Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14
A few weeks ago, I advocated for a wild card play-in game strategy that involved beginning the game with a reliever and relying heavily on a team’s bullpen to get them through. In that scenario, we used the Atlanta Braves as the example of how it could work. Well, we’re not yet to the wild card play-in game, but with Texas and Oakland going head to head for the AL West title in a few hours, we’re presented with another situation where skipping the starter makes a lot of sense – specifically, the Oakland A’s should try to maximize their chances of winning Game 162, and they can do so by diminishing A.J. Griffin‘s role in today’s game.
Make no mistake, Griffin has pitched really well for the A’s since they called him up from Sacramento in late June. While his ERA is heavily dependent on an unsustainably low BABIP, his FIP and xFIP are both above average as well, as his 3.76 K/BB ratio is the kind of thing that usually leads to success. This isn’t a knock on A.J. Griffin – the A’s can simply maximize their chances of winning by minimizing the amount of batters he faces.
The times-through-the-order effect has been well chronicled, but this table is worth repeating whenever we have discussions about pitcher usage in games where the outcome has dramatic consequences.


Split
BA
OBP
SLG


1st PA, SP
0.256
0.317
0.410


2nd PA, SP
0.268
0.328
0.430


3rd PA, SP
0.267
0.326
0.447


1st PA, RP
0.237
0.308
0.372


2nd PA, RP
0.281
0.339
0.463


Whether it is due to repetition, fatigue, or a combination of multiple factors, the reality is that hitters perform better against pitchers the more times they face them in the same game, and by the second or third time through a batting order, even the best starting pitchers aren’t much better than an average relief pitcher. And, while A.J. Griffin has had a nice run as a rookie, he simply can’t yet be considered part of the class of pitchers who can be expected to outperform their teammates in the bullpen.
Notice in that table that starting pitchers as a whole simply don’t perform as well the first time through an order as relievers do, even though starters are generally better pitchers than relievers. This truth goes against the modern way of starter usage in high leverage games, which calls for a starter to essentially pitch until he gets into trouble. The reality is that in many situations, a rally can happen to quickly for the bullpen to get warmed up in time to shut it down, and the game can be lost before the relievers can come in and put out the fire.
The A’s simply shouldn’t ask A.J. Griffin to face more than nine batters tomorrow. By letting him face batters multiple times, the A’s risk allowing Texas to put up runs in a hurry that could end up being the deciding factor. They don’t need to take that risk.
With the September roster expansion, the A’s have 18 pitchers currently on their active roster, though two of those – Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson – are injured and will be unavailable to pitch tomorrow. You can probably add Travis Blackley and Jarrod Parker to the list of unavailables as well, as they started the first two games of this series and would be going on zero and one days rest respectively. That brings the total all the way down to 14 available pitchers. Fourteen!
Even if we relegate guys like Jeremy Accardo and Jesse Chavez to the very end of the bullpen, the A’s have enough arms to play match-ups from batter one today. With Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Pat Neshek, and Evan Scribner from the right side and Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins, and Pedro Figueroa from the left, the A’s have some serious match-up options, and that’s before we even consider starters like Griffin or Tommy Milone, who should be available to throw an inning or two on his normal throw day. Realistically, the plan should probably be to get nine innings out of those nine pitchers, with the rest of the bullpen and Dan Straily being available in case it goes to extras.
Because there are so many specialists in that group, they’ll need to get multiple innings out of several guys, so Griffin, Milone, and perhaps Cook or Doolittle might be needed to pitch across several frames. But, with so many arms available, there’s no reason for any of them to face a single hitter more than once.
The A’s success this year is one of the great examples of baseball being more about the collective efforts of the many rather than the spectacular efforts of the few. That collective approach to winning should be on full display today, as the stakes for this afternoon’s game with Texas couldn’t be much higher. A win today gives them a pass into the playoffs and an extra day off to rest those arms, while a loss forces them into a win-or-go-home situation. The downside of losing is just too large to stick with a traditional starter/bullpen alignment. Griffin should essentially be viewed as just another cog in a very deep bullpen that should be used from the outset to do whatever they can to keep Texas from scoring. If he gets you six outs, that’s great. If he gets you nine, that’s a miracle. He shouldn’t be asked to even attempt to get a 10th. Not with expanded rosters, and not in a game that means this much.
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