Mailbag: Lining up the aces


I don’t get why Lee/Price not pitching until game 3 is such a big advantage for the Yanks. Assuming TB/TX weren’t planning on pitching anyone on 3 days rest, which they probably weren’t, each pitcher, in a 7 game series, will go the same number of times as they would have gone had they lined up their aces for game 1.

This question raises a good point about playoff rotations. Let’s assume that the Rays win today. If Price sticks with normal rest — and considering the situation this weekend I’d say he certainly will throughout the playoffs — he’d line up for a start on Sunday. Unfortunately for the Rays, there is no game on Sunday. That lines him up for a start in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Monday. He could then come back for a potential Game 7 on normal rest. Wouldn’t that, then, give the Rays something of an advantage? Should the series go seven games, they would have their ace back on the hill.

If that were the case, though, would’t every team just line up its ace in Game 3, as to be available for a Game 7? Of course not. The advantage you gain in a potential game is an advantage lost in required games. No matter what happens, they will play the first four games of this series. Because the Yankees have plenty of time off, they can use their three best pitchers in those games. In the first two games, then, it will be the Yankees best vs. the Rays second best, and the Yanks second best vs. the Rays third best.

The Rays would then have an advantage in Game 3, since they’d have Price on the mound against Phil Hughes. Then in Game 4 the Rays go back to their fourth worst, while the Yankees will in all likelihood turn to CC Sabathia on three days’ rest. In Game 5 the Yankees will turn Burnett loose, but then in Game 6 they can turn back to Pettitte, lining up CC for another short rest start in Game 7. In that scenario, the Yankees will have their ace going as well.

The situation changes, of course, if Maddon decides to throw Price on three days’ rest in Game 2. But that doesn’t appear likely. If he intended to use Price on short rest, he would have done it on Sunday when the Rays faced elimination. There will be no elimination concern in Game 3, so I doubt that he’d change tactics at that point. Though managers have certainly made more baffling moves.

I think that a big part of the Yankees’ advantage is the potential to use their ace three times in a seven-game series. The Rangers don’t appear willing to do that, nor do the Rays. Not only would they be at a disadvantage in the first two games, but they also wouldn’t have any distinct advantage in Game 7. That’s the beauty of the Yankees sweeping and the Rays/Rangers going to five.

Categories : Mailbag


  1. Kind of a shame that Hughes may only pitch once in a 7 game series. But I suppose he’d be available out of the bullpen in games 6 and 7 if it came down to that.

    Also, yeah, the chances of a series actually going to 7 games is slim, which is why Price/Lee possibly only going once in the series (vs CC at least twice) is a huge advantage.

    • PaulF says:

      If Lee/Price only pitch once, that means the Yankees were able to win at least 4-2. In that case it wouldn’t matter if Lee/Price had gone a second time, because the Rays/rangers still only get 3 wins.

      • The game isn’t played in a vaccuum like this. There are no guaranteed wins or losses. Lee/Price are more likely to win the games they start, trying to justify pitching them later in the series by saying “Well if you re-arrange the games it doesn’t matter” just doesn’t make any logical sense.

        • PaulF says:

          Re-arranging the games works just as well with probabilities as it does with certainties. Ultimately, you have a distinct probabilities for each of 7 games, and you need to win 4 of them. The order doesn’t matter.

          • Well, as discussed below, isn’t the fact that you have your ace in the bullpen for that game-7, even if he doesn’t start that game, an advantage? Aren’t your chances of winning that particular non-ace game better than your chances of winning a non-ace game when your ace isn’t available and you aren’t in an all-hand on-deck situation?

  2. Big Stein says:

    In the past 20 years, there have only been 3 game sevens (all 3 involved the Red Sox).

    In other words, 85% of the time the ALCS ends in 6 games or less. And since the Sox aren’t involved it’s unlikely the series will go 7 games.

  3. “If that were the case, though, would’t every team just line up its ace in Game 3, as to be available for a Game 7? Of course not. The advantage you gain in a potential game is an advantage lost in required games. No matter what happens, they will play the first four games of this series.”

