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Playing chess with the A's starting rotation

How do the A's ideally want their starting rotation to play out the rest of the season? How do the A's ideally want their Nos. 1-4 starters to line up in the playoffs? How hard will it be to reset the rotation to get the best of both?

Mike Zarrilli

The A's have recently reset their rotation twice to create the most favorable conditions for playing the Angels. First they skipped Jason Hammel to make sure their top three starters played L.A. last weekend, then they will be using a No. 6 starter (probably Drew Pomeranz ) against the Astros this Wednesday so that they then use their top four starters against L.A. this weekend.

I don't think it's too soon for the A's to plan out their ideal starting rotation for the rest of the season and the various playoff scenarios. Then they can adjust around that plan between now and the end of the season as the situation dictates. It looks like the A's probably have it figured out already.

With just one more rotation tweak the rest of the way, they are set up perfectly for

1)  L.A. next month,
2) both Mariners series (who are by far the next-hardest team the A's will face on paper the rest of the year),  
3) the likely scenarios of the Wild Card and the first round of the playoffs.

First thing's first. How does the playoff rotation order stand today? Just start with your No. 1 starter and count off from there. Current order:

1. Jon Lester
2. Scott Kazmir
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Sonny Gray

Second, how do the A's ideally want their Nos. 1-4 rotation to look in a five-game playoff series? This my opinion on their best order in the playoffs at this point in time.

Ideal order:

(ERA+FIP) / 2 (what they have done plus what they should have done, averaged)
#1- Lester (L) 2.63
#2- Gray (R) 3.21
#3- Kazmir (L) 3.25
#4- Shark (R) 3.89



Photo credits: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images, Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports, Jamie Squire/Getty Images.


OK, now that we have the order, (Lester, Gray, Kazmir, Shark) how do the A's best time things assuming a dogfight to the bitter end? First and foremost; the best rest of the season rotation makes sure Lester is ready for a Wild Card play-in game on normal rest. At the same time, the A's want to get as many starts as possible out of him in the regular season.

Next, I want Sonny Gray scheduled to pitch Game 162. This produces multiple advantages for the A's:

  • The biggest benefit is the A's second-best pitcher (not their fourth- or fifth-best) is ready on normal rest when it could matter the most: winning the West on the last day of the season.
  • It also allows the A's maximum flexibility on the other likely playoff scenarios.
  • Most likely scenario No. 1. Gray is not needed in a Game 162 at all. Either because the A's have already won OR the A's have already lost the AL West before this game.
  • By then skipping Gray in Game 162, Gray can then start a Game 1 (if Lester was used in the Wild Card game) or start a Game 2 (if Lester wasn't used and the A's go directly to the ALDS).
  • Either way, unless Gray is actually needed in a Game 162, which is statistically unlikely, the ALDS. playoff rotation conveniently sets itself to the best order of Gray as the No. 2 or No. 1 starter in the ALDS. It's covering risk and allowing the A's to both use their ideal rotation in the regular season AND in the post-season with just a little luck.

One last thing -- before going to the A's ideal schedule, the ideal No. 5 starter for me the rest of the way is Drew Pomeranz. All other pitching skills aside, by using a left-handed No. 5 starting pitcher twice vs. the Mariners, the A's gain an advantage against them over using a right-hander (Hammel or Chavez).

It also ends up lining up two RHSP against the Angels (their worst hitting side) at the end of September. Instead of death by a thousand cuts, it's wins by a thousand advantages. I think the A's may see it that way too.

The rotation schedule below works out as the best rotation with the least amount of change. The only timing change that need to happen is skipping the No. 5 starter on Sept. 18 (after the A's last off day on Sept.15).

Starter rotation the rest of the way:

Aug 25 @  Astro's Shark


Pomeranz Could be used on the 25-man playoff roster.
Aug 28 @ Angels Gray A's top four starters pitch vs. L.A.
Lester Angels have a .778 OPS vs. LHP
Shark Angels have a .715 OPS vs. RHP
Sept 1 vs Mariners Pomeranz (L) Mariners are #29 in MLB vs left-handed pitching
Gray (R) (.699) OPS vs. RHP (94) wRC+
Lester (L) (.648) OPS vs. LHP (83) wRC+
Sept 4 OFF
Sept 5 vs Astros Kazmir
Sept 8 @ White Sox Gray

Sept 12 @ Mariners Pomeranz (L) Again, two lefties starting is good vs. the M's as they are 17% worse hitters than league average vs. LHP.
Gray (R)

Lester (L)
Sept 15 OFF
Sept 16 vs Rangers Kazmir Yu Darvish and Shin-Soo Choo are out for the year.
Sept 18
Gray (Skipping the No. 5 starter.) This is the only move the A's need to make to line this all up.
Sept 19 vs Phillies Lester

Sept 22 vs Angels Shark (R) Angels are #1 vs. LHP in team wRC+ (123) or 23% better than league average.
Gray (R) Two RHP is better as the Angels are only 5% better (wRC+ of 105) vs them.

Lester (L) Six more starts for Lester the rest of the year. Conveniently, two vs. the Angels and two vs. the Mariners.
Sept 25 @ Rangers Pomeranz Six total starts for Pomeranz. Two each against the Astros and Mariners and one each vs. Philly and Texas.  That's setting him and the A's up for success.
Kazmir Six more starts for Kazmir.
Shark Six more starts for Shark.
Sept 28
Game 162 Gray

Seven more starts for Gray with the best-case scenario of two each vs. the Angels and Mariners.

