Which wild-card hopefuls could have the pitching edge in a play-in game?
The Pittsburgh Pirates had a decision to make heading into the final day of the 2014 season in Cincinnati: Use ace Gerrit Cole in game No. 162 or save him for the wild-card game against San Francisco. The Pirates were guaranteed a wild-card spot, but the division title was still up for grabs.
Pittsburgh was a game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. If the Pirates won and the Cardinals lost later in the afternoon at Arizona, they would play in a tiebreaker for the division the next day. Entering that Sunday, FanGraphs gave the Pirates a 12.8% chance of winning the division.
The decision was so difficult for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle that he asked a council of veteran players for their thoughts: Pitch Cole or save him? Pittsburgh already exhausted its second-best starter, Francisco Liriano, a day earlier. In speaking with Pirates beat reporters that weekend - myself included - Hurdle dismissed the idea of trying a bullpen game. We were still a few years from the Tampa Bay Rays popularizing the opener role or from the Oakland Athletics starting the 2018 wild-card game with reliever Liam Hendriks, the only attempt at a pure bullpen effort in a play-in game.
Pittsburgh elected to chase the division title. Cole dominated the Reds, but the Cardinals later won to clinch the division. The Pirates then tossed their sixth-best starter by WAR, Edinson Volquez, against the Giants and lost in the play-in game. Perhaps the decision didn't ultimately matter as Madison Bumgarner shut out the Pirates, beginning his historic postseason pitching run to lead the Giants to the World Series.
The Giants are one of only two clubs to win a title as a wild-card entry since the format began in 2012. The 2019 Washington Nationals are the other team. The Nationals used their co-aces, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, to cover the first eight innings in the play-in game.
Some teams in postseason chases this year could face similarly tough decisions. Getting to the postseason - ideally by winning the division - is, of course, the goal. But for teams that appear headed for wild-card spots, setting a pitching plan through the play-in game is crucial. So which contenders appear to be in the best shape in navigating their way to the play-in game and advancing from it?
First, we must underscore the importance of having an edge in starting pitching in the play-in game era. Of the 16 wild-card games played from 2012-19 (we're excluding last year's expanded postseason), the team that started the pitcher with the greater WAR won 14.
The winning teams started their first- or second-best pitcher by FanGraphs' WAR in 15 out of 16 games - pitchers who averaged 4.4 WAR in the regular season. The losers started their first- or second-best pitcher by WAR in 10 of 16 contests, and the pitchers they sent to the mound averaged 2.6.
Now, let's take a look at how this year's wild-card contenders stack up.
AL wild-card race
The Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees are all within half a game of each other, fighting for two postseason berths. (The Athletics and Seattle Mariners, who are three and four games behind, respectively, are long shots, according to FanGraphs.) Given the closeness of the AL wild-card race, the Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees might not be able to set their rotations as they'd like for the postseason.
In a perfect world, the Blue Jays would send Robbie Ray to the mound in a wild-card game on regular rest and not have to worry about anything. While not in so many words, the Jays essentially announced Friday that they're recalibrating their rotation to do just that. Ray's now lined up to pitch Sept. 20 at Tampa Bay, Sept. 25 at Minnesota, and Sept. 30 versus the Yankees, according to FanGraphs. That puts him squarely into an Oct. 5 wild-card game on regular rest. Toronto also has an off day Sept. 27 to further tinker with the rotation if needed.
Having multiple top-end starters is ideal to navigate this end-of-season path. It gives teams flexibility.
Jose Berrios, by WAR and FIP, is slightly stronger than anyone the Yankees or Red Sox can offer as a No. 2 option and is throwing the ball as well as just about any AL pitcher. Over the last month, Ray (No. 1) and Berrios (No. 4) rank in the top five in AL starting pitchers' WAR. Cole sits second and Boston's Nathan Eovaldi ranks third, though the Red Sox might prefer to line up Chris Sale.
Moreover, Blue Jays rookie Alek Manoah gives the Jays another strong option on standby and help support what's been a shaky bullpen this season. Only the Dodgers' starting pitchers have produced more WAR over the last 30 days than the Blue Jays.
