Counterpoints to Starting Burnett tonight

Let me start by saying that I support the Yankees’ decision to start A.J. Burnett this evening. That was the plan, and the Yankees are sticking to it. The circumstances might seem dire, but the Yankees knew this scenario was a possibility. They also know that no matter how well or poorly Burnett pitches, they’ll play tomorrow and have their ace on the mound. That sounds a bit better than having Burnett pitching a potential elimination game.

Still, I can’t help but examine the other side of the issue. Going down 3-1 and having to face the Rangers’ three best pitchers doesn’t exactly seem like an ideal scenario. CC Sabathia undoubtedly gives the Yankees a better chance to even the series, so there has to be something to the argument that favors him taking the ball on short rest. Let’s examine that case.

This morning Craig Calcaterra laid out the argument for starting Burnett tonight. Within he makes two main points and one side point. The first is that starting Sabathia tonight would only delay the inevitable, since Burnett has to pitch in this series one way or another. The second is that Burnett matches up better against Tommy Hunter than he does against C.J. Wilson. The side point is that pitchers going on short rest generally have poorer numbers than their normally rested counterparts.

To counter:

1) Yes, Burnett will pitch in this series no matter what, but that doesn’t mean that pitching him in Game 4 is the same as pitching him in Game 5. In Game 4 the Yankees will either enter an elimination scenario or they will avoid it. No one wants to enter that elimination scenario, and so I can understand going to the ace in order to keep the team alive for at least two more games. If things go according to plan and Sabathia wins tonight, Burnett could still pitch the Yankees into an elimination game. But being down 3-2 is quite different than being down 3-1. Of course, CC is guaranteed nothing and could lose the game tonight. I’d still rather lose with my best on the mound than with my fourth best.

2) Burnett matches up well against Hunter, apparently, because Hunter is not only the least of the Rangers’ pitchers, but he has fared poorly against the Yankees. Yet we know that Hunter’s regular season performance against the Yankees means exactly zero right now. This is one game, and anything can happen. If we’ve learned anything from the endless previews for each playoff game, it’s that there is no way to get a good idea of what will happen based on past performance.

What we do know is that the Yankees’ offense has been horrible this series. Can we expect them to turn it around against Hunter? Maybe. Again, anything can happen in any given game. If the offense doesn’t show up I’d trust CC to hold down the Rangers far more than I would trust Burnett.

3) Looking at the data from the past five years, yes, pitchers throwing on three days’ rest fare worse than those throwing on four, five, or six-plus days. The problem is that those starts on three days’ rest count for just 1.2 percent of all starts. In addition, a number of those starts on three days’ rest don’t follow other starts. For example, Javier Vazquez has one start on three days’ rest this season; it came after he faced one batter in relief, which certainly calls into question some of the data.

For his part, Sabathia has been superb when pitching on three days’ rest. He has done it during the regular season four times in his career, accumulating 26.2 innings and allowing just seven runs, three earned. That also comes with 26 strikeouts to just six walks. In last year’s postseason he added another two starts and 14.2 innings with three days’ rest. His overall line:

41.1 IP, 28 H, 11 R, 7 ER, 11 BB, 37 K

The walks is the most interesting part. The overall numbers for pitchers going on three days’ rest indicates that control is the biggest problem. On four days’ rest pitchers have walked 7.8 percent of hitters. On three days’ rest they have walked 9.4 percent. I’m not sure how much of that is the noise of a comparatively small sample, but it does appear to be a significant difference. Home run rates do favor four days’ rest pitchers, but not nearly to the degree of walks. Strikeout rates are close. Sabathia’s walk rate on three days’ rest is 6.8 percent, while his rate on four days’ rest (not counting the postseason) is 7.1 percent.

How would the Yankees manage the rotation if they went with Sabathia on three days’ rest? That would push Burnett to Game 5, Phil Hughes to Game 6, and then either Andy Pettitte on normal rest or Sabathia on short rest in Game 7. I’d go with Pettitte, having Sabathia ready in the bullpen. It’s almost exactly the same as the current scenario, except Sabathia would have on extra day of rest for a relief appearance in a potential Game 7.

The overall point of using Sabathia tonight is to give the team the best chance of prolonging the series. No matter the match-up, Sabathia gives the team a better chance to win this evening. That means at least two more games. Since the Yankees are down two games to one, prolonging the series should be their foremost thought.

Again, I’m not sure if I buy this argument myself. I do think Burnett matches up best with Hunter, and I do trust Sabathia in an elimination game against Wilson. The Yankees have said that they’re not starting Sabathia on short rest, so I assume that they have reasons for not doing so. But there is certainly something to the argument for starting Sabathia tonight and Burnett tomorrow. Thankfully, in both scenarios there will be a tomorrow.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

17 Responses to “Counterpoints to Starting Burnett tonight”

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  1. Chops says:

    Counterpoint: He’s AJ Burnett.

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  2. TFINY says:

    9.4% instead of 94%.

    Also, what is the protocol about pointing out typos? I generally point out typos when they are numbers, and ignore them when they are a part of a word. What do you (author) and you (readers) prefer?

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    • My echo and bunnymen says:

      I’m going to assume most (if not all) of the fangraph writers happen to be more logical than sensible (more math than liberal arts… is the jest of it). If numbers have errors, it’s cool, and it’s easily corrected. For me words are almost always glanced over and completed in your mind anyways (spelling only matters so much). Hell, I do the same for words in Japanese.

