Dallas Keuchel was arguably the best pitcher in the American League in 2015, but his great stats go out in the window with the arrival of the MLB postseason. Keuchel is the latest starter to take the mound on short rest, and pitchers have mostly failed in playoffs past when veering off their regular routines. The gamble Houston and other playoff teams will make starting their pitchers on short rest could decide their fates this postseason.
According to stats from MLB.com, the numbers are largely stacked against starters who go on three days of rest or fewer in the wild-card era. Since 1995, 78 pitchers have started playoff games and turned in a 31-47 record with a 4.59 ERA. Considering each team was starting their money pitchers in these postseason games, that record and earned run average are mediocre at best.
The statistics are even scarier when discussing elimination games like the wild-card game Keuchel drew against the Yankees in New York. There have been 20 pitchers starting a do-or-die game in the modern era on short rest. Only seven of those 20 managed to post a quality start (at least 6.0 IP and 3 ER or fewer) and just two finished seven innings. Their team records are 10-10 in these winner-take-all scenarios.
In other words, teams like the Astros are facing a 50-50 chance when they pencil in the club’s best pitcher on short rest. Complicating things are the fact Dallas Keuchel has never started a game without his full four days of rest, and that’s before you take into account his performance at home in 2015 (15-0, 1.46 ERA) versus his numbers on the road (5-8, 3.72 ERA).
On the bright side for teams gambling on postseason starters, anything can happen in the postseason. There is absolutely no reason for Dallas Keuchel to feel he is at a disadvantage facing the Yankees. In two starts against New York, Keuchel did nothing but spin zeros against the Bronx Bombers: 2-0, 0.00 ERA, 16.0 IP, 9 H, 21 SO. Saying he dominated the Yankees would be an understatement, and one of those games was in the Bronx.
The best case scenario for MLB playoff teams would be to have starters do what C.C. Sabathia did in the 2009 postseason for the Yankees. Among the 23 pitchers who made their playoff starts on short rest since 2004, only Sabathia has turned in over seven innings while allowing two earned runs or fewer, according to MLB.com statistics. The Yankees won that game 10-1 over the Angels en route to the 2009 ALCS win.
(With news Sabathia will miss the 2015 postseason while dealing with alcohol problems in a rehabilitation center, the Yankees will not have the chance to see a repeat of such heroics.)
Of course, how teams play on the road matters as well. In the case of the Houston Astros, they headed to New York with a 33-48 record. But the most important player on the team is the one toeing the rubber for his team. Recent MLB postseason history says that represents a huge gamble.