The bold strategy Wild Card teams should consider

October 4th, 2022

Have you noticed there is a new playoff round this year? You might have heard! There is! This weekend’s Wild Card round, for the first time, features three-game series with all games played at the higher seed’s home park. Which means, for fans of the teams involved, Sunday is either going to be a relaxing day off, a lament about the end of the season or an incredibly stressful Game 3.

The new format brings with it all sorts of new wrinkles, and new strategies for teams, players and front offices to consider -- and there is one idea that I do not get a sense that most teams are considering that, I’d argue, they very much should consider. It’s counterintuitive, and probably against what any manager would feel comfortable trying out. But I think they should do it.

Here’s the idea: Hold off starting your second-best starter in Game 2 if your team wins the first game of the Wild Card series.

That might be a little confusing and -- considering the oft-heralded idea that starting pitching wins playoff series (which I’d argue is still just aftereffects of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling basically winning the 2001 World Series by themselves) -- a bit counterintuitive. But I think it’s the smart play.

Let’s use, oh, the Phillies as an example. They could end up facing the Mets or Cardinals this weekend, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume it is the Cardinals (and the strategy would still hold if they face the Mets).

The Phillies have two terrific starters: and . That’s a big advantage, particularly against a team like the Cardinals, who have rotation depth but do not have an obvious No. 1 (or really, an obvious No. 2) starter. But it’s not just an advantage against them. It’s an advantage over most teams in baseball, and it’s an advantage the Phillies -- a team that may need all the help it can get -- should maximize at every opportunity.

Nola pitched in Monday night’s clincher for Philly, and they have Wheeler lined up for Game 1 of their Wild Card Series.

So let’s say the Phillies win Game 1 behind Wheeler. Now they have a 1-0 lead heading into Saturday. If they win, they advance to the NLDS to play the Braves. But if they lose … they get to go ahead and try again on Sunday. They get two shots to finish out the series. So isn’t the smart play, if they lose Game 1, to hold off using Nola in Game 2?

This gives them three different routes to maximize their ability to beat the Cardinals and Braves make it out of the NLDS, which, after all, is supposed to be the point.

First, they can just win Game 2. , the third starter, isn’t bad, but there’s no question he’s a step down from both Nola and Wheeler. But he could absolutely win Game 2. So that’s one.

Second, if the Phillies lose Game 2, good news: They’ll have Nola for Game 3. And they’ll presumably have the clear pitching advantage in that game if it needs to be played.

But the third route is the key one here. Because if the Phillies win Game 1, and they sit Nola for Game 2, and then they win that game … they now get Nola for two games in the NLDS, rather than one.

In fact, going with Suárez rather than Nola in Game 2 (should the Phillies win Game 1) is the only way Philadelphia would get the Wheeler-Nola combo to start three games in the NLDS rather than two. With Wheeler starting Game 1 of the Wild Card Series on Friday, he wouldn’t be able to start again on full rest until Game 2 of the NLDS on Wednesday, Oct. 12. And that would be it: Game 5 would be Sunday, Oct. 16, which would require three days’ rest. And Nola, if he pitched Game 2 in the Wild Card round, would only be able to pitch Game 3 of that set, on Friday, Oct. 14, on full rest. Which means the top two starters only get to start two games.

But holding off on Nola until Game 3 opens the possibility of having three NLDS starts between those two pitchers: Nola in Game 1 of the NLDS, Wheeler in Game 2 and then Nola again in Game 5.

So if the Phillies win Game 1 of the Wild Card series, they could have their cake and eat it, too. They could have their ace start Game 1 of the Wild Card series and still be set up to have their top two starters pitch Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS.

Now, if the Phillies lose Game 1 to the Cardinals, all bets are off. You’ve got to pitch Nola in Game 2. You can’t let your season end without using him. But if the Phillies win Game 1? They should do what will widely be considered unpopular: They should sit Nola for Game 2.

Seem risky? Think the backlash would be too much? Well, I’ve got something more for you: The Mets should do the same thing in the Wild Card Series they're projected to play. (Entering Tuesday, the Braves can clinch the NL East and the Wild Card round bye with a win or a Mets loss.)

If the Mets win Game 1, here’s their rotation for the rest of the Wild Card round and the NLDS against the Dodgers, if they start in Game 1 and in Game 2. (If they switch that order, just swap them below.)

Wild Card Series

Game 1:
Game 2:
Game 3:

NLDS vs. Dodgers

Game 1: ? ?
Game 2: deGrom
Game 3: Scherzer
Game 4: Bassitt
Game 5: Carrasco? Walker? deGrom on short rest?

But here’s what happens if the Mets win Game 1 and sit Scherzer for Game 2 and they win it (because of course, they can still use Scherzer for Game 3 if they don’t):

Wild Card Series

Game 1: deGrom
Game 2: Bassitt

NLDS vs. Dodgers

Game 1: Scherzer
Game 2: deGrom
Game 3: Bassitt
Game 4: Carrasco? Walker?
Game 5: Scherzer on full rest

Yes, it’s a risk. Yes, it puts the manager in the spotlight as someone who will be seen as looking ahead to the next series rather than concentrating on the series the team is currently playing. But I have to think for the Phillies, or the Mets (or arguably the Blue Jays, with and ), it’s the right strategy … and well worth the risk. Are you trying to win the Wild Card Series? Or are you trying to get to the World Series? This strategy makes it more likely you go to the World Series.