MLB Column: Using starters as relievers in postseason baseball

In this Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, file photo, Boston Red Sox relief pitcher David Price delivers against the Houston Astros during the fourth inning in Game 3 of baseball's American League Division Series, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

In this Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, file photo, Boston Red Sox relief pitcher David Price delivers against the Houston Astros during the fourth inning in Game 3 of baseball's American League Division Series, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

There has been no better example of it than the Red Sox/Astros series. We all saw David Price come in for relief and impress. The Red Sox, thinking they’re on a roll, then decided to bring in Chris Sale to relieve after an atrocious start a few games prior. Down 2-1 in the series, this was a relatively safe move. The next game would shift back to Houston and everyone would get an extra day of rest. Plus, Sale was incredibly dominant in relief which should have worked in the Red Sox’s favor.

However, A.J. Hinch and the Astros had a similar plan. A riskier plan. They decided to risk their would-be Game 5 starter, Justin Verlander, to have him come in to relieve Game 4. Verlander, who Houston traded for at the deadline, had never relieved an MLB game in his life. Houston had a second, true reliever warming up next to Verlander. So, when their starter allowed a runner on, you might be thinking “he must have gone with the real reliever, Verlander has no idea what an inherited runner feels like.”

But alas, you’d be wrong. Verlander came in with a runner on and allowed a homerun to his first batter faced. Suddenly, Houston’s 2-1 lead became a 3-2 deficit and they potentially just wasted the best pitcher in their rotation should a Game 5 be necessary.

As we all know, Game 5 wasn’t necessary. Verlander locked it down after that, and the Houston offense found some weaknesses in the Red Sox pitching staff. The Astros would win, but not before giving up an inside-the-park homerun to the first batter in the bottom of the ninth. (Guys, seriously, this game was so exciting).

But now, in the cold light of day, we’re forced to analyze exactly what these managers did here. It hasn’t really been new to the postseason that starters come in, on short rest, to do the job that relievers typically do. However, especially after what happened with Verlander, it needs to be asked: Why, in the postseason of all times, are we changing the roles these pitchers are comfortable with?

Think about it, there’s a reason these pitchers are starters or relievers. They’re good at the role they fill and that’s why they allow the specialization in that one particular role. Maybe I’m getting too economical here, but I don’t know what else you’d expect from me. A rational manager should never make this decision. It’s economic fact: specialization works.

It’s logical to assume the shear pressure of the postseason may shift the cost specialization has, but I think that more than likely these managers are letting fear run the show. MLB relievers are high-caliber pitchers. Pitchers who are used to coming in with a runner on base and getting the job done. If they weren’t capable of that, they wouldn’t be playing at this level. So why are managers avoiding them like the plague?

Sure, an Aroldis Chapman-esque reliever sees a lot of postseason innings. But where is everyone else? Where’s your eighth inning guy? Your lefty specialist? These are the people you relied on all season to perform, and they did so well enough that you’re in the postseason now. Why change what has been working?

Don’t get me wrong, the excitement I felt when I saw Verlander warming in the pen was worth any potential negatives. I’m also not necessarily saying that bringing in a starter is a bad idea. My question, moreso, is why are managers are so quick to change the routine of a successful season? I may never know the answer to that. But, for now, Hinch looks like a genius, despite bringing his reliever in too early.


Rachel Schaefer is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.schaefer@uconn.edu.