MLB’s shortened playoff schedule could help

CHICAGO — To make up for time lost to its owners’ lockout this winter, Major League Baseball reduced the number of days off during the postseason, prompting thoughts of pitching and travel nightmares. The new setup for the division and championship series can push thin bullpens and pitching staffs to the brink.

Verlander is part of a six-man starting rotation who led the American League with a 3.13 ERA as of Monday afternoon. Three of his four leverage reliefs have WHIPs at or below 1.00, anchoring a bullpen that boasts baseball’s lowest ERA and batting average.

By the start of Monday’s games, no team had scored more innings from their starting pitchers than Houston. As a result, Astros-Reliefs have pitched fewer innings than any bullpen in the sport. The trend bodes well ahead of any postseason, but perhaps even more for this truncated sprint.

At least one of Houston’s starters will join the bullpen in the postseason and have the ability to deliver significant length, whether that be from Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia or José Urquidy. In view of the new timetable structure, nothing should be more valuable.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) plays against Oakland Athletics' Sean Murphy during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, August 13, 2022 in Houston.
Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) plays against Oakland Athletics’ Sean Murphy during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, August 13, 2022 in Houston.Karen Warren/Staff Photographer

The American League Division Series could end with four games in five days. The American League Championship Series may have five consecutive days without a day off. The conventional use of relievers is often ignored in the playoffs — pitchers pitch three or four days in a row when needed — but the Astros could be in a position where they aren’t.

Other teams may not be so lucky, relying on a group of leverage removers at an unsustainable pace. This year there will be one day off between ALDS games 1 and 2, another between games 2 and 3 and none after. In previous years, the days off were between games 2 and 3 and, if applicable, games 4 and 5. There are no days off after game 3 of the ALCS. Previously, there had been a day off between games 5 and 6 if the series went that far.

Houston went into Monday’s game against the White Sox with the best record in the American League. Barring an epic meltdown, the team will be awarded one of two byes to the ALDS and will be awaiting a winner from one of two wild card series. The Astros play their last regular season game on October 5 against the Phillies. Game 1 of the ALDS is scheduled for October 11th.

Houston Chronicle sports columnist Brian T. Smith discusses criticism of the Astros’ rostering decisions, particularly the lack of playing time for newcomer Trey Mancini. Video: Houston Chronicle

Those five days off allow the Astros to tweak their rotation as they please, but Verlander looks all but guaranteed to start Game 1 of the ALDS. Houston could also have him at stake with the series — or its season.

Since there is a free day between Game 1 and Game 2 in addition to a free day between Game 2 and Game 3, the starter of Game 1 (Verlander in this case) could throw Game 4 to a full four rest days.

In the past, managers have had to weigh whether to bring back their Game 1 starter on three rest days in a similar situation. Teams no longer have such a problem. Those with a true game 1 ace like Verlander would benefit the most on paper. Houston has played a fourth game in each of its last three ALDS appearances.

Should the Astros need five games to finish off their ALDS opponent, the strategy gets even more convoluted. The removal of the day off between Game 4 and 5 meant teams couldn’t bring their Game 2 starter back to normal rest like in the past.

The Astros benefited from the setup in 2019 when Gerrit Cole scored 10 in eight innings with one-run ball in a winner-take-all game 5 against Tampa Bay at Minute Maid Park. The chance only came because Verlander didn’t take a brief break in Game 4 – a mystery no longer in play.

The ALCS starts on October 19th and has only one day off on October 21st. Should the series consist of seven games, the last five will be played back-to-back.

It could be travel hell if, for example, the Astros play the Seattle Mariners or the Toronto Blue Jays. An international or cross-country flight overnight before a game the next day is intimidating. Pitcher usage is a component, but consider overall stamina at this point. The possibility that Houston has fresh starters to field from the metro area is an advantage.

The condensed chaos could not prevent the inevitable. Game 7 of the World Series is scheduled for November 5th and, if held, will be the last Fall Classic game ever played.

Leave a Comment