How To Lose The American League Championship Series
When Terry Francona managed the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series, his greatest contribution came two years ago this Friday. Down two games to one to the Indians in the ALCS and facing a fifth game in Cleveland, Francona resisted the temptation to start Josh Beckett on three days’ rest and instead stuck to his plan, and Game Four starter Tim Wakefield. Wakefield got lit up like Christmas, and much of Boston was ready for a new manager for their Nine. And then the Sox, buoyed by Beckett’s five-hitter over eight (with eleven strikeouts), won Game Five, and ran the table right through the World Series sweep of Colorado.
And yet Joe Girardi is mulling starting CC Sabathia on short rest in Game Four in Anaheim, then coming back with him on full rest for Game Seven. It is mighty tempting with a horse like Sabathia – as it was tempting for Francona two years ago. And the record book warns Girardi to dismiss the idea despite its obvious siren-like call, and its additional charms (like being able to keep Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen, and Chad Gaudin off the line-up card).
Like all men, Bobby Cox, who by rights should be elected to the Hall of Fame next winter if he goes through with his plan to retire after next season, has had one Achilles Heel that he’s never overcome. Coxy has always been convinced that when all the chips were on the table his starters could do the job on three days’ rest, even as the statistics accumulated, proving they could not.
During Atlanta’s unprecedented, probably unmatchable playoff run of 1991 through 2005, Cox tried the short-rest thing nineteen times. The Braves lost thirteen of those games.
Every defeat has a thousand parents, but at minimum, starting a pitcher prematurely is a very heavy straw meeting a very weak camel. More over, all Cox’s successes came before 1995, when Steve Avery and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were all young and elastic. Cox would go on to try it six more times between 1996 and 2005, and the Braves didn’t win even one of the games. Tim Hudson couldn’t do it, nor Kevin Millwood, nor Greg Maddux, nor Smoltz, nor Glavine – and Glavine tried, twice.
If those stats aren’t a bright enough white line, there’s one more. Cox did it nine times in the World Series, and the Braves won only three of those games. You might get away with it – Beckett did once – but eventually the odds start mounting, and sooner or later it will cost you the playoff series, or the whole ball of wax.
Girardi can point, seemingly with confidence, to Sabathia and say that his personal track record is far more relevant than what Steve Avery did or didn’t do a generation ago. CC’s last three regular season starts of 2008 were each on short rest and all he did was go 2-1 (and give up just one earned run in the loss) and pitch the Brewers into the playoffs. The snag, of course, was that they decided to go to the well again in Game Two of those playoffs against Phillies – Sabathia’s fourth consecutive start on three days’ rest. And by the time Dale Sveum had to come get him with two outs in the fourth, he was out of gas, and the Brewers were essentially out of the post-season. His line was as bad as imaginable:
Milwaukee Brewers IP H R ER BB SO HR BFP
Sabathia L(0-1) 3.2 6 5 5 4 5 1 21
Would he necessarily repeat that in Game Four against the Angels? Nope, not necessarily. But what might the impact be on his Game Seven start? And what if there was no need for one, and Girardi was then faced with the scenario of opening the World Series with him, again bringing him back in Game Four on short rest, with the dream of having him ready for Game Seven?
The more often you try it, the less likely it is to keep working. The last month of 2008 might as well have been the post-season for the Brewers and Sabathia. The first three times, he either won, or pitched well enough to win. Then the fourth time, everything ended. Game Four of the ALCS will effectively be attempt Number Five. There could be a sixth in the Series.
The Braves’ fifteen-year record was six wins and thirteen losses. At one point, it was six wins and seven losses. The time of Lew Burdette shutting out the Yankees twice in four days is more than half a century ago. It might as well have happened before the invention of electricity. CC Sabathia on three days’ rest – a dramatic, romantic concept. And a recipe for dramatic, decisive failure.
How can these managers fail to grasp the obvious fact that someone who’s tired and sore isn’t going to pitch as well as someone who’s well-rested?
