When the ALCS kicks off in Arlington on Friday night, Texas won’t have their best player on the field. Because he carried the Rangers past the Rays last night, Cliff Lee won’t start again until Game 3 of the ALCS. Because he’s not comfortable going on three days rest, he’ll only get two starts if the series goes the full seven games. The natural assumption is that this is a big problem for Texas, and gives the Yankees a huge advantage. In reality, it doesn’t matter all that much.
To advance to the World Series, the Rangers have to win four games. Lee will get no more than two starts, so the Rangers need to come out on top in at least two games started by somebody else to win the series. That would be true no matter whether Lee started Games 1+5, 2+6, or 3+7.
Psychologically, I get why 1+5 seems better. He starts two of the first five games, so you’re more likely to get that second start out of your best pitcher. But, it doesn’t change the calculus, really. They still need to win two of the five games he doesn’t start – pitching him earlier in the series just changes the dates of the games they need to win.
Let’s look at this in practical terms.
If the Rangers win three games in the series, then it’s obviously irrelevant – their best three pitchers each took the hill twice.
If the Rangers win two games in the series and lose out in Game 6 with Lee only taking the hill once, it will seem like they were significantly disadvantaged by only throwing him a single time, but the reality is that they wouldn’t have won the series no matter what. If we assume the Game 6 loss in this scenario, having Lee pitch an extra time would have only served to push back the date of the presumed loss to Game 7. Winning to earn Lee another start comes with the same requirement as winning Game 7 after Lee gets you there – a couple of wins from someone else in the rotation.
That is the requirement for the Rangers to win the ALCS, regardless of the order they pitch in. The task is the same, either way.
The other argument I’ve heard is that having Lee go in Game 1 and Game 5 would allow him to pitch in relief in Game 7. While that is true, he can still come out of the bullpen as the Game 3/Game 7 starter – he’d just do it in Game 1 on Friday night instead.
He pitched on Tuesday, and starts again on Monday. Friday is a natural throw day for him between starts, where he’d have had two days off to recover and another two days before his first ALCS start. In fact, it’s the exact same situation they would have faced when using him in relief in Game 7, where he’d be throwing with two days off after his prior start.
Whether its start in Games 1 and 5 and relieve in Game 7 or relieve in Game 1 and start Games 3 and 7, the overall effect is essentially the same. Having their rotation jumbled won’t present a significant disadvantage to winning the series. It just moves their must win games up by a few days.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.