How to win the wild card game

The right side of the Indians infield celebrates their trip to the wild card game. - Hannah Foslien

The new wild card format, in its second year, puts the entire season on the line in one game for all four participants. Decades of baseball have taught teams how to win over 162 game seasons and five and seven game playoff series, but when pushed into a tiebreaker, how should teams adapt?

When Major League Baseball added a second wild card to each league in 2012, I rolled my eyes. It's sort of a ridiculous arrangement in which two teams are forced into a single winner-take-all game regardless of their full season record. Last year, the Cardinals finished well behind the Braves and beat them in the tie-breaking game while the Rangers and Orioles would have played a tiebreaker even if the wild card game didn't exist. Year one didn't really do a lot to endear the extra wild card to the author and the second go around won't either. The final weekend would have been more interesting without it, but it's part of the game and we're just going to have to get used to it.

More importantly, so will MLB teams. The wild card game is a very different structure than a regular season game and a very different structure from normal playoff games. The wild card game is an elimination game for both teams like a Game 7, but neither team was given the chance to avoid that game by winning Game 6. Both teams have to win or their seasons are over but they also have time to prepare. How should that change how the game is played?

Let's consider a few strategies that the teams' managers should employ. I'll avoid getting bogged down in team specific details because lots of good work has been written from the perspective of those teams. Dave Cameron recently covered the Pirates' pitching strategy and our own Ben Horrow just wrote about the Reds' choices on the hill. I'm sure we'll see some American League specific ideas once we finally find out who is in and who isn't after the Rangers and Rays settle things later tonight. (This framework can also apply to tonight's WC2 tie-breaker)

EMPTY YOUR ROTATION

A lot of the leading baseball writers have posited about skipping the starting pitcher entirely in the one game playoff or even starting with your closer because when there is no tomorrow, you don't need to hold any of your relievers back. In principle, this is a good idea, but there's a better corollary. Starting pitchers are starters because they're better than relievers. They often have a more diverse arsenal and have more stamina. The value of more pitches should be obvious, but the added stamina is also pretty important. A starter who doesn't need to save himself for seven innings and is only asked to give his team six to eight outs can empty their tank and put more on all of their pitches than a reliever who is already doing that in all of their appearances.

Team's should start their best guy and tell him to max out right away. Don't save yourself, just get outs. At the first sign of fatigue or trouble, you go to your number two starter and repeat the process. Depending on the quality of your rotation, you should do this until you run into the point at which your best relievers are better than your remaining starters. You don't have to worry about burning your starters for the Division Series because none of them will throw more than a couple of innings and you have to get there before you worry about how you're going to win that series anyway. With the off day before the series and after Game 2, you have the flexibility to implement this strategy without too much of a disruption.

PLAY FOR THE EARLY INNINGS, NOT THE LATE ONES

This suggestion goes against the grain even more than the previous one, but it's even more important. When it comes time to deploy your relievers and pinch hitters, you should start with the best players you have. Don't save your closer/relief ace for the 9th inning unless your starters have carried you that far. There's no point in putting a lesser reliever in the game in the 7th inning. You have nine outs to get and if your closer is efficient in the 7th you can use him again in the 8th. If you save him for the 9th he might not get that chance. You want to think about matchups, but you shouldn't use your closer in the 9th inning just because the 9th inning is where you normally use him. This isn't a normal baseball game. You need to get the maximum number of outs out of your best guys first and worry about the later outs if you're lucky enough to get there with a chance to win.

The same is true for your pinch hitters and platoon bats and arms. At the first chance, you need to use your best. With two on in the 4th, go to your LOOGY or left handed power bat. Don't save them for the 8th inning because you might not get a chance to affect the game as much at that time. When you find yourself in a high leverage situation, you know the game is hanging in the balance. Maybe there will be another high leverage situation later, but there's a 100% probability one is happening now and a lower probability it will happen again later.

FIND A SPEEDSTER

Dave Roberts' huge steal in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS stands out, but what Billy Hamilton has done over the last few weeks should be evidence enough. In one game, you don't need a deep bench and bullpen that are ready to fill in at a variety of positions in case of injuries and rest days for your stars. You need assets and speed is a huge asset. If you're down a run in the 6th and your lumbering corner outfielder walks, you don't want to give away an out with a bunt, you want to be able to get someone in the game who can steal second base. The Reds have Hamilton, but every team needs to find its own approximation. The value of a pinch runner in a one game playoff is higher than during the season or even in a longer series. Every run and out is precious, so you need someone who can fly.

With the right to reset your roster for this one game, not carrying a pinch runner is huge mistake.

MANAGE DIFFERENTLY

This is really a generalized version of the other three recommendations. The most important thing for a manager is to recognize from the beginning that the tiebreaker isn't like the regular season or the playoffs. It's a different animal entirely so there's a very good chance that the optimal strategic decisions will be different. We like to say that a win in April and September are of equal value, but it's very clear that a win in the wild card game is not. It's actually more important than single playoff games. It's the door to the postseason, additional revenue, and a legitimate chance at the title.

But it's different from a Game 7 because it's not conditional on what happened in Game 6. The team that won Game 6 to force Game 7 had to use everything they had to get there and the team that was ahead 3-2 in the series likely used their resources in a manner that set them up to have their best pitchers prepared for the elimination game. In the wild card game, both teams are on equal footing and have had the proper time to prepare for the duel.

The wild card game is different from any other baseball game, so the managers should respond to those differences. Over the next few days, we'll see which managers do so and put their teams in position to advance.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is a Staff Writer at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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