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How the New MLB Playoff Schedule Complicates Pitching Plans

Offense usually declines in the postseason—but maybe not this year, as pitching depth will be tested like never before in October

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s hard to score runs in October. That’s not just a cliché or a maxim about how defense wins championships; it’s a playoff fact, borne out by history.

In the wild-card era, scoring has dropped by about 10 percent in the postseason, from an average of 4.64 runs per game in the regular season to 4.17 in the playoffs. Batting lines have fallen from .261/.330/.417 in the regular season to .241/.314/.389 in the playoffs, an OPS drop of 44 points. (For reference, .241/.314/.389 is roughly the career slash line of backup catcher Jason Castro.)

Offense was even worse in the playoffs in the 2010s, with the league amassing an average .230/.301/.375 line in October. (That’s about where backup infielder Ehire Adrianza is for his career.) The average postseason run total in the decade dipped below four, to 3.99 per team per game.

This decline makes sense. Pitchers are better in October, with back-end starters and mop-up relievers making way for a higher concentration of innings from the best teams’ best arms. Their fastballs are faster, and they’re harder to hit overall. With numerous off days for travel, a typical postseason is a staging ground for high-volume pitching heroes.

In 2014, Madison Bumgarner accounted for 33 percent of the Giants’ total postseason innings, compared to just 15 percent in the regular season. That same postseason, the Royals won 11 games; Greg Holland and Wade Davis each appeared in 10 of them, while Kelvin Herrera threw in nine. Last year, the Nationals’ top six pitchers—Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson—combined for 83 percent of the team’s postseason innings.

The 2020 postseason schedule will upend this customary dynamic. In the 16-team wild-card round, teams will play up to three days in a row, all at the home stadium of the higher seed. In the divisional round, when the eight remaining teams move to so-called “bubble” sites in Texas and Southern California, they’ll play up to five days in a row. And in the league championship round, they’ll play up to seven days in a row. The World Series is the only round with intra-series off days in 2020—meaning all that high-volume heroism might not be possible, lest pitchers’ arms fall off their bodies from overuse. Offenses are set to benefit as a result.

Rotation depth matters in the regular season; not so in the playoffs. This chart shows the distribution of starting pitcher innings by spot in the rotation from 1995 through 2019. In the regular season, staff aces throw 22 percent of all starter innings; in the playoffs, that figure nearly doubles, to 39 percent. (Note that these charts look at only innings pitched as a starter, so they don’t account for the starter-used-as-reliever phenomenon that’s been all the rage in recent postseasons.)

That concentration looks even more extreme when grouping pitchers together, showing just how much innings flow from the back of the rotation to the front in the postseason. No team in the wild-card era has used more than five starters in its playoff run, and even no. 5 starters have thrown just 1 percent of starters’ playoff innings.

That sort of concentration won’t be as feasible this postseason. In a typical division series setup, by the time teams reach Game 5, they can decide between either their no. 1 or no. 2 starter on regular rest, thanks to two off days in the series. Now, they’ll need to throw either their no. 5 starter or their no. 1 starter on short rest—a tricky proposition given the penalty pitchers face while throwing on short rest. A few years ago, Ringer teammate Ben Lindbergh found that in the wild-card era, pitchers who throw on short rest fare significantly worse than their baseline from earlier in the playoff series, with an ERA that rises by 0.82 runs (from 3.92 to 4.74) and an opponents’ OPS that rises by 57 points (from .701 to .758).

So if, say, the Yankees advance to the ALDS and have to play a decisive Game 5, do they turn to a rest-compromised Gerrit Cole or a rested Jordan Montgomery? What about in the ALCS, when they’d potentially have to play seven games in seven days, thus necessitating multiple starters to go on short rest if they want to skip Montgomery? This sort of decision will trouble every team that plays deep into October this year, as aside from maybe the Dodgers, there isn’t a single club that should feel comfortable with its last starter in a crucial game.

From the perspective of opposing offenses, they’ll face either an ace at less than 100 percent or a pitcher who wouldn’t normally get a playoff start at all. The logical follow is that runs will be easier to come by than in a normal postseason—especially when these inferior starter strategies are complicated by similar bullpen dilemmas brought about by short rest.

Here’s one way to illustrate how extensively dominant relievers skew playoff production at the plate. With more off days, a manager can call on his go-to relievers much more frequently—and often for longer stints—than in the regular season. For instance, Andrew Miller threw 19 1/3 innings as Cleveland played 15 playoff games in 2016—a rate that would translate to pitching 209 innings over 162 games.

For comparison, in the 2010s, Ryan Yarbrough was the only pitcher to reach even 100 relief innings in a regular season, and he barely counts since he was the “bulk” pitcher who followed the Rays’ openers in 2018. But in the playoffs, while Miller led the pack, he was far from alone. Among teams that advanced to at least the league championship series, a total of 80 pitchers in the decade pitched often enough in October that their postseason innings touch triple digits when converted to a 162-game pace.

Unsurprisingly given how often their managers trusted them, those pitchers turned in tremendous performances. That group of 80 arms combined for a 2.04 playoff ERA and allowed less than a baserunner per inning. The more selective the group and the higher their converted innings total, the better they threw.