    Just to further illustrate the obvious, here are the number of games played in each 7-game series over the last 10 years:

    Year, ALCS, NLCS, WS
    2000, 6, 5, 5
    2001, 5, 5, 7
    2002, 5, 5, 7
    2003, 7, 7, 6
    2004, 7, 7, 4
    2005, 5, 6, 4
    2006, 4, 7, 5
    2007, 7, 4, 4
    2008, 7, 5, 5
    2009, 6, 5, 6

    So out of 30 series, only 9 went to 7 games. So is it an advantage, in game 7, to have your ace on the mound? Sure. But that advantage is outweighed by the disadvantage of have your ace go only once in the first 4-6 games, since it’s unlikely you’re even going to play a game 7.

    • PaulF says:

      But if the rest of your rotation can’t either win it or extend it to game 7, then it wouldn’t have mattered if your ace had gone earlier, because you would lose anyway. Your opponent just needs 4 wins. It doesn’t matter when they get them.

      • Hmmm… I don’t know, maybe you have a point there. Someone other than Lee has to win 2 games for the Rangers to win the series no matter when Lee starts, that’s true. So then is the only disadvantage of having your ace start 3&7 that you eliminate the opportunity to throw your ace 3 times in the series and that you increase the chances you’ll lose the series before reaching that 7th game (but not, per your reasoning, increase the overall chances of winning or losing the series)? I still think there’s probably something to be said for putting yourself in a better position to not trail in the series, since it’s probably tougher to play from behind (which you’re increasing the likelihood of by having your ace’s starts delayed until later in the series), but I see where you’re coming from. Maybe there’s something to be said for your argument.

        • PaulF says:

          Thanks. I’m not saying I’d actually choose not to line up the rotation with my best going first. I’d rather get an early lead and hold it, but in terms of things that are actually measurable, I don’t think it matters. Reducing the probability of facing elimination earlier than necessary in the series is probably a good idea though.

        • raisin says:

          One also has to look at the specifics of the situation, what jumps to mind in the present case is the opportunity for the Yanks to regain HFA in game one and start a roll that can’t be stopped…

  4. Jobu says:

    With the way Hughes pitched in the ALCS it may not be a huge advantage for Texas or Tampa to start their ace.

  5. Mister Delaware says:

    Probably also worth noting the weather. The sooner you use an ace, the sooner he can come back and pitch if games get slid back a day for rain.

  6. China Joe says:

    The best example is the 1999 ALCS: the Red Sox had Pedro in his prime – probably the most dominating starter of my lifetime. But he pitched in game 5 of the ALDS and couldn’t start until game 3. What happened? The Yankees won the first two games, Pedro dominated, flat-out embarrassed them in game 3, but they won the next two games and didn’t see him again.

    • PaulF says:

      But if Pedro had started 1 and 5, the Yankees would’ve just won in 6, because nobody else on the Sox could beat the Yankees, right? It doesn’t change the outcome of a series at all, just the length.

      • Johnny O says:

        yeah, you really can’t argue with that logic…..

        /read: sarcasm

        • Just my two-cents… But instead of just using snark to dismiss someone’s argument, without adding anything else to the conversation… You could, like, add something to the conversation and engage this guy’s arguments.

          • Johnny O says:

            Valid point, my bad. Joe’s (and yours) arguments were pretty iron-clad and Paul still chose to disagree. Not sure that repeating the same points would be worth it but I’ll try another route.

            Let’s hold the premise that Paul is right and that the Yankees win the series no matter what 4-3 (even using the “rearranging the games” concept). Here’s where it IS benefit to the Yankees in not having to go a 7 game series. CC clearly will be starting on short rest even though Lee/Price won’t. If he doesn’t have to start a game 7 of the ALCS then he could be ready to start game 1 of the WS, and therefore line up again to start games 1, 4, and 7 of the WS. I think we can all agree that this is an advantage.

