MLB Playoff Teams Continue To Eschew Back-End Starting Pitchers. Is It Working?

Image credit: Jake Odorizzi (Getty Images)

ATLANTA—In Games 4 and 5 of the World Series, the Braves elected to throw a bullpen game instead of starting Drew Smyly, who made 23 starts for the club this year. In Game 6, the Astros elected to start Luis Garcia on short rest rather than start a fully-rested Jake Odorizzi, who made 23 starts this season as well.

Neither Smyly nor Odorizzi has worked as a starter this postseason, and each is more than a month removed from his last start. Still, in light of the injuries to Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton, it stands out that both the Astros and Braves decided they were better off using pitchers on short rest or bullpen games rather than reinstating their veteran back-end starters to the rotation.

It’s a decision teams across baseball have made this postseason, and one whose efficacy remains uncertain.

Teams have gone a combined 4-3 in games started by relievers this postseason. They are 1-5 when using a starter on less than full rest, which includes starts made by Julio Urias and Nathan Eovaldi after they were used in relief in the NLCS and ALCS, respectively.

Overall, teams have a 3.34 ERA in games started by a reliever this postseason. It must be noted, however, the three teams who have done it—the Dodgers, Rays and Braves—all finished among the top 10 in the majors in bullpen ERA during the regular season.

Starters pitching on less than full rest this postseason have combined for a 5.54 ERA. They have averaged 4.1 innings in those starts.

“I noticed that (with) Eovaldi against us in Boston,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He wasn’t quite as sharp on that start after his bullpen day. So you sort of take a page from other people’s groups. You tend to know your personnel. He didn’t go quite as long as he had the time before, so you had all those things in there. If it works, it’s great. If not, you’ll probably get criticized, but you’ve got to do what’s best that you think for the team and the player.”

Despite the mixed results of bullpen games and the poor results of throwing starters on short rest, teams have opted for them anyway.

The Braves planned to throw at least one bullpen game entering the World Series, but when Morton suffered a fractured fibula on a comebacker from Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel in Game 1, the club opted for back-to-back bullpen games rather than replace Morton’s turn in the rotation with a starter.

It almost ended in disaster, and still might. Lefthander Dylan Lee made his first career start as an opener in the World Series and couldn’t get out of the first inning, but Kyle Wright stepped in to save the Braves and carried them through the fifth. Rather than turn to Smyly in Game 5, the Braves opted for another bullpen game started by rookie lefthander Tucker Davidson, whose workload since mid June consisted of three innings at Triple-A Gwinnett.

Davidson scuffled from the outset and couldn’t hold a 4-0 lead in the potential clincher as the Astros rallied for a 9-5 win to send the series back to Houston. Smyly pitched the final three innings in mopup duty.

“It was an organizational discussion amongst everybody,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We chose to do with Tucker. He’d been throwing really well in Triple-A, and Drew hadn’t started a game in a long time. And ended up throwing some big innings for us.”

There have been cases a bullpen game or throwing a starter on short rest can’t be avoided. Clayton Kershaw’s injury just before the start of the postseason limited the Dodgers to three reliable starters. The Rays had to throw bullpen game in Game 4 of the ALDS after scheduled starter Luis Patiño had to be used in relief to cover extra innings in Game 3.  

More than once, though, teams have made the conscious decision to go those routes. The Dodgers opted to use Max Scherzer on short rest in Game 2 of the NLCS and used Urias in relief later that game, putting him on short rest for his Game 4 start. The Red Sox threw Eovaldi in relief Game 4 of the ALCS, putting him on short rest for his Game 6 start. The Braves had the option of setting Smyly up to start Game 4 of 5 of the World Series on full rest, but instead used him in relief in a blowout Game 2 loss, ending that possibility.

In Game 6, the Astros will join the list of teams who opted to throw a starter on short rest when another option was available. 

“Luis has thrown some good games for us,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We had a choice probably between Jake, who hadn’t really started in a while, but he’s still available on long relief. We do have a short leash on Luis…It was just a matter of who we thought can give us the best start at the beginning of the game and then it’s all hands on deck kind of after that.”

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