A one-game, winner-take-all playoff is equal parts exciting and terrifying. On one hand, the team is one great pitching performance or one big swing away from moving onto the next round. On the other hand, if your ace has an off night or there’s a bad hop that causes an error, your season could be over just like that.
The games also force managers to be creative and do things they wouldn’t normally do, especially on the pitching side of things. A top pitcher might be asked to pitch on short rest, someone who normally starts might be asked to pitch out of the bullpen, or a top reliever may be asked to extend beyond how long he normally pitches. These are things that likely aren’t practical or sustainable over the 162 games of the regular season, but when one game determines whether a team moves on or is finished, anything goes.
Now that the Rockies have clinched the second wild card position, they will face the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday. It’s time to start thinking about what the Rockies can do to maximize their chances of winning that game in order to advance into the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Rockies should simply give the ball to Jon Gray and either win or lose the game on the strength of his right arm. If this is what the Rockies choose to do, there’s certainly merit in that decision. Among 63 National League starters with 100 or more innings pitched, Gray currently ranks 10th in park-adjusted ERA- and xFIP- and is in a tie for third in park-adjusted FIP-. He’s also thrown five or more innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs in 13 consecutive starts, the longest streak for any major league pitcher this season.
There’s no question Gray is the most likely of any Rockies’ starter to both keep them in the game and put the team on his back with a dominant performance. If there’s one spot of concern with Gray, it’s getting through the opposing order a second time. Take a look at the disparity in his numbers the first time facing someone in a game compared to the second time:
Jon Gray first and second time through the batting order
The first time through the batting order, Gray has been nothing short of dominant. His .502 OPS against is more than 100 points lower than the worst qualified hitter in baseball this season, Alex Gordon. The second time through, however, has been another story. His OPS against spikes all the way up to .922. That’s roughly Daniel Murphy’s OPS. The easiest way to avoid this, of course, is to simply not let Gray go through the batting order more than once.
This sounds great, but it raises another question. How do the Rockies get through the rest of the game? If Gray’s OBP against of .226 the first time through the order holds true, he would be expected to get seven of the first nine batters out. Now, if Gray has his best stuff and is perfect through the first nine hitters—three innings—with six strikeouts (or something similar), the Rockies are probably best suited to leave him in the game. In a typical Jon Gray game, however, the idea is to get him out after going through the order once to avoid the spike in offense we typically see the second time through the order. In this scenario, it leaves the bullpen to pick up about 20 outs, or 62⁄3 innings. Since this isn’t something you’d typically ask a bullpen to do, we’ll have to get creative in how to do it.
This is where super reliever Chris Rusin and starting pitcher Germán Márquez come in. Take a look at how each of them do their first time facing an opposing hitter in a game, respectively:
Chris Rusin and Germán Márquez first time through the order
It’s unconventional, but allowing Rusin and Márquez—who each have experience working out of the bullpen—to take one trip through the order after Gray would prevent any Diamondbacks hitter from getting to see the same pitcher twice, and is also likely to get you about as far into the game as having Gray throw his usual ~100 pitches would. If Rusin and Márquez’s respective OBP against of .285 and .296, respectively, were to hold true, they’d each be expected to get about six outs in the nine hitters they face. Add those (roughly) 12 outs to the seven outs they got from Gray, and you’ve taken care of 19 outs, or 61⁄3 IP. That would actually be slightly longer than Gray’s average start of 52⁄3 IP in 2017, not counting his injury- or rain-shortened outings.
From there, the Rockies would need only eight outs (give or take) from the trio of Greg Holland, Jake McGee, and Pat Neshek, which wouldn’t be much different than what’s asked from them in a typical game the Rockies lead—of course, it’s likely they would be asked to pitch in this particular game even if the Rockies are behind. On paper, it’s a strategy that would maximize the Rockies’ potential for keeping the Diamondbacks off the scoreboard.
If they’re able to win, the benefits of this could extend beyond just the Wild Card game. Giving Gray only nine hitters in this game at his average of 3.94 pitches per plate appearance means he would throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 pitches. A pitch count that low means he would likely be able to come back and pitch game two of the NLDS. That, in turn, means he’d also be available for a potential game five on normal rest. Were he to make a typical start in the Wild Card game, he wouldn’t be able to pitch until game three in the NLDS and, if a game five happened, he would be very limited or completely unavailable on just two days rest. Not only does it maximize their opportunity to win the Wild Card game, it also maximizes the amount the Rockies would be able to use their best pitcher in the following series.
Giving Jon Gray, Chris Rusin, and Germán Márquez each one trip through the batting order in the Wild Card game would certainly be unconventional. It might even be a little weird. That’s okay, though. To win in the postseason, sometimes you have to get weird.