            Back to Paul’s argument: So let’s the Tex/TB series ended after 4 games, and Lee starts games 1 and 5 of the ALCS. The series would theoretically go 7 games and the Yanks still win. However their chances of winning the World Series goes down, so there’s your advantage of not facing Lee/Price til game 3. MAYBE (although I still disagree), I could give in to your argument if this were the World Series and that the winner of this sereis is the only thing that mattered. However, it’s not and we still have to consider rest/rotation for the next round.

            hope that added some value although if Joe can’t convince PaulF then I doubt I will.

            • Yeah… I think you’ll see elsewhere in this thread that I agree there are clearly other advantages to first-using your ace earlier in the series rather than later. The thing that’s getting a little lost in the translation here, though, is that PaulF agrees with that premise, too. All he’s really pointing out is that the “well you might not get to throw your ace twice in the series if you wait” argument isn’t as black-and-white as we made it out to be, and I think he has a point there. Now, there are definitely other, and related, reasons why you want to throw your ace earlier rather than later. The only thing I’ve intended to defend in this thread is his argument on that one question. I just think people are kind of missing his point a bit. And I don’t even agree with him, but for people to just dismiss his argument is totally unfair. If I might get on my soapbox here… Dismiss people who say completely stupid or offensive things, but someone who comes with a cogent, honest argument? There’s no reason to be a jerk to someone like that. He might be wrong, but we can come to that conclusion without alienating that person. (Not directed at you, Johnny O, just a general comment for the most part.)

              • Johnny O says:

                No worries my man, and I agree that my first comment wasn’t great, which is why I attempted a more proper counter argument. I was at the Jets game last night and the snark just came out easily. I get PaulF’s counterintuitive thinking and like where his head’s at, however, he’s wrong in this case and probably wrong in the world series too but that’s ok.

            • PaulF says:

              Oh, I totally agree that it’s good for the world series, but I was just talking about this series. I don’t think Lee/Price going in game 3 gives us an extra advantage in THIS series.

              • Johnny O says:

                WHAT?! Now you have it backwards. You’re saying that the outcome of the series isn’t in affected by whichever 2 games the #1 starter pitches. Fine, I’ll agree that we all want the Yankees to win so whether it’s 4 games or 7, who cares? And you’re saying that the outcome will be the same if Lee pitches games 1/5 or 3/7, the only difference is the LENGTH of the series.

                My point is that the LENGTH of the ALCS matters much more than the length of the WS. Therefore your argument is not valid for the ALCS but I might be willing to conede that it’s ok for the WS (even though I still disagree).

                So, for the point of both winning the ALCS, and ending it before 7 games so CC can go 1/4/7 in the WS, your argument that Lee going in game 3 doesn’t give us an advantage is WRONG.

                I’m going to get snarky again soon….

                • “So, for the point of both winning the ALCS, and ending it before 7 games so CC can go 1/4/7 in the WS, your argument that Lee going in game 3 doesn’t give us an advantage is WRONG.”

                  Right, but he’s just looking at the ALCS, in a vacuum. It’s a purely theoretical point. He’s already stipulated that if you’re looking at the larger context, it’s clearly better to line up your ace earlier in the ALCS.

        • PaulF says:

          you shouldn’t really be sarcastic unless you’re right.

      • Newbie says:

        Well, it is easy to say in retrospect that it did not matter, but there is no doubt that the Red Sox chances of winning the series would have been much greater had the series been extended and had Pedro been seen 3 times. 1999 Pedro Martinez 3 times in a series could have been devastating.

        • Yeah but you’re moving the target a bit, here. He’s assuming you’re only going to see the ace a fixed-number of times: 2.

          (I happen to agree that getting to throw your ace in game-1 is an advantage b/c you leave open the option of using him 3 times, but we do have to acknowledge the fact that guys go 3 times in a playoff series pretty rarely. CC is an outlier.)

          • Newbie says:

            True also. If nothing else, lining up your ace for game one will pit him against the other teams ace, thus increasing your chances to win that game and the next 2 as well.

