Early last month, probable National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy took the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks on three days of rest and was summarily pounded for eight runs over four innings, his worst start of the year, and just one more example as to why pitchers get four days off in between starts.
But in the playoffs, that pressure to have your best out there more often mounts, and the results can be disastrous. CAN be.
For instance, last week Joe Torre, facing elimination in the ALDS at the hands of the Indians, thought it might be a fine idea to bring back Chien-Ming Wang on three days of rest in Game 4. Wang lasted all of an inning, allowing five hits and four runs in Cleveland’s clincher. Of course, Wang allowed eight runs in his start just a few days earlier, so you have to wonder exactly what Torre was thinking in the first place on that one.
Way back in 1999, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams trotted Bret Saberhagen out to the hill at Jacobs Field, the site of a similarly brewing controversy of three days of rest today, and watched as the veteran was hammered to the tune of five runs in one inning (Cleveland starter Charles Nagy also went on three days rest and was hit for eight runs over three innings). Derek Lowe followed and gave up three runs over two innings, setting the stage for one the brightest shining moments of Pedro Martinez’s Red Sox career, his six innings of no-hit relief, throttling the Red Sox to the ALCS.
Those are among the bad, and are certainly among the many moments of proof that the Red Sox are studying when they weighed the decision not to toss ace Josh Beckett to the hill tonight on three days of rest. But the call really boils down to this: Since 1995, teams with pitchers going on three days rest in the playoffs are a combined 39-54. That’s the bottom line, and when it comes to crunching numbers, Theo Epstein and Bill James’s Red Sox are all about the mathematics.
Except for when they pitched Lowe on three days of rest in the 2003 ALDS and ALCS and again in the ’04 ALCS. Except for when Wakefield went on three days rest in the ’03 ALCS. Beckett? Why toss the ace when you’ve got the unpredictability of a knuckleball?
Down 2-1 in the ALCS to the Indians, Terry Francona has the media and fans down his throat trying to force the issue of replacing scheduled starter Wakefield with Beckett, who could still go in a potential Game 7 on normal rest if he pitched tonight. And really, the numbers are not nearly as bad as you might think.
Baseball Reference has put together a comprehensive list of all results since 1995 with pitchers going on three days of rest, and while the results are mixed, they are certainly not as concrete as the .419 winning percentage would suggest.
For instance, of those 54 losses, 17 came in which the pitcher allowed three or fewer runs to score. One of those losses was John Smoltz’s eight-inning, one run, zero earned affair against the Yankees in the 1996 World Series. In 1997, Mike Mussina got a no-decision by hurling eight innings of one-hit ball for the Orioles in the ALCS vs. Cleveland, a game the Indians won, 1-0. Curt Schilling was a similar victim in the ’01 World Series, pitching seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball, only to watch his effort go down in a 4-3 loss to New York.
In the World Series, there is one performance on three days rest that stands above all others. And it coincidentally belongs to one Josh Beckett (complete game, five-hit shutout vs. the Yankees in ’03).
It’s one thing to ask Schilling to go on three days of rest anymore, but Beckett is only 27, four years removed from his crowning professional achievement. What’s changed?
“Instead of playing for crusty old Jack McKeon, he pitches for a team that pays slavish attention to pitch counts and statistical data,” writes Foxsports.com’s Ken Rosenthal. “The issue is whether the entire sport has gotten too carried away with babying pitchers. And if the Sox lose this series because they were too careful with Josh Beckett, the argument will rage like never before.”
It is in fact a bit surprising that the Red Sox are so steadfast in their decision seeing that it doesn’t take a genius to dig a little deeper into the numbers. Of the 93 playoff pitchers who have gone on three days of rest in the postseason, 30 have an ERA of 2.00 or lower. Eleven have left the game with no earned runs on their resume. Only seven of those pitchers walked away with a W next to his name in the box score.
While the list includes dominant performances from the likes of Smoltz, Andy Pettitte, Mussina, and Beckett, it also has its fair share of forgotten wonders, guys like Chris Bosio, Denny Neagle, Mark Redman, and Tim Belcher, who are ruining the party for the rest of the guys who thrive with the ball on three days rest. Can you base the decision not to throw Beckett on what Todd Stottlemyre did in the 1996 NLCS? Call me nuts, but maybe a better barometer might be what Beckett himself did four years ago.
Bob Melvin declined to start Diamondbacks ace Brandon Webb on three days of rest last night, and has a four-game sweep at the hands of the Rockies to show for it. Not to say Webb might have been able to stop the steaming train that is the Rockies, but Arizona will never know now.
For the Red Sox, it’s a completely different situation. Somebody, anybody, else is going to have to win a playoff game other than Beckett, but by pitching him tonight, you not only give yourself an upgrade over Wakefield -- who hasn’t pitched since September (a month in which he had an ERA of 8.76) -- you also get him for Game 7 on regular days off.
But then who pitches Game 1 of the World Series?
The Red Sox have been looking ahead for the better part of 60 days or so, and it has resulted in uninspired baseball at times. It worked down the stretch, when regulars rested and the Yankees almost overtook that AL East title. It worked when they decided to throw Matsuzaka in Game 2 against the Angels, setting him up for a possible ALCS Game 1 start should things have gone five. Now they’re lining up Beckett and one has to wonder whether it’s all based on the records, or if it’s also so he can pitch Thursday night and then next Wednesday at home in Game 1 of the World Series.
You have to get there first, and right now the Red Sox would seem to be in a prime situation to have their ace on the hill in a potential Game 7 Sunday night. If Wakefield wins, they look brilliant. But if he doesn’t, the Sox are faced with Beckett on the mound in a 3-1 series deficit, and then the prospects of Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka going in Games 6 and 7. As long as we’re looking ahead, which would you rather have: the risk of an average performance from Beckett tonight or Matsuzaka on the hill in an all-or-nothing Game 7?
At the point of the season when heart and desire should matter the most, the Red Sox are saving perhaps their most fiery competitor because of what the stat sheet tells them. And while there is plenty to accomplish from such a process 162 days a year, this is no time to be basing such an important decision on what an inconclusive win-loss record has to say.