Oct 1, 2018
Oct 1, 2018

How to approach sudden death baseball games

How to approach sudden death baseball games

Credit: Getty Images

The MLB postseason is about to begin. We are currently in the midst of a sudden death scenario, with two divisional tiebreaker games on Monday, followed by two Wild Card games on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Below, we’re sharing some thoughts on how those games might play out, and how this sprint-like format in a marathon-style game should influence your betting.

Marathon in a minute

Sudden death baseball represents a conundrum for baseball purists. On the one hand, baseball is a game whose variance is great enough to require 162 game-seasons just to determine playoff participants. On the other hand, baseball is something like a jack-in-a-box, with the ever-slowing tempo winding down to an incredibly powerful zenith. Months turn to weeks, then days, innings, outs and single pitches. There is nothing in sport like the days-long moment where a pitcher, holding a slim lead, winds up for a 3-2 pitch with two outs and runners on base.

It’s unlikely that a starter faces any batter three times and if they show any signs of fatigue before that, they’ll be gone. For bettors, this means you’ll want to look closer at bullpen freshness and less closely at starting calibre.

Sudden death games are essentially nine innings of those kinds of pitches. Any single miscue can scar a player’s career, or create a cult hero and that makes for an incredibly tense (and exciting) sporting event to bet on. Baseball will have four of these games from Monday to Wednesday, and while there are certain challenges when betting on these types of games, there is also potential for the market to get it wrong.

In almost any other contest, managers must preserve. Pitchers in particular are needed for another day. With sudden death, there are no guarantees of another day, and that means all hands are on deck, ready to give everything their teams need, no matter the cost.

So, how does that play out? The first thing to consider is roster construction. Where most rosters carry five starting pitchers, these ones will carry three or even two. They’ll have eight or nine relief pitchers, including specialists (against right- or left-handed pitching) who might be considered too much of a luxury to carry for most of the season. They’ll have their respective organisations’ speediest thieves, ready to go in as a pinch runner to steal a critical base and they’ll have single-dimensional players meant only to hit against an opposite-handed pitcher or to field cleanly despite an inability to hit.

With uncustomary depth available to the managers, we’ll see shorter leashes. This will be particularly true with starting pitchers. It’s unlikely that a starter faces any batter three times and if they show any signs of fatigue before that, they’ll be gone. For bettors, this means you’ll want to look closer at bullpen freshness and less closely at starting calibre.

We should note here that there is one major difference between the tiebreaker games and the Wild Card games. Make no mistake, they’ll both be treated as life and death (no one wants to suffer the randomness of the Wild Card game), but the tiebreakers use regular season roster rules, which means these teams can bring up specialised players. The same isn’t true for the Wild Card.

The tiebreaker: Cubs vs. Brewers

Starters: Jose Quintana (4.09 ERA/4.52 FIP/4.23 FIP+) vs TBD (as of the night of September 30th)

Jose Quintana has been a disappointment in 2018, though August and September were his best months. Milwaukee’s TBD starter seems likely to be Jhoulys Chacin, but whoever it is, don’t expect them to last long. Milwaukee’s bullpen has been its greatest strength (well, outside likely MVP Christian Yelich) and you can expect manager Craig Counsell to lean heavily upon it.

The tricky part for Counsell is that if Milwaukee falls behind, he may not want to use star fireman Josh Hader at all in order to preserve the lefty for the Wild Card game. Hader last pitched on Friday and should be well rested, but two of his last three appearances have been surprisingly shaky so if Milwaukee look likely to lose anyway, he may not turn out.

A few extra points to consider:

  • Both teams blew away their opposition Sunday, so the key pieces of these bullpens are ready to go.
  • Yelich been the hottest hitter in MLB this month, particularly in the last ten days and Cubs Manager Joe Maddon has a history of avoiding the hot hand.
  • This game is precisely the reason Chicago traded for Terrance Gore, who can neither hit nor field. What Gore does is run. Fast. Look for Maddon to find a critical spot for the speedster to swipe a base.
  • Chicago is without its top two relievers, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Stropp. They may want Quintana to go longer than they should want to.
  • All season, Quintana has faltered after ninety pitches, with the Cubs insisting on trying to push him to 100. How Maddon manages him may be a key point Monday.