            As Joe explained, the 2nd and 3rd starters for the Sox would be going against the 2nd and 3rd for the Yanks, as opposed to the 1st and 2nd starters. Assuming Pedro is invincible, (obviously can’t assume it, but for argument’s sake) him going in game one, even if he only pitches twice, would increase the Sox’ chances of winning in subsequent games.

          • China Joe says:

            But if it goes to Game 7, they always have the option to bring in the Game 1/Game 5 starter…like Mickey Lolich in the 68 World Series. Hell, even in 2001 the Diamondbacks brought Randy Johnson out of the pen in Game 7. I think it’s clearly better to throw your best pitchers as early as possible, because once it gets to Game 7, it should really be “all hands on deck.”

  7. PaulF says:

    This was my question, and I still think it’s being looked at wrong. I don’t think it matters that series rarely go 7 games. Lets say Texas is the opponent. Texas has 7 chances to win 4 games. Lee, Wilson, and Lewis each get 2 chances to win, and Hunter gets one. This is exactly the same as if Lee was lined up for game 1. The Rangers need 2 wins out of non-Lee pitchers, regardless of when he is lined up to pitch. If they get this (and Lee wins his games) it doesn’t matter whether Lee pitches 1 and 5 or 3 and 7, and if they can’t get 2 wins out of non-Lee pitchers, then it doesn’t matter that Lee won to extend the series.

    I still think that although the average length of the series might be shorter if Lee only goes once in the first 6 games, the overall probability of each team winning the series is unchanged.

    • Your logic is flawed because you’re assuming the series will go 7 games. Statistics and sheer probability says it won’t.

      By Lee not starting until Game 3, the chances of seeing him twice are lessened, giving the Yankees a better chance to win the series vs lesser pitchers before seeing Lee a second time.

      • PaulF says:

        No, all series are seven game series, they just don’t play the rest after someone clinches a majority of those 7 games. Imagine they did. Lee wins game 7 after the Yankees have already clinched. Yankees win series 4-3. Now rearrange all the games so that Lee pitched in games 1 and 5. Now Lee pitched twice with the outcome of the series on the line. The result is the same.

        • I… what? This makes no sense. You are assuming way too much.

          • Dude, stop. It does make some sense, you can’t dismiss what he’s saying as completely illogical. You can disagree with it (and I do disagree with it), but it’s not like he’s being completely crazy here.

            • Johnny O says:

              If you read my point above, PaulF’s argument makes somewhat sense for the world series, in that the series winner is the only outcome that matters. However, the Yanks have a significant interest in ending the ALCS before 7 games so for this round his argument doesn’t work.

            • Yes, I can dismiss it. He’s acting like the results and length of the series are set in stone, and that the rotation order is a permutation where order doesn’t matter. If that’s true then why do teams bother pitching their best starter first?

              We accept that if your best pitcher is the only one who wins games, then it doesn’t matter – that team will still lose. That’s still irrelevant to the original question: “Why is Lee/Price starting game 3 such an advantage for the Yankees?”

              Like Joe said:

              If that were the case, though, would’t every team just line up its ace in Game 3, as to be available for a Game 7? Of course not. The advantage you gain in a potential game is an advantage lost in required games. No matter what happens, they will play the first four games of this series.

        • Clayton K says:

          But the problem with this logic is assuming only one pitcher is used per game. If Lee can go out and pitch 7 or 8 innings in game 1, then the bullpen has more available/stronger arms for the next few games. The stronger bullpen reduces the reliance on the next starting pitcher getting the win; it provides the opportunity to use a bettter reliever earlier in the game if the situation arises.

        • Matt says:

          But you’re wrong, because these players are human. If you are trailing in a series 2-0 before Lee even goes to the mound, there is a lot more pressure on all of the players and Lee may not win that game because the offense cannot score him enough runs.

          Your logic does not apply because you are considering it in a vacuum, and it simply does not work that way. The Rangers rotation will not be lined up like the Yankees can do, and that will give them the advantage matchup-wise in every game except the ones Lee pitches. The Rangers may be less likely to win the other games because they are facing better pitchers with lesser arms in their rotation.

