Over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron weighs in on the “AJ Burnett in Game 4″ question. This is an issue that gets more play and interest than I would deem reasonable. I haven’t read a tenth of the hand-wringing over the Phillies’ decision to run with Blanton in Game 4 of the NLCS, but maybe I’m not looking in the right places. Since this is the Yankees, I suppose it’s to be expected. Regardless, rather than have Burnett start Game 4 Cameron proposes two ideas. The first is the “bullpen” game. Cameron says:
You could piece together a complete game using Ivan Nova, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, Royce Ring, David Robertson, Kerry Wood, and Mariano Rivera, splitting up the innings so that no one throws more than 30-40 pitches and you get as many platoon advantages as you can. If the early game relievers get bombed and the game gets out of hand, you can just use Sergio Mitre to soak up the end-game innings and save your setup guys for Game 5.
Yikes. Well for one, Ivan Nova and Royce Ring aren’t on the playoff roster. As such, it’s going to be very difficult to get them game action. Here is the list of possible relievers: Mitre, Moseley, Logan, Chamberlain, Robertson, Wood and Rivera. Aside from that, there are serious obstacles to the success of the bullpen game. Cameron recognizes at least one of them:
Yes, you’d end up working your bullpen pretty hard and wouldn’t be in the best of shape for Game 5, but you have Sabathia going the next day and can expect him to pitch at least six innings and hope for seven or eight.
Here is a list of questions I have about this idea. One, if the idea of having the bullpen pitch the game is to maximize platoon advantages, wouldn’t this advantage be reduced by having each reliever face more than 3 batters (i.e. pitch more than one inning)? In other words, if relievers pitch multiple innings, they’re likely to face batters from both sides of the plate. Secondly, if each good reliever is only going to pitch an inning and you’re going to attempt to maximize platoon advantage, this would leave 4 innings for Mitre and Moseley, who are at least of the same talent level as Burnett if not worse. Why not just put Burnett on a short leash? Thirdly, if you consider Mitre and Moseley to be a superior talent level to Burnett, why not have one of them start the game? Fourthly, is burning the bullpen really a great idea knowing that Sabathia may not pitch a complete game the following afternoon? Finally, is Game 4 of the ALCS the best time to try out this idea?
Altogether, one could probably make the case that having the bullpen start a game has merits. Right now, with this crew, with the high likelihood of important innings pitched by Mitre and Moseley, with the specter of a day game the following day, it’s probably not the time to try it out. But that’s not even the worst of it. The main problem is Option 2. Take it away, Dave:
This essentially boils down to match-ups and attempting to leverage the most winnable games. With Cliff Lee going tonight, the Yankees are going to be underdogs no matter who takes the hill. They could have chosen to start Burnett against Lee in Game 3, lowering their chances of winning a game where they are already likely to lose, and then using Pettitte in Game 4. Rather than having a disadvantage on the mound in both Game 3 and Game 4, they could have consolidated their problems in tonight’s game in order to increase their odds of winning tomorrow’s.
The problem with this strategy is that the Game 3 starter is then on track to start Game 7, and they clearly don’t want Burnett pitching twice in the ALCS. They’d have to bring Pettitte back on short rest for Game 7, which is still not a great option. However, with three days off after the ALCS ends before the start of the World Series, they’d theoretically have all hands on deck for that final game. Sabathia could be available for a couple of innings, as it would be his normal throw day, and they could simply ask Pettitte to throw fewer pitchers to compensate for the reduced rest.
The problem with this strategy is not that Burnett would be on track to start Game 7. The problem with this strategy is that punting a playoff game because the opposing pitcher is really good is a bad idea. Option 2 is merely a regurgitation of the “the Yankees should punt Game 3″ line of thinking. Do we really need to rehash why this is a bad idea? Apparently so. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Cliff Lee is not unbeatable; Andy Pettitte is a good pitcher; the Yankees have a good offense; the Yankees have a great bullpen; if Pettitte keeps the team close and the Yankees grind out a run or two, this could very well be a game decided in the later innings. I’m sure I’m missing more. The wider point though is that a Game 3 loss for the Yankees is not a fait accompli. Treating it such, and managing the roster accordingly, is unwise.
I have a great deal of respect for the work done at Fangraphs and the work done by Dave Cameron. Frankly, though, I’m surprised to a writer and thinker of his caliber deal in this line of reasoning. Cameron concludes his piece in this manner:
I’m not sure that either of these options are clearly better than keeping everyone on their normal workloads and starting Burnett tomorrow night, but there are arguments to be made for considering them. If Burnett blows up and the Rangers (sic) find themselves down 3-1 on Wednesday, expect that decision to be the one that get second guessed all winter.
If the Yankees lose to Lee and if Burnett loses to the equally-bad Tommy Hunter (who apparently doesn’t merit a mention), the decision may indeed get second-guessed all winter. However, it won’t be because the team failed to run with either of Cameron’s two options. Fairly or unfairly, it will be about the reliance on Vazquez and Burnett and the failure to acquire another starting pitcher in July or August. Lee could dominate the Yankees in Game 3 and Burnett could blow up in Game 4, and the Yankees could find themselves in a huge hole. But burning out the bullpen and giving important innings to Mitre and Moseley, or simply punting Game 3, is not the way to go.
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