Does Throwing Top Pitchers on Short Rest Pay off in the Postseason?
So, the Los Angeles Dodgers made an interesting decision recently.
They decided to start Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw on only three days' rest in Game 4 even though circumstances dictated it was unnecessary because they had a 2-1 lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series.
The reaction among both fans and the baseball punditry was something along the lines of, "Well, golly, are you guys sure about this? Like, really sure?"
Call it a programmed response. Starting pitchers are accustomed to at least four days of rest in between starts. Asking them to start on three days' rest is risky, if not altogether crazy.
But Kershaw did just fine. He gave up only three hits in six innings in his short-rest duty, and he only allowed two unearned runs. In the end, Juan Uribe hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning that gave the Dodgers a 4-3 lead they didn't relinquish.
The decision paid off. He turned in a performance worthy of an ace, and the Dodgers won the game. Also important is the fact that Kershaw showed no ill effects in his first start of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, allowing two hits and one unearned run in six innings in Game 2.
That got me to thinking: How typical is the Kershaw situation in light of other pitchers who have started on three days' rest in the postseason? Or, on the flip side, how atypical is it?
Without giving too much away now, let's just say that Kershaw is the exception more than the rule.
Rounding Up a Sample Size
For looking back at baseball history, Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index is pretty much the greatest thing ever. If you want to look up all postseason starts ever made on three days' rest, you can do that. In fact, here you go.
But for this study, I wanted to deal only with a sample size relevant to modern times. Pitchers have come to be regimented and protected more and more, so I didn't want a sample size that lumped modern guys with the guys who used to throw 1,000 pitches per game and sustained themselves on snacks of motor oil and artillery shells.
So I set my sights on postseason starts made on short rest since 2000. It's a bit of an arbitrary starting point, but a piece by ESPN's Tim Kurkjian a few years ago highlighted how the 2000 season was something of a watershed moment for the notion that starting pitchers should be restricted to around 100 pitches per outing.
So for our purposes, 2000 works well enough as the beginning of a "modern" era.
The Play Index returned 70 postseason starts that have been made on short rest since 2000, but some adding and subtracting was required.
I wasn't interested in starts made three or fewer days after a relief appearance. I also cut out the starts that Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia made on two days' rest in the 2011 ALDS, as those starts were necessitated by a lengthy rain delay that led to an early exit for both of them in Game 1. I also decided to eliminate the start that Tim Hudson made on three days' rest in Game 4 of the 2003 ALDS because he lasted only one inning before leaving with an injury.
After cutting out all these starts, I added in the pitchers who made their first start of the postseason on short rest. They were missing from the Play Index list because Baseball-Reference.com treats the start of the postseason as the start of a new season—not to nitpick, guys, but that's a flaw.
All this done, I had a sample to study. Barring any oversights, there have been 54 legitimate cases of a starting pitcher going on short rest in the postseason since 2000.
And for the most part, they haven't done so well.
Fair warning: Somewhere below these next few lines of text is a big gosh-darn table with lots of numbers in it. You'll see how all 54 of the starts made on short rest in the last 14 postseasons ended up going.
If there's one column to focus on to make things easier, it's the Game Score column ("GSc"). For those who haven't heard of it, Game Score is a fairly simple stat that was developed by Bill James for the purpose of evaluating how good a given start was based on things like hits allowed, innings pitched, strikeouts and so on.
The counting for Game Score starts at 50. There's no specific score that marks the threshold for a truly ace-like performance, but I've highlight the guys who posted Game Scores of 60 or above in their short-rest starts because 60 is pretty darn good.
Now then, behold:
We'll be breaking these numbers down in just a moment, but for now we can acknowledge the general message that this list sends:
Starts on short rest in the postseason haven't tended to go well.
Sure, Curt Schilling was basically a god on short rest twice in the 2001 postseason. We all remember Josh Beckett's series-clinching shutout in the 2003 World Series. The last two starts on short rest turned in by Hiroki Kuroda and Kershaw have been terrific.
But of the 54 starts listed, only 14 resulted in a game score of 60 or better. I also counted only 23 quality starts. Over half of these 54 outings were non-quality starts, which is obviously not what a team is looking for in these situations.
And now for the portion of the program in which we add it all up:
|Starts||IP||ERA||WHIP||K/9||BB/9||H/9||HR/9||Avg. GSc||Team Record|
The K/9 here could be worse, but the other numbers aren't very ace-like. A 4.80 ERA is the mark of, at best, an average collection of starters. The same goes for the walk, hit and home run numbers, and that collective game score of 48.7 is a step down from the starting point of 50.