          You’re also not understanding that the Rangers could have a greater chance of winning the series simply by forcing the action back to Arlington, even if they trail in the series already at that point. If Cliff Lee pitches in Games 1 and 5, by winning Game 5 he could stave off elimination and send the Rangers back home, where they are much likelier to pull off a comeback than if it were the other way around.

          Even if Cliff Lee wins his game 3, the Yankees could wrap it up in 5 games before it ever goes back to Texas if nobody else can win a game, but if Cliff Lee pitches twice in the series then you have to beat him at least once or you will have to go back on the road. It’s a lot easier for the lesser pitchers in the rotation to do well at home where they are comfortable than on the road in the hostile environment.

          • PaulF says:

            Yes, I was considering it in a vacuum, because we don’t know how to quantify all the rest of those things. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t love to line up my rotation if I had the chance, I just don’t think it’s nearly as big a deal as people are saying it is.

    • Thomas says:

      I think you are looking at this slightly wrong. Yes, the Rangers need to win 4 games out of 7, regardless of the actual number of games played. Yes, assuming Lee wins two games the rest of the rangers need to win another two (or 3 if Lee win only one, or 4 and 0).

      However, your reasoning does not look at the matchups. The Rangers have the best chance of winning with Lee on the mound, 2nd best with Wilson, 3rd Lewis, and 4th Hunter (and with the Yankees it’s CC, Pettitte, Hughes, and Burnett; though you can argue flipping Pettitte and Hughes). This is regardless of the what game number it is, who leads the series, who at home, and who is pitching for the opposing team. So if the Rangers line up their best (Lee) against the Yankees best (CC), their odds of winning are much higher than if Wilson starts. The same goes for game 2 with Pettitte against Wilson instead of Pettitte vs. Lewis.

      Because Lee is pushed back, The Yankees have the pitching advantage in games 1, 2, and 4 with 5, 6, and 7 be even. If Lee wasn’t pushed back, it would be much more even.

      • PaulF says:

        “So if the Rangers line up their best (Lee) against the Yankees best (CC), their odds of winning are much higher than if Wilson starts.”

        Why can’t you say, “So if the Yankees line up their best (CC) against the Rangers best (Lee), their odds of winning are much higher than if Hughes starts.” ?

        The Aces are not matched up. Why is that good for one side and bad for the other?

        • Thomas says:

          Why can’t you say, “So if the Yankees line up their best (CC) against the Rangers best (Lee), their odds of winning are much higher than if Hughes starts.” ?

          You can and it is absolutely true, but it ignores the fact that all of the other Texas (or Rays) starters aren’t lined up.

          It is:
          CC vs. Wilson (adv Yankees)
          Pettitte vs. Lewis (adv Yankees)
          Hughes vs Lee (adv Texas)
          CC vs Hunter (adv Yankees)
          Burnett vs Wilson (adv Texas)
          Pettitte vs Lewis (adv Yankees)
          CC vs Lee (even)

          If lined up it would be:
          CC vs Lee (even)
          Pettitte vs Wilson (even)
          Hughes vs. Lewis (even)
          CC vs Hunter (adv Yankees)
          Burnett vs Lee (adv Texas)
          Pettitte vs. Wilson (even)
          CC vs Lewis (adv Yankees)

          So the Yankees has an advantage in the pitching matchups if Lee starts games 3 and 7.

    • Am I the only Kevin? says:

      The weather issue and all-hands game 7 factors definitely favor starting your ace in game 1. That this is potentially not the last series reinforces these factors.

      That being said, people are forgetting that this isn’t a high school statistics problem. Each event (game) is NOT independent, so you cannot just factor out the probabilities without regard to order.

      Your ace, if all things go well, not only increases your chances of winning any game he pitches in, but also allows you to rest your bullpen while doing so. You then have less chances of having your better relievers not be available in a big moment.

      There also is the potential demoralization factor. Teams rolling over once they get behind in a series, although it may not happen often, is a real thing.

