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Betting Starting Pitchers on Short Rest

In the 1968 World Series, Detroit Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich was asked to pitch in Game 7 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals on only two days rest. While Lolich later admitted he was almost out of gas, he pitched a complete game 4-1 victory over the Cardinals and ace Bob Gibson to give the Tigers the World Championship.

While there was – and still is – nothing unique about a player being asked to pitch in an important postseason game on short rest, Lolich’s was a somewhat rare case of a pitcher succeeding under those conditions. While the strategy is understandable, i.e., it enables managers to use their hottest or best pitcher in a potentially season-changing game, it often backfires.  If you know when then you can use it to make money with your MLB betting during the postseason.

Short Rest – Why Not?

Pitchers working on short rest was far more common decades ago when pitchers like Lolich regularly logged nearly 300 innings a year (or more) per season, and were often part of a three-man starting rotation – especially if a pennant race was involved. Complete games were the rule, not the exception.  But, things have changed and our baseball handicapping strategies need to adapt too.

But with the proliferation of multi-million dollar contracts, a greater understanding of arm injuries and why they happen, and many other factors, the number of innings a pitcher throws in a year has dramatically decreased. Four days rest between starts is the norm, and rookie pitchers are brought along carefully, and often adhere to strict pitch and inning counts as they work their way through the ranks.

All things considered, asking a modern MLB pitcher to start a game on less rest is to seriously disrupt their routine – and workload. And the consequences of a pitcher performing out of his routine can be less-than-stellar. Moreover, pitching on short rest is a new experience for MLB pitchers in most cases.

What Does Recent History Say?

A recent Bleacher Report study of pitchers starting on short rest in the postseason (from 2000-2013) suggests that it’s a strategy heavily-laden with risks. In 54 total postseason games, pitchers on short rest had a 4.80 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP while their team’s record in those games was 20-34. To go back even further, to 1995, short-rest starters had a 31-47 record with a 4.59 ERA. Not the kind of numbers that would fill me with confidence if I was a manager.

Interestingly, the same study showed that those who pitched on short rest often came back and performed well in their next start – if there was a “next” start to come back to.  So when you are handicapping starters in the postseason, it’s best to avoid ones on short rest.

But Should You Rely Strictly On The Numbers?

Not all short-rest starts are the same, however, as modern examples of pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Clayton Kershaw show. That said, there are many other factors that must be taken into consideration when evaluating the risk of betting on a pitcher with less-than-normal rest.

*It’s important to consider how the pitcher has performed against a certain opponent in the past, as well as the individual matchups he’ll face. If he’s had success against a certain team and hitters, that needs to be taken into consideration.

*If a pitcher is riding a hot streak, one less day of rest might not cool them off.

*The state of the team’s bullpen can also have an impact on what a starter on short rest is expected to do. If the relievers behind him have been used extensively in previous games, the starter might have to pitch further into the game and run the risk of losing steam altogether. As a manager, I would certainly feel a lot better if my starter the previous night pitched deep into the game and needed minimal assistance from the guys in the ‘pen.

*Another thing to consider when starting a pitcher on short rest also relates to the shape of the bullpen. That is, what’s going to be asked of him in his short-rest game? In some cases, the starting pitcher may bear a heavy burden of carrying a team on his back. In other cases, he may be needed to keep the game close while letting his team’s offense shoulder a heavier load. If the other team is starting its red-hot ace, more might be expected of the starter working on short rest. Again, knowing the matchups provides crucial information.

*How have the pitcher’s previous starts been? Did he cruise along with little or no trouble? Or, did he face a lot of high-pressure situations that might have taxed him mentally and physically? If he’s had to frequently pitch his way out of tough situations in close games he may be even more depleted when asked to pitch on short rest.

Again, the risk of starting a pitcher in the postseason can be like gambling on a new stock. The rewards might be great, but the potential downfalls could be even greater. It’s a short-term gamble that’s just that – a gamble.