The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is too much rest before the World Series a bad thing? The Nationals are about to find out.

Stephen Strasburg smiles during Game 3 of the NLCS. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Washington’s four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series gave the Nationals six full days off before the franchise begins play in its first World Series. The American League champion Houston Astros, meanwhile, will have just two full days off. Some fans and analysts have asked whether Washington’s sprint through the NLCS actually offers too much of a layoff, and recent history backs up their trepidation.

Since Major League Baseball went through a realignment in 1994 and the playoffs expanded to three division winners plus a wild card in each league, the World Series team that entered with more rest has a 12-12 record in the championship series. In 2012, MLB added a second wild-card team to each league. Since then, the World Series team with more rest has posted a 1-6 record, with the lone victory coming last season when the Boston Red Sox, after five days off, defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had a three-day break.

10 plays that pushed the Nationals to the World Series

Before that, the team with fewer days of rest had won nine straight titles. Teams with six or more days of rest are 6-7 since 1994 and 0-4 in the double wild-card era.

“Baseball players are such creatures of habit. We’d rather play every day than get some days off. There is no doubt those days off hurt us,” Sean Casey, a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers during their 2006 World Series run and current broadcaster and commentator for MLB Network, said in a telephone interview this week. The Tigers had a seven-day break before the World Series that season and lost to the Cardinals, who had just a pair of days off.

Should the Nats be concerned? To be fair, Washington’s rotation is more talented than those from the previous four teams that enjoyed at least six days of pre-World Series rest. Washington’s starters struck out a higher percentage of batters than their well-rested predecessors (even after controlling for era, league and park effects); allowed a lower rate of hard-hit balls (again, adjusted for era); and were worth more wins above replacement collectively during the regular season. In addition, Washington’s starters allowed 71 fewer runs than expected given the men on base and outs remaining in the inning at the time of the at-bat (known as RE24) — a significantly greater savings than any of the previous four well-rested pitching staffs.

World Series team with six or more days rest
Wins above replacement
Strikeout rate
Hard-hit rate
2012 Tigers
14 percent (28 percent lower than the league average)
33 percent (13 percent higher than the league average)
2014 Royals
17 percent (14 percent lower)
29 percent (1 percent lower)
2015 Mets
22 percent (4 percent higher)
27 percent (7 percent lower)
2016 Indians
23 percent (8 percent higher)
33 percent (4 percent higher)
2019 Nationals
26 percent (12 percent higher)
33 percent (13 percent lower)

For a team loaded with veterans, Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton thinks the extra rest could be a blessing.

“We’re going to stay locked in. We’re going to make sure we get our time off, get our guys in line,” Eaton told 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday. “We got an older group. The older guys don’t recover nearly as fast as some of the young bucks do, so we are going to take this time and use it to our advantage.”

The first advantage of the time off? Setting the pitching rotation precisely how you want it. The American League representative could be scrambling to set its rotation for the World Series, but Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo, during his weekly radio segment with The Junkies on 106.7 The Fan, said he expects Max Scherzer to start in Tuesday’s Game 1 of the World Series and Stephen Strasburg to be on the mound in Game 2.

Scherzer allowed nine earned runs in 24⅔ innings (for a 3.28 ERA) with six or more days of rest in 2019, striking out 30 of 95 batters (32 percent). Hitters managed to bat just .193 with a .605 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him in those outings. That will play.

Strasburg, on the other hand, struggled with extra rest. In fact, the 30-year-old got progressively worse as his rest increased, with his ERA jumping from 2.59 on four days’ rest to 3.79 on five days’ rest to 5.09 with six or more days’ rest. Some of that is a sample size issue — Strasburg pitched just 23 innings this season on long rest — but the Nationals know better than anyone it doesn’t take much to derail a title run.

Patrick Corbin’s numbers provide no reason for concern. Like Scherzer, his performance improves with rest and his results are in stark contrast to Strasburg’s. Corbin had two starts with at least six days’ rest and he went 2-0, allowing four earned runs over 20 innings (1.80 ERA) and striking out 21 of 78 batters faced (27 percent).

Aníbal Sánchez was more difficult for batters in his well-rested starts, but the splits for him aren’t as noticeable as Scherzer’s or Corbin’s, although they do look solid compared to Strasburg’s.

Perhaps Washington fans should be worried more about the Nationals’ hitting coming off this six-day breather than the impressive pitching staff.

“As a hitter I play every day. I rely on rhythm and timing. I rely on routine,” Casey said. “A starting pitcher goes once every five days. He doesn’t mind a layoff, because he already has those four days off before he starts. For an everyday player, six or seven days off is a long time."

The four teams getting extra rest (six or more days) since 2012 batted a combined .223 with a .642 OPS in the first game of the World Series. And three of the four, the outlier being the 2016 Cleveland Indians, lost Game 1.

Read more:

What you need to know about 2019 World Series

Fourteen years after baseball’s return to D.C., the original Nats love what they’re seeing

The Nationals’ World Series roster strategy figures to be big on stars, not on subs

The Nationals are going to the World Series — and a city’s baseball scars have healed

Boswell: Off to the World Series, these Nationals have proved everyone wrong

How the Nationals celebrated Washington’s first World Series berth in 86 years

The last time Washington’s baseball team advanced to the World Series

Watch the Nationals’ soggy, sudsy and surprisingly Strasburgy NLCS celebration