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Seung Hwan Oh should start the Wild Card Game

In the fifth season of the Wild Card Game, baseball is overdue for a creative approach to the winner-take-all contest. The Cardinals may have that opportunity.

In 2016, Seung Hwan Oh has pitched in 60 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, averaging 1.04 innings per appearance. In his professional baseball career, dating back to his 2005 season with the Samsung Lions, Seung Hwan Oh has pitched in 631 games, averaging 1.12 innings per appearance.

Seung Hwan Oh boasts an ERA across all levels of professional baseball of 1.82 and an MLB era of 1.88. And if the playoffs started at this moment, the Cardinals would play in the National League Wild Card Game. Seung Hwan Oh should start the Wild Card Game.

To be perfectly clear, Seung Hwan Oh will not start the Wild Card Game. The honor will probably go to, um, a starting pitcher. And perhaps it should. But starting Seung Hwan Oh in the Wild Card Game would be the logical conclusion of an approach to the winner-take-all playoff game which should be the industry standard: treating the game as the do-or-die contest that, by its very definition, it is.

It should be established, first and foremost, that Oh has proven himself throughout 2016 to be the most consistently great pitcher on the Cardinals in short doses. Of all pitchers on the team with at least seven innings, an arbitrary minimum but certainly not an unreasonably high one, Oh’s ERA is more than a full run lower than that of the team’s #2, Kevin Siegrist. By fielding-independent pitching, Oh has nearly a run and a half edge on the team’s #2 among those with 7+ innings, Matt Bowman.

While starting pitchers have to deal with the expectation of longer appearances, even focusing strictly on the first three innings of games does not show an obvious fast-starter candidate on par with Seung Hwan Oh. Among Cardinals starters, Carlos Martinez leads the pack in lowest opponent OPS the first time facing an opposing hitter with .475. Oh is at .471, and while this difference seems insignificant at first, Martinez gets the benefit of dealing with pitchers and weak-hitting position players who would be relieved of their batting duties by pinch hitters in later innings.

Ultimately, though, if Mike Matheny decided he wanted to start Martinez in the Wild Card Game because he believes that whatever statistical difference there is between Martinez and Oh is off-set by Martinez’s familiarity with the starting role, this is defensible. Matheny isn’t side-stepping Oh in favor of Mike Mayers here. What should be concerning to Cardinals fans is less the possibility of Martinez (or Adam Wainwright, or any other tried-and-true starting pitcher) and more the possibility that Mike Matheny would misuse his starter.

And this is not even a specific indictment of Matheny, but rather of MLB managers at large. The power of the “overpowering ace up against the world” narrative is tough to combat, and managers seem to have, at least to some extent, managed around it during the brief history of the Wild Card Game.

In the National League, there have been eight starts in the Wild Card Game (I recognize that incorporating both leagues would create a more substantial sample size, but the American League having the DH dramatically affects managerial strategy regarding starter usage). In those starts, the average outing has been a little under 6 13 innings (this is a matter of rounding, not a matter of me being unable to conceptualize a pitcher throwing six innings), and a little over 6 23 innings if you take Johnny Cueto’s moderate outlier 3 13 innings outing in the 2013 NL Wild Card Game out of the equation. Not that you necessarily should—just some food for thought.

In each of the last two seasons, the team that won the Wild Card Game actually did so on the shoulders of its ace pitching a complete game shutout—the San Francisco Giants with Madison Bumgarner in 2014 and the Chicago Cubs with Jake Arrieta in 2015. In each case, particularly with regards to Bruce Bochy and the Giants, this was arguably reckless: the Giants had a nearly-insurmountable 8-0 lead and realistically, a position player could have pitched and almost certainly been able to close out the ninth.

In a vast majority of instances throughout history, relievers become less effective at run suppression when starting, but this usually coincides with a fairly radical change in pitching approach. When a pitcher is expected to go several innings, it is only natural that he will conserve some energy.

Over the course of a 162-game season, this is sound strategy, as there are many other games to consider. However, for a one-game playoff, it is only worth considering how to get the best nine innings you can out of your team. Anything beyond that, extra innings or additional playoff games, only come after performing well in the first nine innings of the playoff run.

Seung Hwan Oh: Playoff Starter probably would not last more than a couple innings. He is not accustomed to pitching more than this and given that he only has three professional plate appearances (he is 1 for 3 with 2 strikeouts; my article on Oh’s unsustainable BABIP is still in progress), the Cardinals would probably be inclined to pinch-hit for him if they posed any offensive threat.

But this kind of aggressiveness should be in play regardless of who pitches. The Cardinals could very well clinch a Wild Card Game spot on Game 162, and perhaps the starter of that game would be off-limits as a matter of effectiveness, but that should be it. It is naive to save a pitcher for a future game that may only happen if said pitcher instead pitches in the Wild Card Game.

Mike Matheny actually had a relatively quick hook in his one Wild Card Game appearance, pulling Kyle Lohse in the 6th inning with a 4-2 lead after pitching respectably, allowing just two runs and striking out six with one walk issued. While I doubt he will make a move as radical as starting Oh or even Martinez (unless he pitched Game 162 or his arm is completely detached, it seems inevitable that Adam Wainwright will get that start), there is some reason to hope that Matheny might be willing to defer, if not to playoff rotation starting pitchers in relief, at least to young guns Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver for playoff innings relatively quickly.