If Game 162 is not important, the A's will use a non-playoff-roster starter here. (The A's could win/lose the division regardless of this game, or clinch the WC1 regardless of a win).

The next three days:

Sept. 29 Off day Or any Game 163
Sept. 30 WC playoff Set up for Lester
Oct. 1-2 ALDS Game 1 Set up for Lester if West won.

So, in conclusion, if Gray is your No. 2 starter, with just one skipped No. 5 starter on Sept 18, things line up perfectly not only for the Angels series in September but also both Mariners series and lastly the end-game scenarios at the end of the regular season.

Gray would be used on normal rest in a Game 162 and Lester on normal rest in a Wild Card game if needed. If the A's win the division outright earlier that week, Lester, Gray, Kazmir, Shark, Lester would be your Nos. 1-5 starters with Gray skipping Game 162. Pomeranz starting in September instead of Hammel is just the cherry on top.

Of course injuries, rest, or other factors don't guarantee the team a thing as far as scheduling. Whether or not the A's end up winning the West easily, or not at all, it's better to have a plan and not need it, than end up at the end of the year out of whack and letting the pawns fall where they may. I do not think it is a coincidence with this front office that everything is basically lined up already with one month to go.




Including playoff teams wRC+ vs. LHP and RHP. When do the 2014 MLB playoffs start? Tiebreakers. Unlikely scenarios. Four different A's playoff rotation scenarios and arguments on Gray vs Kazmir for No. 2 starter.

Team wRC+ Vs LHP...........................................................Team wRC+ vs RHP
Team MLB Rank wRC+
Angels #1 123
Detroit #2 115
Baltimore #5 109
K.C. #14 98
Seattle #29 83
Team MLB Rank wRC+
Angels #6 105
Detroit #7 103
Baltimore #12 99
Seattle #14 96
K.C. #19 93

When do the 2014 MLB playoffs start?

  • One-game tiebreakers are played between teams tied for a division championship or a league's second wildcard berth. These games are to be played  (Mon. Sept. 29) the day after the season is scheduled to end.
  • The MLB playoffs start Tue., Sept. 30, two days after the end of the regular season with the two single game match-ups played by the four Wild Card teams.
  • The four five-game series of Round 2 are scheduled to start Wed., Oct. 1.  Last year both Wild Card winners, and thus both No. 1 seeds, had one day off before the ALDS. If that was again the case, Thu.,Oct. 2 would be Game 1.


  • If two teams are tied for the first Wild Card slot, no tiebreaking game is played. Rather, the two teams simply play against each other in the Wild Card game, with home-field advantage awarded to the team with the best record in head-to-head play.
  • Ties between two division winners: if two champions from separate divisions have the same record, no additional games are played and head-to-head determines home-field advantage.

Team A's head-to-head record vs. Team current win%
Angels (tied) 8-4 (A's need 2 wins in 7 games to clinch tiebreaker) .592
Balt (East) (+6) 4-2 (A's win tiebreaker) .574
K.C. (Cent) (+1.5) 2-5 (K.C. wins tiebreaker) .554
Seattle (WC2) (+1) 6-7 ( A's need 4 wins in 6 games to clinch tiebreaker) .546
Detroit (WC3) (-1) 2-5 (Detroit wins tiebreaker) .543

Unlikely scenarios:

Two- or three-team division and WC2 tie scenarios (Games 163-164) would of course wreck the optimal rotation but would still allow the A's to use (Gray, Lester, Kazmir) in any Game 162-163-164-WC scenario as they wanted.

I say "as they wanted" because if they are tied for the division at the end of 162, a Game 163 is not do-or-die. The losing team (right now) would play in the Wild Card game. Would the A's use Lester in a non-do-or-die Game 163? Or would they try and win that Game 163 with, say Jesse Chavez, saving Lester for the WC game (if 163 is lost) or Game 1 (if 163 is won)?

Personally I save Lester for the do-or-die Wild Card game because if the A's do win 163, Lester then starts Games 1 & 5 and if the A's lose 163, they have Lester starting the Wild Card.

Gray vs. Kazmir for No. 2 starter.

While Gray and Kazmir are almost identical pitchers this year, Gray gets the No. 2 starter tiebreaker for me mainly because of his 2.02 era / 3.50 FIP in last year's playoffs. Kazmir has 36 innings of playoff experience in 2008 & 2009 to the tune of 5.20 ERA / 5.87 FIP. I'm a little more confident with Gray on the mound in a playoff game. Something has to break a tie between those two and for me that's it.

I also personally like breaking up the rotation lefty, righty, lefty, righty to keep the hitters off-balance a bit more than left, left, right, right does. I don't know if there is any evidence to support that bias but I'm still looking for one last paper advantage.

If the A's decide Kazmir is their No. 2, it would be easy enough for them to pitch Gray third in the playoff rotation if they want, whether he pitched Game 162 or not, due to the many postseason off-days.

I also like hot hands. If Kazmir (or Shark) has a great September while Gray majorly tails off, I wouldn't hesitate to change.  I seem to remember a few playoff years where I thought Barry Zito should have started ahead of Mark Mulder based off their second halves.

Four playoff rotation scenarios
Gray not needed for a Game 162.  A's win the West.
Gray was needed for a Game 162. A's win the West.
Gray not needed for a Game 162. Lester wins WC game.
Gray or Kazmir
Gray was needed for a Game 162. Lester wins WC game.
Kazmir or Shark