important to be flexible in taking in information, and this new format is providing new information daily. And off of what I have seen, I would advise teams to not try to game the system in the wild-card round. If they are available, just use your best starters in order.

 And on to some random thoughts for 3Up:

1️⃣ A mea culpa here. In my piece earlier this week, I wrote about the Mets’ offseason and I had this paragraph:

But assuming opt-outs by Bassitt, deGrom and Taijuan Walker, and the picking up of the options for Carlos Carrasco ($14 million) and Daniel Vogelbach ($1.5 million), the Mets (for luxury-tax purposes) have nine players (Scherzer, Francisco Lindor, Starling Marte, Mark Canha, Carrasco, Eduardo Escobar, James McCann, Darin Ruf and Vogelbach signed for $148.625 million. MLB Trade Rumors projects the two key arbitration-eligible players — Alonso and McNeil — to come in at around $22 million combined. Plus, for the luxury tax, every team will be charged roughly $16.5 million next year for benefits such as insurance. That puts the Mets at about $187 million.

Robinson Cano #24 of the New York Mets in the dugout during the seventh inning when the New York Mets played the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday, May 1, 2022, at Citi Field in Queens.
With more than $20 million owed to Robinson Cano next year, the Mets already are comitted to a $207 million payroll in 2023 before any free agent additions.
Robert Sabo

That is all correct. What I forgot to include was that the Mets have the gift that keeps on hurting — for luxury-tax purposes they still owe Robinson Cano $20.25 million next season. Thus, you can raise the total of known commitments for 2023 to around $207.25 million (it is still higher with a few smaller arbitration cases and adding several million for non-arbitration players who will round out the roster).

As the piece early in the week detailed, there could be trades to shift around money, for example. But the generalized picture is that even if Steve Cohen repeats a roughly $300 million payroll (and recently on the podcast “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman,” he insinuated that he does not want to go much beyond that, if beyond it at all), the Mets have maneuverability to retain some of their key guys from Bassitt, deGrom, Edwin Diaz and Brandon Nimmo, but not all of them.

And this is why I have pointed out a few times during this year that Diaz’s 2022 performance, in particular, combined with Jarred Kelenic’s early career struggles saved that trade from being a disaster for the Mets. But let’s not put it into the win category. Kelenic’s prospect value in the 12 months after the trade grew much larger, so what could the Mets have gotten for him certainly something in which you don’t take on Cano’s albatross contract in addition.

The fact is Diaz was acquired to be a finishing piece for a playoff team. The Mets did not make the playoffs in his first season (2019) and he might have been the biggest reason why. They only made the playoffs in his last control season and he pitched in two games before elimination. And now he is a free agent expected to fetch a deal approaching $20 million annually while Cano’s $20.25 million payment remains on the Mets’ books, making it more difficult to bring back Diaz.

2️⃣ Oswaldo Cabrera has a chance to be Ben Zobrist — a switch-hitter who gets 500-plus plate appearances annually playing all over the field.

New York Yankees right fielder Oswaldo Cabrera #95 catches a ball hit by Minnesota Twins third baseman Gio Urshela #15 during the 11th inning.
Oswaldo Cabrera’s ability to play almost anywhere in the field could provide the Yankees a chance to give their aging veterans a rest without a decline in potential production.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Po

Of course, we have to see more from Cabrera. He played just 44 games this year. But those 44 games were a terrific calling card of not just his skills, but his baseball IQ, aptitude and poise. There are few better terms that can be said about a player than that he is smart, adaptable and unafraid on the field. Cabrera is showing himself to be smart, adaptable and unafraid. 

In theory, the Yanks can decide not to re-sign Andrew Benintendi and just have Cabrera as the primary left fielder next year. That is quite a statement considering that Cabrera had played one game and nine innings at the position in his entire minor league career and that left field at Yankee Stadium is a very difficult area. But Cabrera has given the Yankees that option.

When you look at the age and injury history on the Yankees roster, however, Cabrera’s ability to channel Zobrist would be valuable to give guys rest and to provide a replacement for inevitable injuries.

Now, let’s keep in mind that if Cabrera were 75 percent of Zobrist that would be something. Zobrist did the Swiss Army knife thing better than anyone (there really should be an award named for him given to the best versatile player in the game). From 2008-17, Zobrist was a key component on an AL title team with the Rays and championship Royals and Cubs clubs. In those 10 seasons, he started at every position except catcher and pitcher and accumulated 41.4 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs), which was 14th in the majors between Dustin Pedroia and Joe Mauer.

Though he did not make his debut until Aug. 17, Cabrera played every position in his 44 games except center, catcher and pitcher. He produced the second-best WAR on the team in that time at 1.4 (Aaron Judge led the majors at 3.9). Cabrera’s total was 32nd in the majors, between George Springer and Alex Bregman.

Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs turns a double play in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on September 08, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Over the course of his 14-year career, Ben Zobrist was the ultimate utilityman for four different teams, two of which won the World Series.
Getty Images

3️⃣ The impact bats traded at the deadline did not provide much impact. Here are the top 10 in OPS for their new teams (minimum 70 plate appearances):

1. Mark Mathias, Rangers — .919
2. Reese McGuire, Red Sox — .877
3. Daniel Vogelbach, Mets — .830
4. Juan Soto, Padres — .778
5. Brandon Marsh, Phillies — .773
6. Whit Merrifield, Blue Jays — .769
7. Andrew Benintendi, Yankees —.734
8. Emmanuel Rivera, Diamondbacks — .728
9. Brandon Drury, Padres — .724
10. Robbie Grossman, Braves — .675

Other notables included: Tommy Pham (Red Sox), .672; Joey Gallo (Dodgers (.671); Jose Siri (Rays), .660; David Peralta (Rays), .652; Trey Mancini (Astros), .622; Josh Bell (Nationals), .587.

Some of these players obviously remain alive in the playoffs and/or have control beyond this season (notably Soto) and can still make their acquisitions winners.

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