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  3. bill says:

    Sabathia could probably pitch out of the bullpen in Game 7 for a few innings if he pitched Game 5, right?

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  4. “How would the Yankees manage the rotation if they went with Sabathia on three days’ rest? That would push Burnett to Game 5, Phil Hughes to Game 6, and then either Andy Pettitte on normal rest or Sabathia on short rest in Game 7.”

    Why would you think about pitching Hughes in Texas again? Why not use him for a few innings on short rest in game 5 with Burnett? Petitte on short rest in game 6 is much better option than Hughes, who was lit up in Game 2. At least IMHO.

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  5. MichaelCoughlin says:

    “If we’ve learned anything from the endless previews for each playoff game, it’s that there is no way to get a good idea of what will happen based on past performance.”

    So start Burnett.

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  6. ansburry says:

    Chops says:
    October 19, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Counterpoint: He’s AJ Burnett.

    point well made

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  7. Dudley says:

    looking at pitch values, burnett had one of the worst fastballs in MLB last season, but he still threw it almost 70% of the time. also according to pitch values, hamilton, cruz, and young absolutely destroy fastballs. look for things to get ugly with the middle of the texas lineup . . .

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  8. Erik says:

    “But being down 3-2 is quite different than being down 3-1.”

    Didn’t someone make the argument in one of the podcasts that the order of the starters shouldn’t matter (the topic at the time was Cliff Lee, but the idea is the same)? Being down 3-2 is different than being down 3-1 because you’ve played one more game. If you’re starting at 2-1, and you’ve got Sabathia and Burnett going in some order, don’t you have the same odds of reaching 3-2?

    The most convincing arguments for setting the order of the starters in this case seems to be 1) pitch Sabathia in game 4 so that he can pitch in some capacity in game 7 or 2) pitch Burnett against Hunter to minimize the disparity in the SP matchups. I don’t buy that the order matters unless it means that you’ll be eliminated before your better SPs have a chance to start as many games as possible. This is not the case in this situation.

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  9. Mike says:

    Read my blog over at Pinstripe Alley:

    You need a LARGE sample of short rest starts to see what kind of impact this has on a pitchers performance, so I looked at all of them since 1995. The difference isn’t that big:

    Short Rest FIP – 4.71 Full Rest FIP – 4.42
    Short Rest K/9 – 6.17 Full Rest K/9 – 6.63
    Short Rest BB/9 – 3.43 Full Rest BB/9 – 3.42

    Looking at the stats alone, the difference isn’t that big – roughly 5-7%. Is 93-95% of CC Sabathia better than 100% of AJ Burnett? Of course it is.

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    • Cliff Lee's Changeup says:

      Also its pretty clear that some pitchers are able to take the abuse and some aren’t. Its a more personalized issue then one that can be made on the weight of such general evidence. But I would argue that this supports your conclusion, CC is better prepared to win game 4 then AJ. Its just a question of what do you do in games 5-6-7

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  10. Bronnt says:

    I think you’ve got to go with the comfortbility factor.

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  11. NotDave says:

    Most important counterpoint: The umpires will ensure the Yankees win this important game, just as they did in game 1 and 2 of the ALDS. Cano’s “home run”…please.

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  12. pft says:

    The debate to pitch AJ or CC seems to be a straw man to me. The main question was whether AJ should have been used in game 3 and saving Pettitte for a game in which his odds of winning are higher. Instead of conceding game 3 and hoping for a miracle, they tried to win it and failed, and then were left to hope for a miracle that AJ would pitch better than his season average numbers in game 4, which he did until Girardi pulled a Grady Little imitation.

    CC did not really pitch well in game 1, so nobody can say how pitching on 3 days rest would effect him, especially as he had an extended bullpen session to work on some issues.

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    • phoenix says:

      i agree. i think that giving up game 3 by pitching burnett was preferable than wasting pettitte and giving up both games 3 and 4 by pitching burnett then. sure they always have a shot with pettitte and he pitched well, but against lee they had no chance it seemed from the very beginning. then they pitch burnett which is just asking for a loss, so why not pitch him in a game that they are likely to lose anyways? then pettitte can win them game 4 (which if you swap out pettitte’s start for burnett’s, would make the yankees winners). of couse the fallacy of predetermined results come in here, but still pettitte>burnett and lee>pettitte and pettitte>hunter and hunter>burnett. so then why not lose burnett vs lee and win pettite vs hunter? instead they just conceded both…

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  13. phoenix says:

    maybe this is stupid but how about this for a series rotation?

    game one: sabathia vs wilson
    game two: pettitte vs lewis
    game three: burnett vs lee
    game four: sabathia vs hunter
    game five: hughes vs wilson
    game six: pettitte vs lewis
    game seven: sabathia vs lee

    from the yankees standpoint it has to look better than what they did. i know its a moot point now, but what does anyone else think about this set up? games 1 and 4 definitely give advantage to the yanks, and they give up game 3, but games 2, 5, and 6 seem even enough or favor the yanks, and then you get sabathia in game 7. its two (semi)guaranteed wins against one (semi)guaranteed loss with 4 that can go either way. has to be better than giving up (semi)guaranteed losses in games 3, 4, and 7 right?

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