Using Starting Pitchers In Relief Role: Worth the Risk?

10/12/04

By Matt Crawford

In the postseason, teams often pull out all the stops. But when managers are faced with the decision of making a pitching change, do they overthink it?

Twice in the current postseason, we have seen managers use starting pitchers out of the bullpen. Neither time was it successful. Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia used Jarrod Washburn out of the bullpen late in Game 3 against the Red Sox. Scioscia wanted a left-hander to face the left-hand hitting David Ortiz. Washburn had already pitched in Game 1 for the Angels, starting and throwing 3+ innings, but taking the loss in a 9-3 defeat. After Anaheim came back from a 6-1 deficit to tie the game at 6, Washburn found himself on the mound in the bottom of the 10th inning.

With a man on, Ortiz smacked a two-run winning homer off of Washburn to give Boston an 8-6 win, sending the Red Sox to the AL championship series. Anaheim's closer, Troy Percival, remained in the bullpen, unused in a tight situation with Anaheim already down 2 games to none.

With Ortiz being as dangerous a hitter as he is, the result could have been the same if Percival was pitching. But why not find out? Why not go with what got you into the postseason, an awesome bullpen that wants the ball in these situations? Starting pitchers are used to pitching out of jams, but not many late inning jams anymore. And extra inning jams like Game 3? No way.

But relievers, specifically closers, are wired to pitch in these situations, and succeed. There are some exceptions to this. For instance, Randy Johnson has been used out of the bullpen in the postseason effectively before. But he is such a dominant pitcher that it makes sense. Plus he provides a matchup problem being a lefty. Washburn is not in that category. Neither is these playoffs’ second example of a starter turned temporary reliever.

The Minnesota Twins had the formidable task of facing the New York Yankees to start their playoff run. Down 2 games to 1, the Twins were able to turn to Game 1 starter Johan Santana, and he gave them 5 strong innings, and with the Twins scoring 3 in the bottom of the 5th, he exited with a 5-1 lead. This made typical Game 4 starter Kyle Lohse available for relief.

Had normally reliable Juan Rincon been more effective, the Twins may not have been in the position to bring Lohse out of the pen. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire brought in Lohse to pitch the 10th, with the score tied at 5. He got through the 10th, but ran into trouble in the 11th when Alex Rodriguez doubled and then stole third base. Lohse threw a wild pitch to bring home A-Rod. You can't help but wonder if Jesse Crain or J.C. Romero may have been more comfortable in an extra-inning situation that Lohse wasn't accustomed to working.

It won't be the last time we see starters working as relievers in the postseason. It's quite possible we could see Roger Clemens take the ball in a late inning situation if Houston advances. Hopefully for them, it won't end up like it did last season for Boston's Tim Wakefield, who gave up an extra-inning home run to Aaron Boone of the Yankees to eliminate the Red Sox from advancing to the World Series.