  8. mike c (LETS GO YANK KEEEZ) says:

    ALCS = yanks in 5

  9. Joe P says:

    Honestly, I think the Yanks are capable of beating Lee or Price if Alex/Jeter/Cano start picking up and the rest of the squad continues hitting as it has been. I don’t see why so many people think Lee is a guaranteed win. Nobody’s perfect, not even Mo or Andy. Andy is one of the all-time premier postseason starters and he’s 19-9 all time. So, Lee is bound to lose eventually. That’s baseball.

    • Sure, Lee is capable of throwing up a stinker just like everyone else. The point is he’s far more unlikely to do it than a lesser pitcher like Wilson or Hunter. You can’t predict baseball, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try to play the odds and put your team in the best position to win. The possibility of avoiding Lee is an advantage.

    • Thomas says:

      I don’t think many rational fans feel Lee/Price is an automatic win. Most fans though know Lee/Price gives Texas/TB the best chance of winning. It is just like CC gives the Yankees the best chance and we assume he’ll win every game he pitches in the postseason (and regular season). They could suck, but we assume they’ll be on the top of their games and win, especially against a weaker pitcher who all 3 are lined up to face.

  10. Willy says:

    The problem with this question is that PaulF is seeing things in distinct outcomes and not probabilities. For every matchup there is a win probability that can be assigned to each team (there are a million ways to come up with this). For the Rangers, their win probability in a given game is highest when Cliff Lee is pitching. This is making the assumption that the Yankees have already set their rotation and will not adjust it based on what Texas does. I understand that there are a lot of other factors like how well rested a pitcher is and bullpen rest that can cloud this, but you can’t build good probabilistic models without making assumptions.

    A team’s goal is to win 4 games. The best way to win 4 games is to win as many as you can early in the series. Not only do wins help you because they’re wins, but they also ensure that you get to play one more game than you would have had you lost.

    Given any win probability, the more chances that you get, the more likely you are to win. If the Rangers could start Cliff Lee in Game 1, they’d have a better chance at getting more chances. This would increase their probability of winning 4 games. Because Cliff Lee can only pitch Games 3 and 7, there’s a very good chance that he’ll only pitch once instead of twice.

    By winning Game 3 alone, Cliff Lee can’t guarantee a Game 7 in which he pitches again unless the Rangers have already won Games 1 and 2. However, if he were to pitch and win in Game 1, he could guarantee that he’d pitch in Game 5 (and a win in that game would guarantee a game 6).

    The earlier that you win games in a playoff series, the better. You pitch your best starters as early as you can for the same reason that you put your best hitters at the top of the lineup. You want to give as many shots as you can to the players who offer the greatest probability of success.

  11. PaulF says:

    OK, my final comment here. I realize that I pretty much made a mathematical argument that ignored the specifics about baseball, and I agree that I would always want to line up my ace to go first. What I was really trying to combat is the “It might not go 7 games” argument which I think is a bad one. The arguments against me that had to do with getting a lead or with bullpen usage or certainly valid. Please try to understand what people are trying to say before dismissing them.

    • Willy says:

      “It might not go 7 games” is a great argument. Baseball games do not have predetermined outcomes. You can’t move Cliff Lee’s Win from Game 5 to Game 7 and say that the results wouldn’t have changed. By winning early, you open yourself to more opportunities for favorable luck. If you build a probability tree, you’ll see how this all works out.

  12. CS Yankee says:

    Reading the rants above and I’m thinking the following;

    1) Lee/Price moving back to game 3 is big time advantage for NY.
    2) CC in games 1 & 4 should be alright, but having him short twice is not perferred. Hughes would also be ready if needed but that would likely mean trailing a game 7 before he would enter.
    3) If it goes 7, the momentum would change to TB/Tex as they would have home field and a well rested ace. However, you need your ace to get you to game seven.

    The old saying “momentum is tomorrow’s pitcher”, this is what game 7 is about. I would rather have my ace twice in the first 6 games. In fact, don’t change anything from the first round except have AJ pitch game 5…Andy will close out game 6 with the “W” and we will be poised to take on Philly with CC in game one.

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