On top of all this is the teams' record in these 54 games. Clubs that have trotted starting pitchers out on short rest since 2000 have won 20 games and lost 34.
True, wins and losses often have little to do with how good the starting pitching was on a particular day. That 20-34 record is worth pointing out in this case, however, because it shows how teams that have started pitchers on short rest in recent postseasons haven't tended to get the desired effect.
Knowing all this, the programmed reaction we have to a team deciding to start a pitcher on short rest in the postseason is a valid one. The likelihood of the decision backfiring would appear to be higher than that of the decision having the desired effect.
Short version: History says that starting a pitcher in a playoff game on short rest isn't going to pay off.
But we're not done here. For beyond the question of how starting a pitcher on short rest actually pans out lies the question of whether starting a pitcher on short rest can screw him up.
Fortunately, this is where things take a positive turn.
The aftermath isn't the most pressing concern when a team decides to start a pitcher on short rest in the postseason. Making it count in the moment at hand is.
But it's not an unimportant issue. After all, any team that starts a pitcher on short rest is planning on extending its stay in the postseason. It does so knowing that the pitcher starting on short rest will be needed again if it advances.
Concerning our collection of pitchers, one limitation is that not all of the guys who started a postseason game on short rest got the opportunity to make another start. Most saw their teams get eliminated. A lucky few helped clinch the World Series.
But within the 2000-2013 window, there have been 22 cases of pitchers going on to make additional postseason starts after starting on short rest, and they've made a total of 40 additional starts (as well as some relief appearances, but I ignored those since the idea here is to evaluate these guys as starters).
Here's a table just like the one above, save for one small difference. If a given pitcher has more than one start listed, the number in the Game Score column is the average Game Score of those starts.
There's more yellow here than there was in the first table, and that's obviously a good thing.
After starting on short rest, a good chunk of these pitchers basically went on to pitch like themselves in the additional starts they made. And while he's not highlighted, it is worth noting that CC Sabathia was pretty darn good after the first of two short-rest starts in 2009. Roger Clemens, likewise, was pretty good after a short-rest start in 2004.
There's also a fair number of postseason heroes listed here. Sabathia was a hero in 2009, as was Clemens in 2000. Curt Schilling was huge in 2001. Chris Carpenter was huge in 2011. Tim Wakefield was outstanding in 2003 before Aaron Boone got to him. It's hard to overlook what Brandon Backe did in his one post-short-rest start in 2004, allowing one hit in eight innings in Game 5 of the NLCS.
And if we add it all up, we get:
That K/9 is pretty unspectacular, especially in today's day and age when even the most run-of-the-mill starters are averaging seven strikeouts per nine innings.
Everything else, however, is quite good. That 3.35 ERA is night and day better than the 4.80 ERA we looked at previously, as is the WHIP, BB/9, H/9 and HR/9. The average Game Score, meanwhile, is safely enough above 50.
That guys like Zack Greinke and C.J. Wilson in 2011 and Jarrod Washburn in 2002 struggled after starting on short rest in the postseason goes to show that there is some risk of sabotaging a pitcher by asking him to go on short rest. But based on the numbers, the risk of sabotage is lower than the initial risk of a poor performance on short rest.
Now we can move on to the part in which we try to make sense of all this.
The Part in Which We Try to Make Sense of All This
The conventional wisdom is that starting a pitcher on short rest in the postseason is a very risky proposal with no guarantee of success.
Based on what's actually happened with pitchers who have given it a go on short rest in the last 14 postseasons, the conventional wisdom looks valid. For every pitcher who has come through on short rest, there's been at least one who hasn't, and the overall numbers are pretty ugly.
Do you think starting pitchers on short rest in the postseason is worth the risk?
But then there's what's happened after the short-rest starts. Collectively, those who have lived to pitch another day have done pretty well, an indication that one start on short rest isn't guaranteed to screw up a pitcher. Nor is it guaranteed to stop a given pitcher's ability to be a postseason hero.
This, for me, is the difference between starting a pitcher on short rest in the playoffs being a risky roll of the dice and it being a downright stupid roll of the dice. The odds of a pitcher coming through on short rest may be a lot slimmer than one would prefer, but the potential payoff is big enough to be enticing.
In other words, I'd say that the short-rest gamble is precisely what it's made out to be.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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