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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

How much rest does a 37-year-old need?

This World Series has become, among other things, Exhibit A in the argument about pitcher's rest. There are several vocal proponents (most notably, Nolan Ryan) of the four-man rotation, a conception founded on the assumption pitchers only need three days between starts. While that is certainly the case for some pitchers (C. C. Sabathia for one, probably Ryan himself), A. J. Burnett reminded us last night that it isn't universal.

This November Charlie Manuel and Joe Girardi have elected to take opposite paths with their rotations. Manuel went with a conventional four-man rotation, meaning that his obvious Ace, Cliff Lee, will get the ball only twice (both of the game the Phillies have won) and the pivotal Game 7, if it comes to that, will fall into the hands of either Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, or J. A. Happ, none of whom inspired a great deal of confidence in October. Girardi, on the other hand, asks his three horses - Sabathia, Burnett, and Andy Pettitte - to each go on short rest for their final start of the long season, with Sabathia slated to do it twice in a row, assuming we see a Game 7.

The Yankees are certainly still in the driver's seat with a three games to two advantage, but there was a significant momentum swing in yesterday's game when Burnett couldn't get through three innings in his second start, while a fully-rested Lee worked his way into the eighth. Now Yankee fans are faced with the recognition that Andy Pettitte didn't exactly dominate on full rest in Game 3, allowing two homers and four earned runs in six innings. And this time out, instead of getting a slumping, spiteful Cole Hamels, they get a fully rested Pedro Martinez, who pitched well enough at Yankee Stadium in Game 2 to quiet the "Who's your daddy?" douchebags (at least as much as any douchebag can be quieted). Somewhat surprisingly, the two 37-year-old potential Hall of Famers, who spent much of their careers pitching for American League rivals, have never matched up against each other in a postseason start. They've matched up six times during the regular season, with each picking up a win on three occasions. This will be a hell of a tiebreaker.

Andy Pettitte, of course, has an excellent reputation as a playoff pitcher, but his legend is as much about quantity as quality (17-9, 3.88 ERA, 161 K, 243 IP). Pettitte has started four playoff games on three days rest. Two went very well (8+ IP, 0 ER), one went very badly (3 IP, 5 ER), and one was modest, but inconclusive (6 IP, 4 ER). In the regularly season, on three days rest, he is 4-6 with a 4.15 ERA, significantly worse than his career averages. Perhaps most important, however, is that fact that he hasn't started a single game on three days rest since 2006 (with the Astros) and hasn't started a playoff game on three days rest since 2003. I think we would all concur that he's put a lot of mileage on his arm since then.

The same is true of Pedro, who, like Pettitte, is 37-years-old. But he has the benefit of his regular rest going into Game 6 and also hasn't put as much stress on his body over the course of 2009, since he didn't make his first start until August. His postseason record is about quality, not quantity (6-3, 3.22 ERA, 91 K, 92 IP). He has never gone less than six innings in a postseason start. Sure, he may still have some demons from Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, but he has never been the losing pitcher in the deciding game of a postseason series and the meltdown in the eighth inning of that game (which prompted the firing the Grady Little) overshadows the fact that Pedro owned the Yankees for the first seven innings.

Manuel's rotation would appear to have the advantage in Game 6, but one certainly has to give Sabathia the advantage in Game 7, right?

Yes, I do think that's right, but I am concerned about the build-up of innings C. C. is facing. Girardi did a great job of keeping The Big Sleep fresh in August and September, since the Yankees ran away with their division, but with a long postseason (in which he's pitched exceptionally well) he's now up to 267 innings on the season, a massive total no matter how durable the pitcher. When Sabathia melted down in the 2008 NLDS, it was after 253 innings (and four straight starts on three days rest). In the 2007 ALCS, his meltdown came after 248 innings. Anybody who has watched him over the years knows that when he doesn't have it, he profoundly doesn't have it (see 13.50 ERA in his first four starts of 2008 or 10.45 ERA in 2007 ALCS). I hate to root for an implosion from one of my very favorite pitchers, but if it gets to a Game 7 that's exactly what I'll be doing.

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