Are the Indians making the right move starting Kluber on short rest in Game 4?
Cleveland's ace never has started on three days' rest in his career
TORONTO -- On Tuesday afternoon, the Indians will look to finish off an ALCS sweep of the Blue Jays and clinch their first pennant since 1997. The first three games have been very close -- one game was decided by one run, the other two by two runs -- and all have gone Cleveland's way.
The Indians will start ace right-hander Corey Kluber in Game 4 on Tuesday, and hey, when you have your ace on the mound in a potential clinching game, you're going to feel pretty good. I'm sure the Indians are. There's one small problem: Kluber will be starting on short rest for the first time in his career.
"If something happens with [Trevor] Bauer and we have a little bit of a malfunction in his finger -- not the drone, the finger -- then we would bring Kluber back tomorrow," Indians manager Terry Francona said before Monday's Game 3. "And then [Ryan] Merritt would pitch the next day."
Bauer indeed had a malfunction with his finger Monday night. He cut his pinky while fixing his drone over the weekend, and although the team stitched him up pretty good, it started bleeding profusely in the first inning of Game 3. The umpires couldn't let him continue, and Cleveland's bullpen had to throw 8 1/3 innings.
Kluber will start on short rest over Merritt on normal rest -- extra rest, really, since Merritt hasn't pitched in an official game since Sept. 30 -- because they trust Kluber to give them innings. The bullpen is taxed and they don't want to potentially compound the problem by starting the rookie in a hostile Rogers Centre.
Anytime a team uses a pitcher on short rest these days, I think it's fair to wonder whether it's the right move. It's easy to say this is smart because Kluber is so ridiculously good you want him on the mound in a potential clincher. However, his between-starts routine will be thrown out of whack and he may be fatigued.
To be honest, I'm not sure there's a right answer. I am generally pro use your best players as much as possible in the postseason, but the Indians do lead the series 3-0. They do have some wiggle room. Let's look at both sides of this argument.
Case for starting Kluber on short rest
Kluber is, unquestionably, the Indians' best starter. Especially with Carlos Carrasco (hand) and Danny Salazar (forearm) out because of injuries. Cleveland has a chance to end the ALCS, and if the Indians do, they'll have a full week to rest before the World Series. That gives Kluber and everyone else plenty of time to recover. That's huge.
Starting Kluber on short rest also means the Indians then could start him in a potential Game 7 on short rest as well. He's without a doubt the guy the Indians want on the mound in a winner-take-all situation. Starting Game 5 on normal rest means Kluber wouldn't be able to start Game 7, not unless they send him out there on two days' rest, and that ain't happening.
Of course, if this series winds up going seven, the Indians figure to have much bigger problems than Kluber on however many days of rest. They are up 3-0, after all. Game 7 means the Indians will have dropped three straight. They don't want that, but they do have to be prepared for it. Starting Kluber in Game 4 also sets him up to start Game 7, if necessary.
Case against starting Kluber on short rest
Like I said earlier, Kluber has never once started on short rest. He is very routine-oriented, more than most players. Starting on short rest throws off his routine and could cause him to lose effectiveness. That's not good, even with that 3-0 lead.
There's also the possibility Kluber is less effective than usual because of fatigue. One less day of rest can be a pretty big deal, especially at this point of the season. Kluber threw 215 innings during the regular season and has added another 13 1/3 innings in the postseason. He has endured a big workload already. Here's a look at the league splits, for reference.
|On normal rest||5.75||4.31||1.32||2.68|
|On three days' rest||4.56||4.42||1.36||1.98|
Those are the league averages, and Kluber most certainly is much better than a league-average pitcher. The league as a whole showed a noticeable performance drop on three days' rest in 2016 though, and if Kluber follows suit, he may be something less than an ace-like in Game 4.
Whenever a starter is on short rest, additional fatigue usually doesn't show up until later innings. Kluber may come out firing his usual 92-94 mph fastballs in the first inning, but what about the fourth or fifth? Pitchers on short rest tend to hit a wall later in the game. The Indians could be left scrambling for their bullpen in the fifth or sixth inning.
There's also this: What gives the Indians the best chance to win one of the next two games, Kluber on short rest in Game 4 or Kluber on normal rest in Game 5? All things being equal, I would take Kluber on normal rest. Dropping Game 4 with Kluber on the mound means the Indians would suddenly be counting on Merritt to stop the Blue Jays from sending the series back to Cleveland. That's kinda scary.
The Indians know Kluber better than we do. He's an intense competitor and they know his routines. Clearly the Indians and Francona believe Kluber is up to the task not only in Game 4 on Tuesday, but also in Game 7 on Saturday, if necessary. They trust him to be effective and chew up innings with a depleted bullpen.
Decisions like this are ripe for second guessing. If Kluber gets hit hard Tuesday -- or even if he is merely OK rather than great -- and the Indians are unable to sweep, the decision will be scrutinized. I don't blame the Indians for going with their ace on short rest in their situation. I would do the same thing. It's just not a slam dunk decision.