Among the AL East group, the Yankees have perhaps the greatest drop-off from their top to secondary options, from Cole (5.4 WAR, 2.64 FIP) to Jordan Montgomery (3.3 WAR, 3.56 FIP) or perhaps Nestor Cortes, though his modest 10% swinging-strike rate suggests his strikeout rate is going to come down. Corey Kluber owns a 4.02 ERA and 4.12 FIP. They are quality arms but not nearly as good as Cole.
The good news for the Yankees is that they currently have Cole lined up to do maximum damage: start in Boston on Sept. 24, in Toronto on Sept. 30, and then be fully rested for a possible wild-card game. It's also possible the Yankees would consider Cole in a short-rest situation in their final series against Tampa Bay.
At the moment, it seems the Ray-Berrios-Manoah trio might give the Blue Jays the edge, although Toronto may defer to Hyun-Jin Ryu over Manoah based on experience.
NL West and top wild-card seed
The Dodgers or Giants could find themselves in a situation like the 2014 Pirates, trying to decide whether to throw their best arm in game No. 162 or preserve it for the Oct. 6 play-in contest. The NL teams do have the benefit of two days between the end of the season and the wild-card game.
Unlike the 2014 Pirates, Los Angeles has plenty of options.
The Dodgers are well situated for a potential wild-card game as they boast a collection of aces in Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urias. All three are in the top nine among pitchers in FanGraphs' WAR, and Clayton Kershaw is in the top 30.
Only Brewers starters have been more productive this season by FanGraphs' WAR. But the Dodgers' starters are the only group with a sub-3.00 ERA on the season (2.81).
Moreover, the Dodgers are the best starting staff in the majors over the last 30 days, with a 2.38 ERA and 2.59 FIP. (The Giants are second at 3.13 ERA).
Giants ace Kevin Gausman is in line to pitch Oct. 1 against the San Diego Padres, which would put him on normal rest to throw in a wild-card game. Logan Webb is another strong option pitching well for San Francisco. It will be interesting to see how the Giants handle their pitching plan if the division is still at stake on Oct. 3.
2nd NL wild card
It could come down to the wire for the Cardinals, Reds, and Padres, so it's possible that no team is able to arrange its top choice for a play-in start.
The Padres have one of baseball's deeper staffs when healthy, albeit one that has underachieved this season. Blake Snell is pitching well over the last month, but his issues going deeper into games are well documented, and he just went on the injured list with a groin strain. Joe Musgrove has been good but not great since the late spring, while Yu Darvish has been uneven in performance and health. Right now, Musgrove is in line to pitch the opener of the final regular-season series against the Giants and start in the wild-card game.
The Cardinals' top pitcher this season is 40-year-old Adam Wainwright. It's a great story, but his underlying rate stats suggest he's due for regression. Wainwright has a 1.29 ERA over the last month. Young ace Jack Flaherty is nearing a return after an injury-marred season, but it's unknown if he can make an impact down the stretch. Right now, 37-year-old Jon Lester appears in line to be on regular rest for a wild-card start, though that might prompt the Cardinals to alter plans. St. Louis could face some tough decisions in early October.
The Phillies are a fringe wild-card team but have two top-of-the-rotation arms in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and the second-easiest remaining schedule. Philadelphia is also still trying to capture the NL East. The Phillies have Wheeler lined up to face division-leader Atlanta on Sept. 28 and be on full rest for the last game of the season. Nola is trailing him by a day. That flexibility makes the Phillies dangerous.
But the Reds are perhaps the team best set up to secure and advance from a wild-card game in this group. In addition to having the third-most favorable remaining schedule, Luis Castillo has been the 10th-best pitcher in the NL since mid-August, while Sonny Gray ranks 20th. Tyler Mahle and Wade Miley give the Reds other options, too, ranking 24th and 26th in WAR over the last 30 days, respectively.
At some point, all teams involved in the wild-card chase will have to make pitching plans, and some managers will have easier decisions than others. How teams lay out those plans usually determines whether they survive and advance.
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.