About a month before the 2014 American League wild-card game, as members of the Kansas City Royals front office and coaching staff strategized about facing a one-game playoff, they diagnosed a problem with their roster.
“The sixth inning was a little bit of a black hole,” manager Ned Yost said.
The team was built on preventing runs. The bullpen featured three elite relievers, each assigned an inning. Kelvin Herrera pitched the seventh. Wade Davis handled the eighth. Greg Holland closed the ninth. That left a gap, should starter James Shields hit the rocks in the sixth. The group scoured the roster and pored over the numbers. The best option for the bridge, they decided, was rookie starter Yordano Ventura.
Ventura had pitched only once in relief in the majors. The team prepped him for the potential role. When the Royals hosted Oakland in the wild-card game, Ventura sat in the bullpen. Yost wanted to use him. When Shields put two runners aboard in the sixth, Ventura stepped into the breach. He came out throwing 99 mph heat … and promptly served up a three-run homer to Oakland designated hitter Brandon Moss.
Had the Royals not staged an improbable rally, recovering to win and eventually capture the American League pennant, the move with Ventura might have been the defining tactical decision of Yost’s managerial tenure. It might have cost him his job. Instead, it merely gave Yost a unique perspective on a nascent trend in the 2021 playoffs, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Red Sox manager Alex Cora attempted to use starters in relief before falling in the respective League Championship Series. Even managers who have used starters in relief in playoff games are wondering why managers keep using starters in relief in playoff games.
“The scenario, for me, was one winner-take-all game,” Yost told The Athletic last week while taking a break from organizing a cornhole tournament for a family vacation on a white-sand beach in Florida. “I don’t think I would have ever done that in a five-game or a seven-game series. For me, it was just too valuable to spend an inning in a starter’s arm when I might need him two days down the road. It’s been interesting seeing the way these guys are doing this.”
The phenomenon did not begin this October. The Rangers tried Derek Holland in between starts in 2011. John Lackey handled an inning for Boston in 2013. Madison Bumgarner emerged from the bullpen, three days after pitching a shutout, to close out Yost’s Royals during the final five innings of the 2014 World Series. Cora leaned on a variety of starters on the way to a championship in 2018. Roberts has made the practice something of a signature during his six consecutive playoff berths.