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Impact of JV's short start on Astros' rotation

Greinke, Verlander would be in line for first two games if Houston reaches ALCS
@castrovince
October 9, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- A decision can be right and still go wrong. Let’s be clear on that from the start. If you were AJ Hinch and the Astros, would you have started Justin Verlander on short rest over Jose Urquidy in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against

ST. PETERSBURG -- A decision can be right and still go wrong. Let’s be clear on that from the start. If you were AJ Hinch and the Astros, would you have started Justin Verlander on short rest over Jose Urquidy in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Rays knowing that in a worst-case scenario, you still have a fully rested Gerrit Cole available for Game 5?

C’mon, of course you would.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 4 HOU 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 5 HOU 3, TB 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 7 TB 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 8 TB 4, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 10 HOU 6, TB 1 Watch

“If I have to do it again, I’d put Justin there, as well,” second baseman José Altuve said. “He’s our boy.”

Verlander refuses to pin rough start on short rest

But the move didn’t work, plain and simple. Verlander had the shortest non-Mother Nature-related start of his postseason career in the Astros’ 4-1 loss Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. And that does have ramifications on the rest of Houston’s October pitching plans, should Cole do as intended in Game 5 on Thursday night and pitch the Astros into the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.

The Astros, however, have a game to win first, and the Rays have proven themselves to be anything but an easy out. But let’s say Houston does advance. Unless the Astros do the short-rest trick again, using a fourth starter -- we’ll assume Urquidy here -- in the ALCS was always going to be unavoidable.

The good news is the ALDS going to a Game 5 doesn’t prevent the Astros from using Cole, Verlander and Zack Greinke twice apiece in the ALCS. Though what it would do is prevent Houston from front-loading those two Cole starts. Instead of a full-rest pitching plan that would look like this:

Game 1: Cole
Game 2: Verlander
Game 3: Greinke
Game 4: Urquidy
Game 5: Cole
Game 6: Verlander
Game 7: Greinke

It would look like this:

Game 1: Greinke
Game 2: Verlander
Game 3: Cole
Game 4: Urquidy
Game 5: Greinke
Game 6: Verlander
Game 7: Cole

Given the incredible roll Cole is on right now -- he went 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA and a .537 opponents’ OPS in his final 22 starts of the regular season, then he threw 7 2/3 scoreless with 15 strikeouts and just one walk in Game 2 of this ALDS -- you’d much prefer to get him the ball early and often in that best-of-seven series. Because if he pitches Game 5, he’s still potentially available in relief if there’s a do-or-die Game 7.

We’ve crunched the numbers and determined that three Cole opportunities is preferable to two.

“He’s been on one of the most incredible runs I’ve ever seen and the baseball world’s ever seen,” Verlander said. “I think if you could name a starting pitcher in all of baseball that you want on the mound, it’s him.”

But contrary to what we witnessed in Game 3, when Greinke’s changeup was flat and an unplanned Home Run Derby broke out at the Trop, it’s not as if Greinke in Games 1 and 5 is a terrible option -- he had a 2.13 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP in 12 2/3 innings across two starts against the Yankees this season. And there’s inherent value to having a rested Cole at the ready, should the ALCS go that seventh game.

Let’s take this a step further, though: What would happen if the ALCS went seven games and the Astros won? The ALCS starts a day later than the National League Championship Series, which means that even if both series go seven games, the AL team would have one fewer day of rest before the Fall Classic.

So instead of Houston's fully-rested World Series pitching plan after a seven-game ALCS looking like this:

Game 1: Cole
Game 2: Urquidy
Game 3: Verlander
Game 4: Greinke
Game 5: Cole
Game 6: Urquidy
Game 7: Verlander

It would look like this:

Game 1: Greinke
Game 2: Urquidy
Game 3: Verlander
Game 4: Cole
Game 5: Greinke
Game 6: Urquidy
Game 7: Verlander

Note that with the off-day between Games 2 and 3, the Astros would have the option of flip-flopping Verlander and Cole in Games 3 and 4. So perhaps it would be Cole, not Verlander, lined up for Game 7. The point is you can’t get two starts out of both pitchers in the World Series in this scenario without bringing one back on short rest. And after Verlander’s ugly outing Tuesday, the math on short starts is rough -- a 30-45 record and a 4.63 ERA in 122 starts in the Wild Card era.

So that’s a bummer.

Verlander’s brief start on short rest Tuesday also forced Hinch to get 4 1/3 innings out of his bullpen, which certainly has some question marks at the moment. Notably, Will Harris, who is clearly the Astros’ most trustworthy reliever right now, pitched the eighth, and the Rays got some good looks and a couple good swings off him, although it's possible he still would have been summoned at some point even if Verlander had shoved. Maybe that helps Tampa Bay in Game 5.

Anyway, let’s be quite clear again: The Verlander short-rest decision had more than enough merit to pull the trigger, and Houston's Plan B is still plenty strong. A team can’t make decisions in one round that are weighted toward how it would impact them in the next. The baseball gods will bite you in the butt any time you try to look ahead.

But the unfortunate bottom line for the Astros is that Verlander on short rest didn’t work. Now it’s Cole or nothing in Game 5.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.