High-Volume Playoff Relievers in the 2010s

Innings Per 162 Games # of Pitchers ERA WHIP K/9
Innings Per 162 Games # of Pitchers ERA WHIP K/9
100+ Innings 80 2.04 0.92 9.8
130+ Innings 33 1.70 0.82 10.8
160+ Innings 12 1.47 0.75 11.0
Of pitchers whose teams advanced to the league championship series

Including Miller, a dozen pitchers in the last decade of playoff baseball threw at least one inning per team game. They were all excellent. (David Robertson has a middling ERA in 2017 thanks to a four-run, zero-out implosion as he fatigued late in the ALCS. His ERA was 1.38 across his other appearances that month.)

Playoff Relievers With at Least One Inning Per Team Game

Pitcher Team Innings Per 162 ERA WHIP
Pitcher Team Innings Per 162 ERA WHIP
Andrew Miller 2016 CLE 209 1.40 0.88
Kevin Gausman 2014 BAL 185 1.13 0.75
Kenley Jansen 2017 LAD 180 1.62 0.66
Kenley Jansen 2016 LAD 172 3.09 0.86
Jeurys Familia 2015 NYM 170 0.61 0.48
Andrew Miller 2014 BAL 170 0.00 0.27
Josh Hader 2018 MIL 162 0.00 0.60
Corey Knebel 2018 MIL 162 0.90 0.50
David Robertson 2017 NYY 162 4.15 1.15
Roberto Osuna 2016 TOR 162 0.00 0.44
Kelvin Herrera 2014 KCR 162 1.80 1.20

But their heavier workloads will be impossible to maintain without intra-series off days. In the 2018 postseason, for instance, Corey Knebel pitched in all three of the Brewers’ NLDS games, but those appearances spanned four days because of an off day. In the NLCS, he pitched in six of seven games—but over a span of nine days, thanks to travel. Nobody will be realistically able to pitch that often in the first few rounds this postseason.

This change also comes amid a broader league context of greater respect for rest. In the mid-2000s, the average team used a pitcher on three consecutive days about 16 times over the course of the regular season; by last year, that rate had been cut in half, to just eight per team, and it’s dropped even more in 2020 (even translating to a 162-game calendar).

Throwing more than three days in a row also has become less common. The Angels’ Mike Mayers is the only player to pitch on four consecutive days in 2020, while nobody has pitched on five consecutive days since the final stretch of 2015, when Texas’s Sam Dyson and Shawn Tolleson each did so as the Rangers stretched for a division title. Around the same time, Oliver Pérez pitched six days in a row for the Astros, though as a lefty specialist, he faced just 10 total batters across those outings. (The MLB record, for curious readers, is an astonishing nine days in a row from Kent Tekulve in 1987.)

In 2020, no playoff team used a pitcher four or more days in a row during the regular season. The Twins, Astros, Cubs, Padres, Reds, and Brewers didn’t use any pitcher even three days in a row; the Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Dodgers did so only once.

Consideration of reliever rest isn’t typically a problem in the playoffs. Barring rainouts or other postponements, there are never games on four consecutive days, and three games in a row come only in the middle chunk of the World Series’ and LCS’ 2-3-2 setup. The only pitchers in the wild-card era to throw on four consecutive days in the playoffs are Jesse Orosco for the 1996 Orioles and Paul Quantrill for the 2004 Yankees. The only pitcher in playoff history to throw on five consecutive days is Hugh Casey for the 1947 Dodgers.

While in normal times, a star reliever can pitch in both Game 1 and Game 2 and be just fine because he’ll have the next day to rest, in 2020, that next day might also involve a tight spot in Game 3—and so might the day after that, in Game 4, and so on. Rather than a couple A+ relievers, teams with a handful of B+ arms might be in better position because of that depth.

The Brewers, for instance, could struggle because of their overreliance on Devin Williams and Josh Hader; the latter has trouble pitching even two days in a row, with a career 4.71 ERA on no rest versus a 2.31 mark with at least one day between games. Other teams in this category are the Cubs and Yankees. Conversely, clubs with more depth that could benefit from the format are Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Atlanta.

Offenses, by comparison, won’t suffer at all from this scheduling shift. Position players can play three or five or seven days in a row without issue—aside from maybe catchers, who could struggle to squat for a week straight—as they already do for large swaths of the regular season.

The full scale of the ensuing strategic wrinkles are still to be determined, but it’s relatively clear that managers will have to be judicious in their assignment of reliever innings. Might that mean starters aren’t pulled at the first sign of trouble, as they have been in recent years? (In both 2017 and 2018, the average length of a playoff start dipped below five innings; in the latter season, no starter threw more than 108 pitches in a game.) Will middling relievers have to quench seventh-inning fires rather than the Andrew Millers of the world? Could a long extra-inning game—the runner-on-second rule, new to this regular season, won’t apply in the playoffs—destroy a pitching staff beyond repair if it exhausts all the top relievers?

Any and all of those changes should inspire more offensive production. So too might the strain of high-volume, high-intensity innings if managers push their relievers regardless of the updated schedule; even Miller broke at the end of his magnificent 2016 playoff run, allowing his first run of the postseason in Game 4 of the World Series and then two more in Game 7.

This postseason will feature worse pitchers than usual, plus more fatigued pitchers in key moments. It still won’t be easy to score—but compared to past postseasons, plating runs might not be as much of a challenge as series continue and every team’s pitching depth is tested like in no October before.

Thanks to Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance with consecutive days data.