Should Cliff Lee have started Game 4?

As I write this early in Game 4 of the Rays-Rangers series, Tampa Bay's got a 1-0 lead against Texas and starting pitcher Tommy Hunter. I've got no way of knowing how this one turns out. Before the game, though, Jeff Passan was highly critical of the Rangers' choice of starting pitchers:

    If ever it makes sense for Cliff Lee to lose his pitching-on-three-days’-rest virginity, to leap into that echelon of aces with enough mettle to test themselves and carry their team, it is now. The Texas Rangers will not ask him to, however, just like the Philadelphia Phillies wouldn’t last year, and that says all you need to know about how each team regards Lee.

    The Rangers could have started Lee on short rest for Game 4 against Tampa Bay on Sunday and let him close out the series. If he didn’t, they would have C.J. Wilson – who threw 6⅓ shutout innings in the series’ second game – on full rest for Game 5. And, most important, Lee could come back for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on full rest.


    “There is not very many Sabathias out there,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

    True enough. Lee just happens to be one of them.

    Hunter is not. He dominated early in the season, then saw the league catch up to his mediocre stuff. Proponents will point to his 7-0 record and 3.06 ERA at Rangers Ballpark this season. They ignore that he has allowed 12 home runs here in 67⅔ innings and that his fielding-independent pitching – a truer indicator of what he controlled, taking into account home runs, walks and strikeouts – is 4.87 at home. Moreover, the Rays view Hunter as eminently hittable. Never has he produced more than 11 swinging strikes in a game this season.

To summarize, Passan believes that either 1) the Rangers are foolish in not starting Lee on short rest, or 2) Lee doesn't have whatever it takes to pitch effectively on short rest. And if the latter is true, Lee's not worth the $25 million per season he'll be aiming for with his next contract. Or so Passan would argue, I think.

I'm not sure which of these is correct. If either.

I don't believe that Lee's inability or unwillingness or unenthusiasm about pitching on short rest significantly impacts his value. Sure, you could quantify the difference between a great pitcher who occasionally pitches on short rest in October and a great pitcher who doesn't. But that difference would be negligible. Maybe it knocks Lee's value from $25 million to $24.5 million. I doubt if the Rangers or the Yankees or whoever is going to worry much about a day's difference. You sign Cliff Lee because he's going to pitch brilliantly every fifth day for six months, and then again in October. You don't not sign him because he might not be available a couple of days in October.

And I'm not convinced the Rangers are foolish. Beginning on the 16th of August, Lee went through a four-start stretch in which he gave up 36 hits, including six home runs, in 23 innings. Granted, his strikeout-to-walk ratio remained brilliant, but he didn't seem quite himself. And after that fourth start, he didn't pitch again for nearly two weeks. In September, Lee's rest went 11 days, 5 days, 4 days, 6 days. In his last regular-season start, on six days' rest, he pitched seven innings, gave up one run, and struck out eight. In his first postseason start, on five days' rest, he pitched seven innings, gave up one run and struck out 10.

So it's not just that Lee thrives on regular rest. Lately he's been doing his best work on long rest. Which might explain why management's reluctant to start him on short rest. Just one month ago, Lee was suffering from a back injury that knocked him out for 12 days. Maybe it's just too soon to accuse anyone of foolishness or softness.