Gregor Chisholm: Blue Jays could be at a disadvantage with tight post-season schedule
|Toronto Star 15 Sep 2020 at 22:47|
The Blue Jays ’ goal of making a run into late October became a lot more daunting on Tuesday afternoon after Major League Baseball announced its official post-season schedule.
The league revealed plans to move all games to neutral-site ballparks after the first round is complete. The American League will play in San Diego and Los Angeles while the National League will head to Houston and Arlington, Texas. The World Series will take place at the Rangers’ new ballpark, starting Oct. 20.
The locations won’t matter much to the Blue Jays, who have been playing on the road all year, but the schedule will. Travel days have been eliminated, requiring teams to play every day, and that will have an impact how they strategize.
Historically, teams have been given a day off after Games 2 and 4 in a best-of-five series. In a best-of-seven series, teams got a day after Games 2 and 5. That permitted teams to shorten their rotation to as few as three pitchers while cycling through the same relievers almost every game, often for extended appearances. That won’t be an option next month.
The reason this impacts the Jays is because of their lack of quality options in the rotation. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Taijuan Walker are the primary pieces, and for the opening round best-of-three series they might be all Toronto needs, with the option of going to either Robbie Ray or a bullpen day in Game 3, if necessary.
A longer series, one that stretches five or seven days, will be more problematic for manager Charlie Montoyo. Ryu and Walker have never pitched on three days’ rest before and seem unlikely to start now. Toronto will need to carry at least four starters and possibly a fifth depending on the club’s willingness to go with a designated bullpen day. A week ago, Tanner Roark seemed like a good bet to be left off the roster, now he might be among those considered to pitch a decisive Game 5.
The new format appears to favour teams with the deepest starting staffs. Cleveland can turn to Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale while bringing back Bieber on short rest for Game 5. Tampa Bay can go with the soon-to-be activated Ryan Yarbrough, Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. The Chicago White Sox should be a threat too, with Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease.
Relievers have taken on increased roles in recent post-seasons. One-inning specialists like Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller started making extended appearances. Teams like Milwaukee and the New York Yankees focused more on their bullpens than rotations. Teams that shortened games to five or six innings because of lockdown relievers seemed to be the ones having the most success.
Toronto’s bullpen has been its biggest strength in 2020 but the club has not had one reliever appear in three consecutive games. Rookies Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch and Julian Merryweather haven’t even pitched on back-to-back days, while Ryan Borucki has done it just once, and not since Aug. 15. The reins might be loosened a bit in October but, after handling things a certain way all year, the Jays likely will stick with what got them here.
If there’s cause for optimism within the Blue Jays organization, it can be found via the club’s bullpen depth. Even on nights when half of Toronto’s relievers are unavailable, Montoyo usually has enough options to survive. This team might not possess a Miller or Chapman, who almost single-handedly took over recent Octobers, but they have strength in numbers.
One of Kay, Merryweather and Hatch should be available to toss multiple innings each night. At least two of Giles, Bass, Dolis and Pearson should be available for the late innings. The gaps can be filled by a reliable veteran like A.J. Cole or a valuable lefty in Borucki. But for six or seven games in as many days, the Jays need quality innings from the rotation as well.
To be fair, the Jays have been operating this way for awhile and they’ve had success doing it. Toronto is tied with the White Sox for the most victories in the AL since mid-August and the Jays accomplished that despite playing 28 games in 27 days. The daily grind is nothing new for this team.
“That’s the one good thing we learned about playing four straight weeks, that we can do it,” Montoyo said. “If that’s what we have to do if we make it, that’s fine. We just have to adjust like we did these last four weeks, playing every day.”
The issue is that there have been too many games when the Jays have only had a handful of relievers available, nights when the Jacob Waguespacks or Sean Reid-Foleys of the world were promoted before the game and pressed into action. In the regular season, occasionally waving the white flag is prudent. In the post-season, it leads to elimination.
The question the Jays will have to ask themselves is how much are they willing to push their relievers? If it means limiting the number of pitches thrown by back-end starters Roark and Anderson, the answer should be as much as possible.
An off-day here or there would have made that more manageable. October baseball just got a lot more difficult for everyone, but especially a team like the Jays who are short on starters.