The Dodgers, of course, announced that they’re going with Kershaw today. But I’d still have gone the other way.
It’s becoming an October tradition; as the Dodgers head into game four of the NLDS, they are considering whether to bring back Clayton Kershaw on three days rest. As I sat down to talk about their decision on who to pitch today, I realized this is the third time in four years we’ve written this same post.
Back in 2013, Jeff Sullivan wrote about the decision between starting Kershaw or Ricky Nolasco. In 2014, Jeff again wrote about the call to pick Kershaw over Dan Haren. Last year, apparently we got distracted by Chase Utley’s slide or something, because we didn’t appear to write about the Dodgers using Kershaw in game four of the series against the Mets, but that happened too; the Dodgers have thrown Kershaw in games one and four of the division series three straight years, bringing him back on three days rest each time.
This year, though, I think they should do it differently. I think they should start Julio Urias today.
Yes, the Dodgers season is on the line today. They have to win this game in order to even have a chance to win on Thursday. They are shooting baseball’s equivalent of a one-and-one, needing to sink the first free throw to be given the second one.
But while today’s game is obviously critical, the fact remains that the Dodgers have to win their next two games or their season ends. Maximizing your chances of winning today, while hurting your chances of winning on Thursday, could actually lower the team’s chances of advancing to the NLCS, which should be the goal the Dodgers are focused on. Instead of looking at only what improves their odds of winning today, the Dodgers should be asking what gives them the best chance of winning their next two games.
Starting Kershaw today means you can’t start him in Thursday’s game five, when he would be pitching on full rest. In any scenario where the Dodgers advance, Kershaw will pitch one game, so the team’s decision involves whether they want a short-rest Kershaw or a full-rest Kershaw pitching one of the two games. While Kershaw has pitched well in these scenarios before, the reality remains that history shows that pitchers are less effective on short rest than they are on full rest. We’ll just quote Sullivan’s first pieces on the issue showing the data.
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.
Kershaw has, thus far, performed well on short rest, posting a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings when asked to take the hill in game four, but of course we don’t have a baseline to compare it to; it’s possible he would have pitched even better on full rest, perhaps going more than the six innings he lasted in those short-rest starts in 2013 and 2014. In those games, after all, he’s only throw 91, 94, and 102 pitches; the Dodgers limited his workload in short rest starts, which likely wouldn’t be the case in a normal-rest game five.
But there’s a bigger consideration here, and a change that makes this year different than the others. Because of Saturday’s rainout in Washington, Rich Hill didn’t pitch until Sunday, and so starting Kershaw on short rest today does not give them the opportunity to bring back their #2 starter on full rest as they have done in the past. If they start Kershaw on short rest today, they’re essentially also committing to starting Hill on short rest in game five, and doubling down on the three-days-rest gambit.
Last year, starting Kershaw on short rest meant that they got a full-rest Zack Greinke in game five, so by taking a lesser version of Kershaw between the final two games, they got to start Greinke instead of Alex Wood. That’s a significant benefit, and a legitimate reason to take the reduced version of Kershaw even when you have two games to win.
This year, the Dodgers don’t have that benefit. Rich Hill, as good as he has been this year, isn’t that much better than Julio Urias.
The big difference in ERA between them was driven by BABIP, and there’s no real reason to think Urias’ true-talent BABIP is up near .360. If you had to choose a full-rest Hill or a full-rest Urias, you’d definitely take Hill, but that’s not the choice here; the Dodgers have to decide whether they want a full-rest Urias or a short-rest Hill as their reward for taking a short-rest Kershaw over a full-rest Kershaw.
And to me, that just doesn’t seem worth it. Maybe starting Kershaw ups your odds of winning today by a few points, but unless you think a short-rest Hill is dramatically better than a full-rest Urias, you have to think it drops the team’s chances of winning game five by an even larger amount. And the Dodgers have to win both games, so if you lower your odds of winning game five more than you raise them of winning game four, you’re effectively lowering your chances of winning the series. And just to pile on, if you start Kershaw and Hill in the next two games, then neither would be be available to start the first game of the NLCS on Saturday on full rest, so you’d be lowering your odds of winning that series too.
If you start Urias today, you get a full-rest Kershaw on Thursday, and a full-rest Hill in the first game of the NLCS, if you get there. Sure, you have to win today to get those rewards, but there are real benefits of starting the youngster today. Given the alternatives, I don’t see the same benefits to starting Kershaw. There’s no full-rest Greinke around as a benefit this year, and Urias is likely to give you a better performance this year than Alex Wood a year ago.
While we can agree that the Dodgers have to win today in order to get to Thursday, I think the team’s best chances of winning the next two are to get a full-rest Kershaw in the fifth game of the series. And that means you start the 20-year-old Urias today.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.