As the old saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Sigh.
Keith, it’s great to have you back in the spotlight again! i’m enjoying your sunday night work, mucho! and this blog, too!
But, on this point, I believe your historical analysis is missing some crucial points. CC ain’t Clemens in his twilight! He’s a horse who’s underpitched this year. Furthermore, he’ll be going on 8 days rest and then if needed he’ll come back on full rest. I think it’s a great idea…mainly because it’s CC and he’s just the big strong back we can rely on! If it works, do it in the Series, too.
I’m having a hard time seeing how Sabathia’s performance last season is an argument against starting him on three days rest. It’s obviously an argument against starting him on three days rest for four straight starts, but that’s a whole other level of insanity from what Girardi is considering.
Nice article KO but in the 2003 NLDS against the Cubs Russ Ortiz started Game 1 on Sept. 30. After three days rest, Ortiz started Game 4 on Oct. 4 and actually got the win.
Of course Mike Hampton started Game 5 on three days rest the following day and lost.
I have an issue with people looking at Sabathia and thinking he’s invincible! Yes, he’s like 260 lbs at least but that doesn’t mean he can’t wear down. 230 INNINGS!!! That doesn’t sound like a light workload to me! Also, apparently Gaudin, who would be the Yanks’ #4 choice (or Joba) has good numbers against the Angels. I just think these managers need to manage for the long-term. It depends on the series. If the Yanks are up 3-0, wouldn’t Girardi manage differently than if it is 1-2 Angels? Of course. Or at least he should.
By the way, I also work for Steiner Sports and we have some great Sabathia stuff for people and all other teams as well. Check it out at: http://www.steinersports.com/baseball/new-york-yankees.
We’ll see what happens. I like the Angels after watching them dispose of the Sox. It really comes down to Torii in the middle of the lineup and whether he can be a scare.
Years ago, Thomas Boswell, the great baseball writer for the once-great Washington Post, commented that if you send Roy Smalley up to pinch-hit against Ron Guidry, you shouldn’t be surprised when Smalley doesn’t get a hit. Well, it’s the same principle here. If a manager asks someone to do something he just is not cut out to do, it is unlikely to work.
The problem really goes all the way back to Little League and how they come up through the ranks. Whether they are being babied or not, once you have been treated that way, it’s hard to change just when the playoffs arrive.
Nice write-up, Keith. My nurse intuition agrees with your summation of using players before they are fully rested. Our culture of “win at any cost” sports-mentality has done more than just damaged our bodies; it has damaged our collective psyche!
Excellent analysis Mr. Olbermann, but you got the quote backwards. President Kennedy said, if memory serves in reference to the Bay of Pigs, that, “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”
All the best. Keep up the good work here and on Countdown.
/s/ P.C. Mackin, Cleveland Oh
Is Girardi basically just throwing everything into getting into the World Series thinking that once there home field advantage will somehow carry the Yankees to the championship?
It seems a desperate move, and one that, even with CC’s talent, perhaps shows he doesn’t trust his entire pitching staff.
I still think this is going to be an Angels-Philles World Series with the Phillies winning in 6.
Hall of Fame manager dick williams lost a world series for the 1967 Red Sox with the short rest technique, starting Jim Lonborg in Game 7 on two days rest when the bull pen guys noticed he “couldn’t break a pane of glass,” even though he had a well-rested Lee Stange (who Williams had planned to trust with a start if the season came down to an American League playoff game if Detroit had managed a split with California on the final day of that epic season) and a bullpen that could have gone by committee. Lonborg got torched for seven against Bob Gibson (and the bull pen came in with three scoreless innings after he departed)
i agree with you about 3 days rest but Number 1 the Yanks really do not have a better choice. C.C. is a different animal and he had a lot more rest in September and is really ready.
I am sure he will pitch on 3 days rest if they get in the World Series but I doubt AJ will.