MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

Jake Arrieta Is the Right Choice for Game One

Yesterday, my colleague Matthew Trueblood laid out a compelling argument in support of Joe Maddon’s decision to start Jon Lester in Game One of the NLCS. The central argument he made in that piece was that Arrieta (and all modern pitchers) are more accustomed to a fifth day of rest, and that, because Arrieta would be on four days rest in Game One, Maddon should avoid “shoving Arrieta back into the rotation” for that game. This is an interesting thesis, and one that seems completly reasonable at first blush. However, as with any assertion, we must fully review the facts supporting the premise before drawing a conclusion.

Let’s make one thing clear, before we do: as talented as Lester is, Arrieta is the clear ace of this staff. If no advantage is gained by resting Arrieta an additional day, he should start over Lester on the strength of his pitching ability. Given that, the question then becomes: has Jake Arrieta been more successful this year on greater than four days rest than he has been with just four days rest? The answer is a pretty unequivocal no:

Arrieta on Four Days rest (Total, Average/Start):

Starts: 16, 1

Innings pitched: 114.2, 7.13

Earned Runs (Total, Average/Start, ERA): 13, 0.81, 1.02

Strikeouts: 116, 7.25

Walks: 18, 1.12

Jake Arrieta on >Four Days rest (Total, Average per Start):

Starts: 17, 1

Innings pitched: 114.1, 6.71

Earned Runs (Total, Average/Start, ERA): 32, 1.88, 2.51

Strikeouts: 120, 7.05

Walks: 28, 1.64

It’s clear that Arrieta is not your average human, and probably not even your average athlete. His training regimen and physique is elite, and the numbers above suggest that he may actually be better than usual with a more four-day schedule: he has allowed one full run fewer per start (even while throwing more innings per start) on four days rest than in all other starts. The most telling number here may be in his walk totals, as he allowed 0.52 fewer walks per start in his starts on short rest than in all others. Sure, there were moments in Game Three against the Cardinals where Arrieta looked tired. But this is the postseason—adrenaline will be pumping.

There are other arguments for starting Arrieta in Game Two: Trueblood points out the possibility that, if Arrieta were to start Game Two, the Cubs could lose the NLCS in five games while giving Arrieta just one start. That’s a reasonable point (although it’s clearly the worst-case scenario) and it’s worthy of consideration. Here’s my take: Doesn’t starting Arrieta in Game Two also increase the likelihood that Arrieta starts Game Six of the NLCS for the Cubs, on October 24th? If so, the earliest obvious start for Arrieta in the World Series (assuming the Cubs advance) is Game Three, on October 30th. That pushes his possible second start back to Game Seven, unless the Cubs wanted to bring him back on three days rest for Game Six. That’s not something I want to see.

In short, I think starting Arrieta in Game Two might measurably decrease the Cubs’ odds of winning the World Series. And while a trip to the World Series would be an unforgettable and momentous achievement for this young team, falling just short of the ultimate goal in doing so would still leave a sour taste in our mouths. The team may never have this clear of a path to a championship again. Is it really worth putting that on the line to avoid starting Arrieta on short rest in Game One? I don’t think so. With all respect to my colleague, the numbers don’t bear it out.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.

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