One of the points we’ve been hammering home really all postseason long is that starting pitchers tend to perform worse and worse as a game goes on. It’s far from a dramatic effect — a pitcher the third time around shouldn’t be expected to get completely and utterly bombed — but an effect is there, as pitchers make subsequent trips through the order. Starters become less effective, and so it becomes more and more important to put your trust in a fresh bullpen. It stands to reason part of the effect is pitchers getting a little fatigued. It stands to reason another part of the effect is hitters getting multiple looks at a guy. Hitters communicating with one another about what they’ve seen from a guy. The second and third time, the average hitter might be more prepared to punish the guy on the mound.
Let’s assume that it’s true that there’s a benefit to having already seen a guy once in a game. Maybe it’s not, but that would be quite the discovery. It doesn’t take much of a leap, then, to suggest there might be a benefit to having already seen a guy start in a series. Face a pitcher in one plate appearance, and you might be more prepared in the second plate appearance. Face a pitcher in three plate appearances, and you might be more prepared in the fourth through sixth plate appearances. It sounds sensible, meaning this works as a starting point. It doesn’t yet work as a conclusion.
I got curious about this. In Monday night’s Game 5 of the World Series, the Red Sox will start Jon Lester, and the Cardinals will start Adam Wainwright. It’s the same matchup we got in Game 1, and so I wonder if either team will benefit from the relative familiarity. Lester dominated with his cutter, and maybe now the Cardinals will have a better idea what to do with it. Wainwright didn’t dominate with anything, but now on top of that Boston’s had a bunch of looks. Acknowledging right here that no broader investigation necessarily means anything with regard to this one game in particular, I wanted to learn more about the World Series history of repeat starters.
I went back to 1969, which is my usual starting point given the changes to the mound and all. It’s somewhat arbitrary but it wasn’t selected for purposes of biasing the results. I also looked only at World Series, because I figured teams will be the least experienced against World Series opponents, even given free agency and trades and interleague play. I looked for pitchers who started at least two times in the same World Series. What this gave me was a sample of 152 starting pitchers, from Tom Seaver to Matt Harrison.
Below, a table, showing results from start no. 1, and results from start no. 2.
In all, we have pools of 152 starters and 900+ innings. I’d rather have samples of 9,000+ innings, but the samples here aren’t too small to learn from. On average, the second start has been a tiny bit shorter than the first start, by a fraction of one plate appearance. Strikeouts have been down in the second start, not insubstantially. But, walks have been down a little, too. As have home runs and hits on balls in play. The most important column is the RA/9 column, and that reveals a pretty big difference. Rather than hitters picking up an advantage, pitchers have been considerably more successful at preventing runs the second time they’ve faced a lineup in the World Series. That’s a drop in RA/9 of 9%. I don’t think that can be completely explained by managers going to the bullpen just a little earlier.
Something that could be a factor is the weather. Probably, it’s been a little colder for the average second start than the first, and colder conditions suppress offense. We’re talking about gaps of four or five or six days in October, and that could help explain the reduced hits and homers. But the general, overall point is this: if hitters get an advantage from having faced a starter one time already, we don’t seem to observe that. What we observe suggests the opposite, and that probably holds true even after you adjust for the weather and the slightly more aggressive bullpen usage.
You might be wondering about third starts within World Series. Unfortunately there’s not much to look at there. We have 31 runs allowed in 62.3 innings, but those are just 62.3 innings, mostly coming on short rest, which is a contributing factor. Most first and second starts have come on normal rest, allowing them to be more easily compared. That’s where we see run production drop off.
Why might things work this way? Well, off the top of my head, while hitters will adjust to the patterns they’ve seen, pitchers will adjust their patterns so as not to pitch identically. Pitchers might also have different pitches working the second time, and I think an important principle is that hitting is reactionary, while pitchers are in control. Hitters have to respond to what pitchers are doing, and if a pitcher senses that hitters are getting the best of him, the pitcher and catcher will change the approach. And as much as hitters might learn about pitchers from a start, it also works the other way around. Weaknesses might be revealed in start no. 1. Pitchers might anticipate how an offense will respond the next time.
What this means for Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester is: very little. They’re their own pitchers, facing unique lineups, and what happens will happen. A lot about the game has changed since 1969, so maybe the data shown here is of little value going forward. I don’t know. What I do know the numbers demonstrate is that there hasn’t been a historical advantage for hitters facing a starter in the World Series for a second time. Advantages within a game, absolutely. Advantages between games, not so much. Players are always making adjustments, and it’s hard to adjust to a player who’s adjusting.
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