Giving a Questionable Start to Baseball’s Best Starter

There was speculation that, had the Dodgers lost Game 3 to the Braves, they would’ve asked Clayton Kershaw to start Game 4 on short rest in order to help the team avoid elimination. The Dodgers wound up clobbering the Braves in Game 3, moving a win away from the NLCS, and now they’ve asked Clayton Kershaw to start Game 4 on short rest anyway. The official announcement was made earlier Monday, with Kershaw figuratively taking the ball from would-be starter Ricky Nolasco.

Generally, something like this is a desperation decision, but clearly the Dodgers are a team that’s not desperate. They’ve got two chances to get rid of Atlanta, and they were guaranteed to have Kershaw get one of them. Now they’re lined up to give the starts to Kershaw and Zack Greinke, instead of Nolasco and Kershaw. That is, if a Game 5 is necessary. In making this decision, the Dodgers have demonstrated that they don’t want to see a Game 5 at all.

It’s surprising, for the two reasons: the Dodgers are ahead in the series, and Kershaw has never before started on short rest. But just because something is surprising doesn’t mean it’s wrong, so we might as well examine right quick. And the math breaks down kind of like this: how much better is Greinke than Nolasco? How much worse is short-rest Kershaw than regular-rest Kershaw?

Nolasco contributed three ugly starts for the Dodgers in September. They’re his most recent three starts, over which he allowed 19 runs in 12 innings. In Greinke’s September, he allowed seven runs in six starts. It’s evident who finished better, but it’s also evident that you can’t just make decisions on September statistics, and in a lot of ways Nolasco was Greinke’s equal over the course of the year.

The walks were more or less the same. The strikeouts were more or less the same. Nolasco allowed four more home runs, but he also threw 22 more innings. He’s got himself a long history of not quite pitching to his peripherals, but Greinke does, too. Unscientifically, I think it’s safe to say that Greinke is the better starter, especially right now, but we’re talking a matter of degrees. It’s hardly a big difference, although I suppose come playoff time you want to maximize all your percentages.

Really at issue is Kershaw on short rest. We can’t compare him to himself, because he’s never done this before. We do have a history of other starters going on short rest in the playoffs, so that’s going to have to do. Below, you’ll see statistics for two groups, in postseason play between 1995-2013. The first group is starters who went on three days’ rest. The second group is starters who didn’t. Understand that the first group should be selective for better arms, because you don’t put mediocre starters on short rest in October, or ever. Typically, it’s aces who go on three days’ rest, and the numbers are telling:

Short-rest group: 4.66 ERA, 5.13 RA
Other group: 3.99 ERA, 4.30 RA

On short rest, starters have faced fewer batters, on average. They’ve posted worse game scores, on average. And — maybe most importantly — teams with starters going on short rest have won 33 times and lost 52 times. Now, maybe these teams are worse, which is why they’re starting guys on short rest in the first place, but they’ve by and large given the ball to their aces, and the aces haven’t delivered like usual. For Don Mattingly, it’s easy to want to write Kershaw’s name in instead of Nolasco’s. But on short rest, Kershaw’s name doesn’t mean what it would ordinarily.

Kershaw prepared for this start over the weekend, just in case he was called upon. He’s been selected as being capable of doing this by his own manager. But that doesn’t make him any different from the other short-rest guys — they all prepared, presumably, and they were all also selected. Sometimes, it’s worked out, but you can’t look at some numbers and ignore the others. Overall, it’s been a poor gamble.

Of course, there are success stories. CC Sabathia was good on short rest in 2009. But, he was bad on short rest in 2008. Curt Schilling was good in 2001. Kevin Brown was good in 1998. Brown was bad in 2004. Roger Clemens was bad in 2000. Tim Hudson‘s been good once and bad once. Tim Lincecum’s been bad twice. The point has probably been established by now — by no means is it guaranteed that Kershaw will struggle, but he probably won’t be himself at 100%. Kershaw at, say, 90% is still excellent, but he’s less excellent, and this way he’s not available for any potential Game 5.

And there’s the additional factor of what this could mean the rest of the way, should the Dodgers advance. Kershaw’s never thrown this many innings before, and on Twitter, Brandon McCarthy advanced the argument that fatigue could start building due to Kershaw going to work before he’s totally recovered from his last outing. From where I sit, this is just about unprovable, but there’s the possibility that Kershaw could be a little worse over the rest of October because of a start on short rest today. Which, naturally, would be worse news for the Dodgers. But they’re pretty sure he can handle it, otherwise he wouldn’t be asked to handle it.

By starting Kershaw instead of Nolasco on Monday, the Dodgers are increasing their odds of winning Game 4 and moving on. By lining up Greinke to pitch the next one instead of Kershaw, the Dodgers are decreasing their odds of winning a potential Game 5. It’s impossible to say whether the numbers balance out, or come out putting the Dodgers ahead. It’s easy to say that lots of teams have believed in starters on short rest in the playoffs before, and those starters, as a group, haven’t pitched like themselves. This is an unexpected and unusual gamble.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

I practically had a meltdown during the 2011 WS game 7 when Chris Carpenter started on short rest (I was in attendance). I was well aware of the risks and was constantly afraid he was going to lose it. In the end, he had one of those ‘gut it out’ starts, hardly ace-level pitching but didn’t do too badly and of course we won. Still, I’m not convinced it was the right decision then and I definitely don’t think it’s the right decision for the Dodgers now.