When faced with a tough decision that seemingly had no great answers, Joe Girardi has decided to go with AJ Burnett as the Game 4 starting pitcher, whether the Yankees win or lose tonight against Cliff Lee.
The most popular alternative was to have CC Sabahtia pitch on short rest, taking Game 1, 4, and 7, but that wouldn’t have eliminated the need to have Burnett start unless they also asked Hughes and Petitte to pitch on short rest as well, and there are some legitimate problems with that. Hughes has never pitched on three days rest, and Pettitte has a pretty long list of arm problems in his background. Getting potentially reduced performance by both, not even factoring in Sabathia’s two starts on short rest, makes that idea unappetizing.
There are other options, however, and I’m a little bit surprised that they didn’t give those much consideration before settling on Burnett as the Game 4 starter.
Option 1 – Bullpen Game
Perhaps they’ll have a short enough leash with Burnett that this will end up being the final result anyway, but the bullpen game is an underutilized idea in the playoffs. Despite being inferior in talent level, relievers outperform starting pitchers because it is simply easier to get outs when only being asked to pitch one or two innings.
You could piece together a complete game using Dustin Moseley, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Kerry Wood, and Mariano Rivera, splitting up the innings so that no one throws more than 30-40 pitches and you get as many platoon advantages as you can. If the early game relievers get bombed and the game gets out of hand, you can just use Sergio Mitre to soak up the end-game innings and save your setup guys for Game 5.
Yes, you’d end up working your bullpen pretty hard and wouldn’t be in the best of shape for Game 5, but you have Sabathia going the next day and can expect him to pitch at least six innings and hope for seven or eight.
Option 2 – Start Burnett in Game 3
This essentially boils down to match-ups and attempting to leverage the most winnable games. With Cliff Lee going tonight, the Yankees are going to be underdogs no matter who takes the hill. They could have chosen to start Burnett against Lee in Game 3, lowering their chances of winning a game where they are already likely to lose, and then using Pettitte in Game 4. Rather than having a disadvantage on the mound in both Game 3 and Game 4, they could have consolidated their problems in tonight’s game in order to increase their odds of winning tomorrow’s.
The problem with this strategy is that the Game 3 starter is then on track to start Game 7, and they clearly don’t want Burnett pitching twice in the ALCS. They’d have to bring Pettitte back on short rest for Game 7, which is still not a great option. But with three days off after the ALCS ends before the start of the World Series, they’d theoretically have all hands on deck for that final game. Sabathia could be available for a couple of innings, as it would be his normal throw day, and they could simply ask Pettitte to throw fewer pitchers to compensate for the reduced rest.
I’m not sure that either of these options are clearly better than keeping everyone on their normal workloads and starting Burnett tomorrow night, but there are arguments to be made for considering them. If Burnett blows up and the Yankees find themselves down 3-1 on Wednesday, expect that decision to be the one that get second guessed all winter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.