Road maps to pitching success in Game 7

For the Royals, Game 6 could not have gone any better. Not only did they claim the necessary victory to set up a winner-take-all contest tonight, but by blowing the Giants out early, they were able to acquire an extra day of rest for their vaunted bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Meanwhile, the Giants can’t be too thrilled with their performance, but the lopsided loss did allow them to avoid using Madison Bumgarner, and you can be sure that Bruce Bochy will use his ace tonight. 

So, with one game to decide the World Series, let’s see if we can plot out usage patterns for each team’s pitching staffs in order to give each side the best chance of winning the championship. 

The Royals side of things is somewhat straightforward; Jeremy Guthrie is the de facto starter, but there really is no such thing as a traditional starting pitcher for the Royals, and Guthrie will almost certainly be on a very short leash tonight. The Royals just don’t need a significant number of innings from their starter. 

Since recording the final out of the ALCS on Oct. 15, Greg Holland has thrown just 24 pitches. 24 pitches in two weeks. He hasn’t taken the mound since last Friday, and even that came in an outing that only took him eight pitches to complete. During the regular season, Holland threw 25 or more pitches in a game on six different occasions; there’s no reason why he couldn’t be asked to stretch that to 30 or 35 pitches in the final game of the season, especially given his recent workload. 

Holland averages just over four pitches per batter faced, so a 30-35 pitch target would put him in line to face something like seven to nine batters. That’s two innings pitched if he struggles a little bit, or three innings pitched if he’s completely dominant. Plan for two and have the third be a possibility if the game goes to extra innings, so pencil Holland in for the 8th, 9th, and maybe the 10th innings. 

In front of him, Ned Yost should be a bit more flexible. You don’t really want to have Wade Davis watch someone else try to pitch out of a tough jam early and potentially give up a lead you might not ever get back, so you can’t count on having him available to pitch the inning or two to set up Holland. However, this problem is actually a positive, because the Royals are going to have James Shields available out of the bullpen, and as a starting pitcher, he would likely benefit from having a longer warm-up period and the ability to enter a game at the start of an inning. That makes him a perfect fit to pitch a structured role, meaning Shields could be given Davis’ setup slot; tell him in advance that he’s pitching the seventh inning, and let him start his warm-up routine early enough to be ready to go for that specific role.

That leaves just the first six innings as unscripted variables, but with both Herrera and Davis available for duty. And they shouldn’t be looking at one inning stints here. Herrera threw 47 pitches in a game back in May, and topped 30 on two other occasions, while Davis topped out at 33 pitches, and could have had more longer outings if he wasn’t so dominant, rarely needing many pitches to record three outs. Both should easily be available for 35-40 pitches, however, and that should be enough for both to try and get six outs apiece. 

Now, all of the sudden, you only have two innings left, and we haven’t even mentioned the starting pitcher. This is why the Royals don’t need Jeremy Guthrie to pitch deep, and he should only be asked to face the Giants hitters one time. Plan to have him face nine batters and hope for six outs. If he gets in trouble early, use Herrera or Davis to squelch potential rallies, and make up the difference with Danny Duffy, Brandon Finnegan, or Jason Frasor if need be. There’s just no reason for Guthrie to need to take the hill beyond the third inning.

The ideal plan: Guthrie for two, Herrera for two, Davis for two, Shields for one, Holland for two, charge the field for a victory celebration. Things don’t often go to plan, of course, but that’s why you have Herrera and Davis available early to squash any potential rallies; Duffy, Finnegan, and Frasor are good enough to mix-and-match if holes arise and a few extra outs need to be salvaged. And this plan still leaves Jason Vargas in the pen to pitch extra innings if it goes that far. Three innings from two starters and six innings from the best trio of relievers in baseball; that’s my suggestion for Kansas City. 

For the Giants, things are a little different. Tim Hudson is a little better than Guthrie, and the bullpen isn’t quite as deep, so the hook doesn’t need to be quite as fast. However, because the Giants know that the Royals can throw the kitchen sink at them, they cannot afford to let Hudson give the Royals a lead, and need to be ready to make a pitching change as early as the first inning if trouble arises. 

