Jon Lester Over Jake Arrieta as Cubs’ NLCS Game 1 Starter: The Right Call for a Reason

Jake Arrieta started on four days’ rest three straight times on three different occasions during the regular season. Until Monday night at Wrigley Field, though, he hadn’t done it four straight times since June 2012. Like most modern starting pitchers, Arrieta is accustomed to an extra day of rest at least every few turns through the rotation. In fact, like most modern starting pitchers, he’s almost more used to five days of rest. (He only made 16 of his 33 starts this season on four.)

In order to start Game One of the NLCS on Saturday night, though, Arrieta would have to stretch his streak of starts on regular rest to five. There’s no way of really knowing whether the relative lack of rest Arrieta got leading up to his start against the Cardinals contributed to his uneven (that’s really the best word; he still looked dominant and comfortable at times, but at others, he was way out of whack) showing in Game Three of the NLDS. It’s a safe bet, though, that a reset would help the right-hander manage his fatigue and feel stronger going down the stretch of the postseason.

The Cubs plan to give that to him. Pitching coach Chris Bosio said on ESPN Radio on Wednesday that Jon Lester is the likely starter for Game One of the NLCS. That surprised and upset some, but it’s the right move. Lester hasn’t pitched since his Game One performance against the Cardinals on Friday, meaning he’ll be on seven days’ rest come Saturday. That game in St. Louis came on eight days’ rest for Lester, who entered not having pitched since September 30th in Cincinnati. He’s had his chance to rest and build strength for the final fortnight of the season. Arrieta has had no such opportunity. By letting Lester take the ball for Game One, the Cubs would actually get Arrieta an extra day twice: he would pitch Game Two, and then Game 6, the latter coming on another five days’ rest (travel days sandwiched around the three games at Wrigley).

That would also put both of Arrieta’s starts on the road, if the second one became necessary. In truth, that might be the optimal way for any team to build their rotation—get your very best starter into two road games, where otherwise, you’d be very unlikely to be favorites to win. It would increase the likelihood that no second start would be necessary for him, which in turn would increase the likelihood that Arrieta could pitch Game One of the World Series, if the Cubs chose. (Of course, it also increases the likelihood of the Cubs’ season ending with a five-game series loss in which Arrieta pitches only once. Though a parenthetical here, that’s obviously the headline consideration in an argument for making Arrieta the Game One guy.)

David Ross will start whenever Lester does. If the Dodgers beat the Mets Thursday night, they’ll throw Brett Anderson at the Cubs in Game One. Anderson is left-handed, so Ross won’t hurt the Cubs as much by being in the lineup as he did when he was asked to face John Lackey in Game One of the NLDS. (This would also be true in Game Two, when Clayton Kershaw will start for LA, but that mostly underscores the extent to which Ross will be important in this series anyway, if the Dodgers do turn out to be the opponent.)

Lester first, Arrieta second is the championship-maximizing decision for the Cubs. It might seem risky and counterintuitive, but it’s the right call. The Cubs enter the NLCS supremely confident, regardless of their opponent, and to shove Arrieta back into the rotation in Game One would show an insecurity that simply isn’t in the organization’s DNA right now. Lester is a very, very good pitcher, and although Arrieta is better, taking the chance of slotting Lester in front of him is the right way to manage the roster, the schedule, and the egos involved. If Lester continues to be who he has been lately (five Game Scores of 64 or better in his last six outings, none worse than 48 since late August), this argument will feel silly, anyway.

Lead photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

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