Could the A’s Use a Wildcard Pitching Platoon?

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Could the A’s win with a pitching platoon in the wildcard game? Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The A’s, at this point, will be lucky to have a wildcard spot in the 2014 playoffs. The team that started 117 games in first place (that’s 72% of the season) have all but eliminated their chances at taking the division and are inching closer and closer to being removed from the playoffs entirely. The best case scenario, at this point, is for the wildcard spot and, hopefully, the top spot so the game will be played at home.

Jon Lester has said that the team just needs to get to the playoffs and anything can happen from there. This is true. If the A’s can win the wildcard, they’ll enter the post season with the same record as everyone else; 0-0. How, then, do you set your team up with the best chances for a victory? The common practice is to put your best pitcher on the mound and this practice should be enforced by every team in a wildcard berth, or so I thought until Greg Papa discussed his idea for the pitching on yesterday’s episode of “The Wheelhouse.”

Papa proposed a system that could work very well for the A’s and possibly for the Giants and preserve your ace for the next round of playoffs. In order for this system to work, though, you have to buy into the notion that you need to win 12 playoff games and move beyond the, “we’re just playing for today” mentality. The problem with the wildcard schedule, for teams in that position, is that it rules out using your ace in game 1 of the division series because it’s two days after the wildcard game. Further, since you won’t be using your ace until game 3, you can’t use him in a high pressure game 5 situation, if necessary. He made the point that the A’s would be better suited, in the long run, to have Lester available for two games in the division series and suggested a possible platoon scenario like the one the Angels used to beat the A’s last month.

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In that game the Angels had 8 pitchers for 9 innings. That is an unreasonable platoon for a playoff game but here’s where I think Papa may be on to something. Start the game with Lester. Regardless of whether your opponent platoons or not, the lineup will be stacked to give them the best odds against that pitcher. Let Lester throw two innings, maybe three, but don’t let his pitch count get over 30 or so. Then you put in Sonny Gray which will change the favorability of the opponents lineup, jumping from leftie to rightie. They may make some substitutions to balance things out a bit but you’re only giving Sonny 30 pitches, too. After Sonny, you’re going to jump over to Scott Kazmir. Now all those changes they made for Gray are worthless because there’s a leftie back on the mound. Of course, you’ll need Kazmir rested so he only throws 30 pitches. If these guys are lights out, we should be somewhere in the sixth or seventh inning. If they’re not, you’ve still got Jeff Samardzija to throw 30 and a full bullpen just waiting to go in.

Won’t they be too tired for the division series then? No. Do you honestly think that none of these pitchers throw 30 pitches between outings? This is a bullpen session for them and may actually keep their arms warm for the post season.

Won’t they be tired from not being on standard rest? Maybe, but I’ve got a solution for that, too. Lester, if everything stays on schedule, will be on pace to pitch the wildcard on normal rest, another reason to start him. As for the other dudes, why not limit their pitch count in their last two starts of the season. Gray and Kazmir could both benefit from a lighter load and with expanded rosters, there is plenty of bullpen depth to get you through the games. If you start pulling guys at 80 pitches instead of 110, you will take 60 throws off of their arms right before the single most important game they’re all going to pitch all year.

This kind of strategy would give you a great opportunity to win and keep your ace eligible to pitch two days later for game one of the division series. Is it a gamble? Of course it is but when it comes down to the wildcard game, almost everything is a gamble. Was it a gamble to have Gray pitch instead of Bartolo Colon in game 5 last year? Yes. And the gamble didn’t pay off but it may not have paid off with Colon either.

This season is a bust. Instead of struggling through April and May like the A’s historically do, they struggled when there was no time to recover and this wildcard game is a clean slate to get back into the postseason that they were destined to be in. Platooning all season was a gamble that, usually, paid off. Trading Cespedes was a gamble, acquiring Samardzija and Hammel was a gamble, putting Doolittle at closer was a gamble, grabbing Dunn was a gamble, every day with Callaspo in the lineup is a gamble, flushing the toilet in the dugout is a gamble, having three catchers is a gamble, this team is not afraid of gambling.

Is this a gamble the fans will support? Is this a gamble that could seal the deal for a victory? Is this a gamble even worth trying? Who knows. But if any team could get away with trying it, even if it failed, it would be the A’s.

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