Every year, MLB managers give their Game 1 starters a chance to pitch on short rest in a five- or seven-game playoff series. The rationale is simple, often when teams need a win, they want their best pitcher on the mound. But every year, fans and pundits alike wonder if it is the right move. Small-sample sizes for individual pitchers can be met with skepticism, but the aggregate numbers show starters who go on three days’ rest or fewer have not been very effective.
Starting pitchers get at least four days of rest in between starts during the regular season, so it is rare to see one get the ball with three or fewer days of rest. In 2016, there were just 71 such instances during the regular season, and not a single one went beyond seven innings in the second appearance. Only 14 of those 71 outings provided their team with a quality start (at least six innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed).
Since 1995, the first year the wild-card format was used in the playoffs, 77 pitchers have started 121 playoff games on three days or fewer of rest, resulting in a combined 35-40 record with a 4.35 ERA. Considering teams usually use their ace in this way during the postseason, those results are not very encouraging.
The overall performance is just as bad when these pitchers are asked to go on short rest in elimination games: 9-18 with a 4.34 ERA. Only 20 of these 45 performances ended in a quality start and just nine pitchers went more than seven innings. The latest to do so was Clayton Kershaw in 2015, but before that it had been 10 years since the last seven-inning performance by a player pitching on no more than three days’ rest (Tim Hudson in 2005).
The average game score, a metric devised by Bill James to determine the strength of a pitcher in any particular baseball game, of these pitchers on short rest in all postseason games is 50.7, not too far from their regular season counterparts (48.4) in 2016. Both are much lower than the game score of 60 we would expect from a stud pitcher and would be considered a below-average performance this past season (53.4 average game score among starters qualifying for the ERA title).
Kershaw, who is the Game 1 starter against the Washington Nationals on Friday, is the exception and, if needed, might get another chance to pitch Game 4 of the National League Division Series on short rest, just as he has in each of the past three seasons. His 1-1 record aside, he has been extremely effective in these outings, striking out 23 batters with just four walks and a 1.89 ERA in addition to game scores of 67, 59, and 74.
Boston will go with Rick Porcello on the mound for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. A front runner for this year’s AL Cy Young award, Porcello has just one postseason outing on three days’ rest in his career as a member of the 2011 Detroit Tigers, a Game 4 loss after allowing two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. He did, however, pitch well, striking out out six batters without a walk or home run.
The Indians will give Trevor Bauer his first ever postseason start. And while Bauer has never started on three or fewer days’ rest in his career, he does have four relief appearances in that capacity, striking out 10 batters in 12 1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs and five walks.
“I think he relishes what’s ahead of him,” Indians Manager Terry Francona said.
The Nationals’ Max Scherzer has just one playoff start on three days’ rest — a six-inning loss to the Texas Rangers in Game 2 of the 2011 American League Championship Series when he was a member of the Tigers. He recorded a game score of 53 in that start, giving up two runs early before being replaced in the seventh inning after allowing a home run to Nelson Cruz. Scherzer has averaged a regular season game score of 64 in a Nats’ uniform since signing with the team as a free agent in 2015.
The Cubs will go with Jon Lester in Game 1 against the Giants. Lester has a strong case for the NL Cy Young but only one postseason game on short rest, a relief appearance for Boston during Game 4 of the 2007 ALCS against Cleveland.
Johnny Cueto gets the bump for the Giants, but doesn’t have any regular-season or postseason starts on short rest. Cole Hamels of the Texas Rangers doesn’t have any either, but he did appear in relief on short rest back in 2011 during a regular season game against the Atlanta Braves. He allowed two earned runs, four hits and a home run in three innings.