On Tuesday, Major League Baseball released its plans for this year's postseason. The lead item from the league's announcement concerned where the games would be played (at neutral sites, or MLB ballparks in Texas and California), but there was another aspect of the league's rollout that could have a greater impact on the World Series winner: the elimination of off days from the first three rounds. Teams will now be asked to play each of their Wild Card, Divisional, and Championship round series to completion, and without the customary days off for travel.
This wrinkle should make the postseason play more like the regular season. Teams won't be able to cut their pitching staffs in half, or strategize with the off day in mind. Naturally, some teams are better suited for this style of play than others. The teams who are already good, of course -- the league could stipulate that all games must be played in the dark and the Dodgers would find a way to win 70 percent of their contests -- but also teams who excel in three other areas: rotation depth, rotation length, and a bullpen that is accustomed to working without rest.
Let's examine each of those variables, and figure out who will (and will not) benefit if they take on greater importance come October.
We'll begin with the obvious variable. Teams won't need their fourth or fifth starters in the Wild Card round, but they'll have to dust them off before the Divisional and Championship Series. Otherwise, they'll be asking their top starters to pitch on abnormally short rest. Both of the last two World Series winners, the 2018 Red Sox and the 2019 Nationals, rode their top arms to a championship parade. Although teams might still push the envelope in certain situations, like if they're down 3-0 or 3-1, it no longer seems to be a viable pathway through all of October.
To figure out who benefits the most and the least in this area, we decided to keep it simple. We just counted the number of pitchers on each squad who had an ERA+ of 100 or greater in five starts. Technically, an average starter checks in around 93, but we play by our own rules here.
Who benefits: Three teams had five starters meet the above benchmarks: Cleveland and the Dodgers, as you'd expect, and … the Marlins. To be fair, Miami's figure is inflated by the inclusion of Elieser Hernandez (out for the season) and Daniel Castano (one appearance in September). A slew of teams have four starters, including the White Sox and Twins, and the Reds, Rockies, and Mariners, each of whom is just hoping to find a way into October.
Who doesn't: The Blue Jays and Athletics each have just one starter who has qualified. That undersells both rotations, especially Toronto, who has received good mileage from Taijuan Walker since adding him at the deadline. The Rays, Braves, Giants, Phillies, and Mets each have two apiece. Tampa Bay's total doesn't include Josh Fleming (a start short from qualifying) or Tyler Glasnow (96 ERA+), so there's some room for growth between now and October. The Braves' rotation problems, meanwhile, have been a story since the season's first week. Atlanta is banking on Max Fried and Cole Hamels' health, Ian Anderson's legitimacy, and Kyle Wright's resurgence.
This has not been an inspiring season for those who enjoy watching starters work deep into games. Entering Wednesday's slate of games, the league average start length this season was 4.8 innings; last year, it was 5.2 innings. Blame it on the weird ramp-up period, the abbreviated doubleheaders, and the statistically borne aversion to overexposure; all of it is playing a role.
Still, it stands to reason that teams might be more willing to let their starters air it out once they reach the postseason. It also stands to reason that the teams with rotations who are most accustomed to working deep into games might have an edge. To determine those teams, we again kept it simple and looked at average innings per start.
Who benefits: Cleveland, and it isn't close. Their starters have averaged 5.9 innings per pop; the next-closest teams, the Cubs and Rockies, have averaged 5.4 innings. Zach Plesac actually leads the majors in this statistic, with 6.8 innings per outing, while Shane Bieber (6.5) ranks fourth. Kyle Hendricks (Cubs) and Adam Wainwright (Cardinals) rank second and third and could each find themselves working seven frames in October.
Who doesn't: The Braves, Blue Jays, and Rays rank in the bottom five of the league. The Twins and Marlins aren't too far off from it, either. Some of this is because of strategy, of course. The Twins, for example, have employed Matt Wisler as an opener on four occasions. Some of it though, as with the Braves, is because of performance.
Zero days' rest
We're applying the same logic -- those who are comfortable doing a thing are the most inclined to do said thing well -- with bullpens. Specifically, we're applying it to relievers working on zero days' rest. (We're aware of the availability heuristic, but again, we play by our own rules.)
It might be overzealous to say there's a skill to working in back-to-back games, but there's certainly a preparation aspect to doing it well that should not be overlooked. For this section, we're going off appearances made on consecutive days.
Who benefits: The Giants, White Sox, Marlins, Athletics, and Rays are the only playoff or playoff adjacent teams with more than 30 appearances that came on zero days' rest this season. (The Royals lead the majors in this category with 47 such outings.) As you might suspect, closers like Liam Hendriks (Oakland) and Brandon Kintzler (Miami) tend to be near the top of the individual leaderboard. The Dodgers as a team don't merit a mention here, but both Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen rank in the top 20, suggesting Dave Roberts is willing to use them as needed.
Who doesn't: It probably won't matter, but the Mariners have somehow gotten to this point in the season with just nine relief appearances that came on zero days' rest. The next-lowest team has 13, and that's the Brewers. The Cardinals, Padres, and Cleveland also have fewer than 20. The Yankees, Astros, and Braves have 21. On an individual basis, there are 16 relievers with an average leverage index over 2.0 -- i.e., closer level -- and the one of those 16 with the fewest appearances on zero days' rest is Josh Hader. He hasn't been pitching multiple innings, either, having notched just one outing in which he recorded three-plus outs. That might be something to watch for if the Brewers can find a way into the tournament.