Game 5 of the 2018 NLCS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Brewers. Both teams were home run fueled and had caught fire in September leading into the playoffs. The Dodgers had future hall of famer Clayton Kershaw slated for the start. The Brewers, a more bullpen heavy team, indicated Wade Miley would be their starting pitcher.
Miley missed about half of 2018, but had appeared to reinvent himself with a cutter as his new primary pitch. Like most left handed pitchers, he fared better against left handed batters, so the Dodgers flexed their position player depth and stacked their lineup with right handed batters. After walking the first batter, Miley was pulled from the game, five pitches in. Joe Buck hadn’t even finished his narrative introduction of Miley. He wasn’t injured, the Dodgers had just been deked.
While this closely resembled the Rays’ opener tactic – where the starter would only pitch an inning or two – the Brewers added a twist. The Rays’ openers would always be relievers; the opposing team would always know an early change was coming. Miley was a career starter and had pitched 5.2 innings just four days earlier. The Dodgers had built their lineup and gameplan around Wade Miley only for him to be promptly switched out with righty Brandon Woodruff.
Two years later and this fake starter tactic has made a reappearance. In Game 3 of the NLDS, the Dodgers slated Dustin May as their starting pitcher. May dominates right handed batters, so the Padres loaded their lineup with lefties. After a clean first inning, the Dodgers brought in a left handed pitcher to counter the unbalanced lineup.
Whether it is a left-handed or right-handed fake starter, there appears to be a few key ingredients for the tactic to be successfully implemented. First and foremost, the fake starter needs to be convincing. If the listed pitcher is not capable of pitching multiple innings, then the bluff will be ineffective. Dustin May had been a starter in nearly all of his 2020 outings so there was plenty of reason to believe he would be operating as a traditional starting pitcher that day.
The second necessary ingredient is the opposition having a platoonable lineup. Take the Padres as an example: no matter who is pitching, they were going to have Fernando Tatis Jr near the top of their lineup. However, the difference between lefty Mitch Moreland and righty Jurickson Profar is more marginal and dependent on the opposing pitcher. If the offense already knows the lineup they want to play, there is less benefit to faking the starting pitcher.
The third and final component in a successful fake start is a platoon advantage. In our example, Dustin May dominates righties and Julio Urias – the lefty starter who threw five innings after May – dominates lefties. If both were somewhat neutral, manipulating the Padres’ platoon ability would not do much good as there would be little advantage to be gained. If two starters whose platoon splits complement one another are ready to go, then the fake starter tactic is on the board.
Now that we have an idea of how the fake starter strategy works, let’s take a look at the other instance this postseason: ALDS Game 2, Rays vs Yankees. Gerrit Cole was the Yankees obvious choice for game one, but there was a big question mark on who would follow. Veterans JA Happ and Masahiro Tanaka had good seasons with iffy underlying statistics, while Deivi Garvia and Jordan Montgomery had ERAs near five but better peripheral statistics.
The Rays were a perfect target for a fake starter as their offense is built on versatility. Earlier this year they became the first team in MLB history to start a lineup fully comprised of left-handed hitters. Tampa Bay was the dream team for the scheme and New York had the perfect bait.
Along with the seniority to be a convincing number two starter, Masahiro Tanaka beats right handed hitting. In both of the last two years, he has faced more left-handed batters than right-handed batters due to teams stacking their lineups. Tanaka would be the bait and lefty JA Happ would take advantage. It was a perfect storm of fake starter conditions, so the Yankees pulled the trigger.
Devi Garcia was announced as the game two starter. He pitched one shaky inning and gave way to JA Happ who would get knocked around for 2.2 innings. The Yankees used a fake starter, but chose Deivi Garcia instead of Masahiro Tanaka.
The rookie right-hander did not have a dramatic platoon split and accordingly the Rays did not feel the need to stack their lineup. They fielded five in their game two lineup – a lot for a normal team, but not far from Tampa Bay’s status quo. When Tanaka pitched the next day, the Rays lineup featured SEVEN left-handed batters.
Would these two additional left-handed batters made a difference with JA Happ? Probably not, but it is a fun coincidence the two righties taken out of the lineup versus Tanaka (Margot and Zunino) both hit two-run home runs against Happ. The fake-starter strategy is supposed to put whoever follows in an optimal position and Tanaka would’ve done that better than Garcia.
Tanaka did not start for the same reason so many think Blake Snell should not have been pulled so early from the last World Series game: Baseball is played by humans. Tanaka has been in the league a while and, like most starters, has probably settled into a rhythm. Teams have rotations so players can properly prepare their bodies for peak performance and injury prevention. The Yankees deemed whatever advantage could be gained in baiting more lefties was not worth putting Tanaka off tempo.
This is where many new-school thinkers and old-school thinkers diverge. JA Happ should be applauded for his versatility, but should that be expected out of Tanaka? The influx of hard throwing relievers means the pitching realm has more parity than ever. The name of the game is optimizing the use of each piece, especially in the playoffs.
Maybe pitching Garcia was the right move or maybe it cost the Yankees their ticket to the ALCS. Without the ability to peer into alternate realities, we will never know. The decisions made were done weighing analytics with the human factor. With Garcia the Yankees chose to prioritize the human side and with Snell the Rays chose to prioritize the analytics side. No matter what side of the debate you are on, these conversations are coming to a climax. After all, they might just be the difference in winning a World Series.