The 2018 season was, of course, a historical one for the Red Sox that by and large will be remembered for the sheer dominance involved. If their playoff run is going to have a legacy beyond that in ten, twenty, thirty years it is likely going to revolve around “the rover” strategy. This is the name given to the plan of using starting pitchers in the bullpen to record important, late-game outs on their days off. We saw it throughout last October’s run and it was one of the majors reasons they were able to outlast every other team. We’ve seen pitching staffs throughout history use starters as relievers and once in a while, in elimination games in particular, use playoff starters in the bullpen. We’d never, to my memory at least, seen a team use the strategy as aggressively as Alex Cora in 2018.
Now, with about six weeks remaining in the 2019 season, the rover is back in out vocabulary. When the team was in Cleveland, Rick Porcello was spotted in the bullpen during one of his days off. Nathan Eovaldi was supposed to shift back to the rotation, but Cora has had to use him in relief at times to prevent that. Chris Sale was listed as a reliever for Friday’s series opener against the Orioles. Cora himself has said the team is going into playoff mode and that means we’re likely going to see some rover action. This is a bad idea.
I will say, before I get into criticism of this move, that I like the idea of the team still pushing for a postseason spot even with the odds saying they don’t actually have much of a chance. They’ve almost certainly already played themselves out of October baseball but as a fan I appreciate being able to watch a team that is still playing like it has a chance. I want to see them use their best starters every time out and utilize a four-man rotation with the off-days. I want to see their best position players in the lineup each and every day. Competitive baseball is fun, and I want to watch it for as long as I possibly can. There are a lot of ways Cora and company can still go for it and it’s exactly what they should be doing. Using the rover is a step beyond that and it doesn’t need to be taken.
Like I said, the odds point out that they don’t actually have a chance. Even after a good Friday where Boston won and their competitors mostly lost, they find themselves 6.5 games behind the Rays for the second wildcard spot, with Oakland lurking between the two as well. Fangraphs has their chances to make the postseason at 7.1 percent. Baseball Prospectus, whose PECOTA projection system has been lower on Boston all year, had their odds at 1.4 percent prior to Friday’s action. (This was written before their numbers were updated.)
So, with those odds being as small as they are — even if you think the general numbers are too small, it’s hard to make an argument the odds are some significant degree higher — does it make sense to push the rotation so hard that they’ll pitch on their off-days? Consider the members of this rotation. They have Chris Sale, a 30-year-old who is struggling for the first time in his career that just signed a massive extension. They have David Price, another aging pitcher who would be coming fresh off the IL and potentially thrown into this plan. They have Eduardo Rodriguez, who has already surpassed his career-high in innings by nine and is on pace to beat his previous career-high by 60. They have Nathan Eovaldi, who missed significant time with injury this year after earning the “injury-prone” label earlier in his career.
The one starter who is not under control for multiple years is Porcello, and there are two reasons to want to avoid this with him. For one, it feels gross to grind a pitcher into the ground for nothing ahead of his free agency, particularly in this era where teams are more wary than ever to pay older pitchers. If that doesn’t compel you, there is also the simple idea that Porcello has been mostly bad this year and giving him more innings doesn’t seem particularly helpful for winning.
Alex Cora is not going to give up on this season until the day he wakes up and there’s a little “e” next to the Red Sox name in the standings. That is a good thing, and more teams should be acting like they have a chance until the day they mathematically do not. There is playing like a team who still has a chance, though, and then there is pushing his players to an irresponsible level. Chances are, if/when Cora does use this rover method all of the pitchers will come out of it fine. Even pitchers generally come out of more outings healthy than injured. That said, this undeniably increases the odds of some injuries now and/or moving forward for this veteran pitching staff. As sad as it is to admit, the Red Sox just aren’t in a position to be that aggressive in their going for it.