There's a noticeable trend in playoff rotations this October, and that's a twist on the three man rotation. Scheduling has allowed all the teams thus far to roll with only three starters, giving room for the presumable fourth starter to slot into the bullpen. The strategy has paid off for most.
Whether it be Anibal Sanchez, Kevin Gausman, Danny Duffy, Yusmeiro Petit, or Tanner Roark - we've seen plenty and more starters convert to relief, and each for their own reasons. Sanchez moved from a depth perspective, with the three Cy Youngs already getting the nod. Gausmann from an innings limit perspective. Duffy for health. But the beauty of the strategy is letting a traditional starter be on call for when the playoff starter craps the bed.
The O's are a great example. How much faith do you have in Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris? By comparison, Gausman might even be the second best of the group, but any of the O's starters could turn in a great start. Bud Norris proved he could in a resounding way last night, but there's just as high a likelihood that he pitches as well as C.J. Wilson did for the Angels (two outs and a quick hook). The Angels didn't have another starter to lean on, but the O's would have.
Then there's the likelihood of extra innings needed someone dependable to go the distance. The Giants and their own suspect rotation leaned on Petit for a full starter's load in relief for their 18 inning victory in Game 2 of their NLDS. Having a starter ready to go is a godsend, and may be what sends the Giants through.
It's a different sort of baseball, and one that annoyed me greatly when the Yankees cruised through the 2009 post-season with just three arms and Rivera -- but now that it's not my least favorite team taking advantage of the strategy, I see it all in a different light.
I also believe the Rays might have done much of the same.
Using a three man rotation starts with an anchor, and Alex Cobb would have been the frontline man for the Rays, but the rest is up for debate. Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly are all young guns, joined by the veteran but undependable Jeremy Hellickson.
Chris Archer's sophomore campaign saw him stare down the playoff hungry Yankees, Blue Jays, and Indians in three of his last four starts, and without a limit himself, he would have carried on to flank Alex Cobb.
For the third man, I strongly believe that might have fallen to Smyly as the most tantalizing arm available, but Smyly was on an innings limit this season, and though that may have been lifted for a chance at post-season glory it wouldn't have been for a starting role. With him starting, I think the Rays rotation would have been formidable for post-season play, but not in 2014.
In my gut I feel like the Rays might have turned to Jeremy Hellickson, whose experience possibly trumps the rookie Jake Odorizzi's nerves, but there the argument comes down to faith. Hellickson had been horrible in high leverage situations this season, and Odorizzi's split-change had been the real deal. So who would it be? I know which way I'd personally lean, but feel free to make an argument below.