And so, I’d suggest that Javier Lopez be ready to go in the first inning, and be warm enough to be inserted at any given point in the first three frames. Hudson is still plenty good against right-handers — they hit just .256/.283/.384 against him this year — and should be trusted to stamp out any rally that brings a right-handed hitter to the plate, but Lopez is the Giants antidote to Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon; if Hudson puts a few guys on base early, bringing either one to the plate with a chance to blow things open, Bochy should not hesitate to use Lopez to keep the game close.

Ideally, that’s not necessary, and Hudson can get you through the first three innings, but he should be on a very strict 12 batter limit. Because the Royals standard lineup features right-handed hitters in the first and third spots, and a somewhat weak left-handed hitter in between them, Hudson might be able to go a little longer than Guthrie, if he avoids trouble. Letting him face Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain a second time isn’t much of a concern, given his strength against right-handers, but he should be pulled as soon as Eric Hosmer steps to the plate a second time. There’s no reason to let him face the Royals tough left-handed hitters twice, especially with Bumgarner available out of the bullpen. 

Hudson gets the first 12 batters. You hope for nine outs, which sets up Bumgarner to potentially enter in the fourth inning, when Hosmer’s second at-bat would be most likely to occur. Pitching on just two days’ rest, you probably can’t push Bumgarner too aggressively, and are probably looking at something in that 30 pitch range; that’s probably two innings, but Bochy could potentially push for a third if Bumgarner is dominating again. 

It’s safer to assume that he could give you two innings, though, which would put the Giants through the fifth without having used any of their traditional relievers. From there, you mix and match depending on who is coming up. Jeremy Affeldt should be good for six outs, preferably coming in when Hosmer steps to the plate a third time, which would set him up to also go after Gordon and Moustakas as well. 

Sergio Romo should be warming for nearly all of Affeldt’s outing, ready to come in against a right-hander if Affeldt gets in trouble, especially if Omar Infante is hitting 9th in the order again, setting up three right-handers in four batters in the 9-1-2-3 spots. Let Affeldt and Romo split that run through the line-up, which hopefully has gotten the Giants through the seventh inning. 

If that works, then Javier Lopez could be called on to face Hosmer in his fourth plate appearance, with Santiago Casilla warming behind him. Depending on the score, Lopez could either be a one-batter specialist, or potentially stay in to face Butler and Gordon as well, making the Royals two left-handed hitters face the Giants side-arming lefty. If they are clinging to a one-run lead, letting Lopez face Butler might be too risky, and maybe you go with Casilla to finish the eighth and ninth innings after Lopez faces Hosmer. 

So that’s Plan A for the Giants: Hudson for 12 batters, then Bumgarner through the fifth inning, followed by Affeldt, Romo, Lopez and Casilla to try and finish out the final four innings between them. Again, though, things probably won’t go according to plan, and the Giants will probably have to turn to Yusmeiro Petit and/or Tim Lincecum at some point. Because both are more comfortable entering with the bases empty — Lincecum’s inability to hold runners is a real problem against Kansas City — they would likely fit best in the early innings if Hudson is chased in Peavy-like fashion. 

If Hudson can’t make it out of the second inning, and Lopez or Affeldt is needed to retire a tough left-hander in a big situation, then Petit or Lincecum likely take over to try and fill the gap before Bumgarner comes in, with the other one hanging around as the guy to pitch the 10th inning and beyond if the game goes to extra innings. 

Because Lopez and Romo are best used situationally, mapping out a firm plan for the Giants is a little more difficult; they need to be ready to put out fires whenever they arise, and maybe only face a few batters each, so there are more likely to be mid-inning pitching changes on the San Francisco side of things. The fact that three of the Giants more reliable right-handed relievers are most often used to start innings with no one on base, Bochy has a few more balls to juggle than Ned Yost does. For that reason, Affeldt might be San Francisco’s most important reliever, since he can both enter situationally and get enough outs to get to a clean landing spot for one of the starter-turned-reliever trio. 

But if Hudson can get through three innings, and Bumgarner can give the Giants two behind Hudson, then the Giants will be set up well to have their four main relievers pitch the final four innings in some fashion. The Royals probably shouldn’t set things up as traditionally. The Royals should get to Herrera, Davis, and Holland as quickly as possible. 

Welcome to the battle of the bullpens. The manager who makes the right pitching changes may very well be rewarded with a parade.