The tiebreaker: Dodgers vs. Rockies

Starters: Walker Buehler (2.76 ERA/2.98 FIP/ 3.08 xFIP) vs. German Marquez (3.76 ERA/3.33 FIP/3.11 xFIP) 

This one features a superb match-up between young star pitchers - the above numbers make this look more lopsided than it is. Not only has Marquez had a 2.91/3.73/2.97 split on the road (the game is in Los Angeles), but he’s had an incredible 2.55/2.04/2.28 slash line in the second half, including home games. That’s good for 3.5 WAR since the All-Star Game, second in MLB.

Marquez is one of the few guys who can buck that third-time-through-the-order trend and be successful and the Rockies may just ride him that way.

A few extra points to consider:

  • Colorado are currently 2.52* on the Money Line. That’s in part because the Dodgers are the better team on paper and are at home, but it may also be underestimating just how unhittable Marquez has been of late.
  • As good as Marquez is, LA should be happy facing a righty. Their lineup is far more effective against right-handers with Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger ready to go.
  • Travel shouldn’t be much of a factor, with the Dodgers and Rockies travelling from San Francisco and Denver respectively.
  • Because Denver’s high altitude has a way of diffusing the amount of break on a breaking ball, Rockies hitters will always have trouble hitting away from home. While Marquez has to face the best offence in the National League, Buehler will face a group of hitters whose wRC+ goes from 95 at home to a paltry 78 on the road, making them the third-worst road hitting club in MLB.

The National League Wild Card: TBD

Starters: TBD

The loser of the Cubs-Brewers game will play host to the loser of the Dodgers-Rockies game, by virtue of record. We obviously don’t know a lot about how this game will play out yet but there's plenty of information to help do some groundwork.

A few extra points to consider:

  • Either the Dodgers or the Rockies would be playing in their third city in three days, a lot of travel even for professional athletes. The resulting wear and tear, combined with the adrenaline diffusion of a tiebreaker loss, could conceivably leave either team flat.
  • The Cubs, hosting the tiebreaker, are the only team who wouldn’t have any travel in the last two days entering the game. The Brewers would have gone Milwaukee-Chicago-Milwaukee, but that trip is a very short one.
  • With all four teams likely employing key bullpen pieces in the tiebreaker games, bettors should keep a close eye on pitchers who go more than an inning. If Josh Hader, for example, pitches two or even three innings in the tiebreaker, only for the Brewers to lose, his availability would obviously be limited at best.
  • Likeliest starters: Cubs - Jon Lester. Brewers - Zach Davies (Note: Davies would have a short leash, making the Milwaukee bullpen use in the tiebreaker an even more-powerful indicator of how you should bet this game). Dodgers - Hyun-Jin Ryu. Rockies - Antonio Senzatela.

The American League Wild Card: Yankees vs. A’s

Starters: TBD

As this game approaches, there’s plenty of speculation on who will start. The Yankees look likely to go with one of Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino or JA Happ, while the A’s would counter with righty usual-reliever Liam Hendriks, who would likely pitch an inning to New York’s big righty bats, then give way to Mike Fiers.

Oakland’s bullpen has been excellent and its starting pitching has absolutely fallen apart of late, so it’s not unreasonable to expect a bullpening strategy from the A’s. New York has to be a favourite here, with home field and the greatest bullpen of all-time. But bettors shouldn’t forget that Oakland had baseball’s best record in the second half.

A few extra points to consider:

  • “Greatest bullpen of all-time” isn’t hyperbole. With the return of closer Aroldis Chapman, the pen is back to full health and stats (and some common sense too) suggest this really is the greatest and it’s not all that close.
  • A year ago, Severino recorded just one out before being removed with a three-run deficit. That should give us some insight into how the Yankees’ pen will be used, but keep in mind that a change in managers may alter that.
  • Home run suppression will be key. The Yankees set the all-time record for team home runs this season; Oakland ranked third in MLB. Their position players ranked second in MLB (to the Dodgers) in WAR (most in the second half).
  • Oakland’s timing may be good. Aaron Judge is still not at full steam after missing most of September with a hurt wrist. Didi gregarious hasn’t hit a home run since injuring his own wrist in the last week of the season and catcher Gary Sanchez has been incredibly ineffectual this month.
  • Both teams seem built for Yankee Stadium. New York had the highest home-wRC+ in MLB, 119 to 104 away. Oakland, which was 104 at home, was 116 away. These are two huge lineups that will be facing two incredibly potent bullpens.

Odds subject to change

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