It seems like just about every day for the last fortnight one team or another has been playing a ‘must win’ game. Unsurprisingly this has meant teams shuffling rotations and, more surprisingly, trying to acquire Bruce Chen to give themselves the best possible chance of winning these key games.

One thing that has surprised me, is the number of commentators, fans and analysts who have been proposing teams hold off using their best starter in a potential elimination game in order to deploy them at a later date. I think the first example I saw of this was Joe Sheehan criticizing the Red Sox (subscription required) for bringing Jon Lester back on short rest to pitch game 162 against the Orioles, something I touched on in an earlier column. Sheehan’s argument seemed to be that winning that game would be meaningless if they then went on to lose their 163rd game against the Rays and missed the playoffs. While this is a true statement in and of itself, it completely overlooks the salient fact that the Red Sox stood a much better chance of there being a game 163 at all by finding a way to win against the Orioles.

A similar situation came up again recently when Danny Knobler defended the Tigers decision to hold off on moving Justin Verlander’s next start up from game 5 to game 4 after falling behind 2-0 to the Rangers. Knobler’s explanation was ‘if you’re down 3-0, you still need to win 4 straight and Verlander can only win one of those games’. Obviously after Doug Fister’s performance last night the Tigers have got themselves a foothold in the series and aren’t in a 3-0 hole after all, but I still believe this statement overlooks a similar salient point to the one missed by Sheehan. Yes, Verlander might only be able to win you one of those 4 hypothetical games, but all other things being equal, I’d want him winning game 4, otherwise games 5, 6 and 7 might not even happen.

Now I’ll gladly acknowledge that Knobler points out that Verlander might not be effective on short rest after throwing 82 pitches in a rain affected game 1, but the idea of holding pitchers off to pitch in games that might not happen because, hey, we still have to win those games eventually, is just illogical to me. Getting yourself into a position where those games actually get scheduled is far, far more important. If you have to throw you’re 5th starter out there in later games a result or even make it a bullpen game, that’s fine. In that situation you still have a chance to progress. But you have to go all out to get there. If you’re on the brink, every game is a game 7 and should be played as such.

There is one caveat I should point out and Knobler also covered to some extent. The issue of pitcher effectiveness on short rest has to be looked at and taken into account. If there is a risk of injury or lessened performance from your ace, you may well be better served by sending a less talented arm to the mound. This point was well expounded on by Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs yesterday where he laid out the various probabilities involved.

My point really comes down to my complete opposition to teams holding a pitcher back on the basis that there are future games that also need winning. This is no different to holding back your closer to pick up a save in an extra innings game rather than getting him in early to keep the game scoreless. That save opportunity might never come, just as those playoff games might never be scheduled.

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