5 short-rest lessons for Keuchel to live by
Astros ace Dallas Keuchel has seemingly done it all on the mound this season.
A front-runner for the American League Cy Young Award, Keuchel was the AL's only 20-game winner, while setting career highs in both innings pitched (232) and strikeouts (216). Thus, it's no surprise that -- despite never having pitched on short rest -- Keuchel will get the call on three days' rest for Houston's showdown against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, tonight at 7 CT on ESPN.
Though it's the first time a pitcher will start the Wild Card Game on short rest, it's far from an unprecedented move in postseason play. Plenty of teams have turned to their ace on short rest in key postseason contests over the past two decades, albeit with mixed results.
As Keuchel prepares to make his first career start on short rest, here's a look at five lessons to be learned from the previous pitchers who have tackled the challenge during the Wild Card era.
Note: The data in this piece considers only pitchers who started on short rest after making a start. In other words, an outing such as Yordano Ventura's start on two-days' rest in Game 2 of the ALCS last year after making a relief appearance that lasted just one-third of an inning was not considered.
Ignore the data: First and foremost, Keuchel needs to block out the recent short-rest postseason performances from his counterparts. Since the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995, 78 pitchers have made a start on short rest following another start. Those 78 pitchers have combined for a 4.59 ERA, while their clubs went just 31-47 in those contests.
Factoring in another element, only 20 pitchers have made a start on short rest in a winner-take-all postseason game, during the Wild Card era. The average game score for those pitchers is just 49.9 -- and not one has registered a game score higher than 68. As for pitchers starting a do-or-die postseason game after at least four days' rest during that same span, they have an average of 52.8, while 13 of the 66 have logged a game score higher than 68.
Focus on six: Based on those before him, Keuchel should set his sights on giving the Astros six strong innings before handing the game over to the bullpen. Though an ace may typically be expected to pitch deeper in such an important game, history suggests that even pitchers who have had impressive outings on short rest have rarely maintained it for more than six innings.
In fact, of the 23 pitchers to make a postseason start on short rest since 2004, only one -- CC Sabathia in Game 4 of the 2009 ALCS -- pitched at least seven innings and allowed two earned runs or fewer. Sabathia limited the Angels to just one run over eight innings in a 10-1 victory that moved the Yankees to within one win of a World Series berth.
As for those 20 pitchers to make a start on short rest in a winner-take-all game, only seven turned in even a quality start and just two -- Curt Schilling in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and Mark Mulder in Game 5 of the ALDS in 2002 -- completed seven innings. The teams using a starter on short rest in those sudden-death contests are an even 10-10.
Check Monument Park for blueprint: No pitcher has fared better on short rest during the Wild Card era than Andy Pettitte, whose No. 46 was retired earlier this season by the Yankees. Pettitte went 4-1 with a 3.07 ERA in six career postseason starts on short rest, including 3-0 with a miniscule 1.19 ERA in three World Series outings, two of which he pitched into the ninth inning.
Not only are Pettitte's four wins on short rest the most by any pitcher since 1995, but only two other pitchers, John Lackey and Greg Maddux, have even won multiple postseason starts on short rest during that span -- and neither has won more than two such outings.
Look at the glass half-full: Come tonight, the Astros will obviously either clinch a spot in the American League Division Series or be eliminated by the Yankees. Since 2007, three pitchers have started on short rest with the chance to close out a series. That trio -- Clayton Kershaw (2013), Chris Carpenter (2011) and Pettitte (2009) -- is a combined 2-0 with a 2.54 ERA. On the flip side, during that same span, the five pitchers who have started on short rest hoping to avoid elimination are 1-3 with a 4.26 ERA -- and that lone victory came from Carpenter in a winner-take-all Game 7 in the 2011 World Series -- making his outing apply to both categories.
Get the first one: Though starters pitching on short rest have struggled overall, there are certain pitchers who have thrived under those circumstances. Consider that during the Wild Card era there are only six pitchers who have pitched multiple games within the same postseason on short rest. Those six -- Sabathia (2009), Schilling ('01), Kevin Brown (1998), Jaret Wright ('97), Mike Mussina ('97) and Pettitte ('96) -- are a combined 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in those short-rest outings.
Whether Keuchel will be one of those rare pitchers to maintain his ace-caliber form in his first career start on short rest remains to be seen. That said, if he can prove he's up to the task and lead the club to a victory tonight, it may be a sign that pitching on short rest is just another weapon in Keuchel's arsenal.