The Felix dilemma: How much rest?

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
12:26
AM ET
Remember way back in 2008, when CC Sabathia was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and made his final three starts of the season on three days' rest, helping the Brewers to their first playoff appearance since 1982?

That seems like a generation ago.

Last September, there were seven starts across the majors made on three days' rest, but all seven came following a relief appearance, and the best guy to do so was Tom Milone of the A's. In fact, there were only 37 starts all season made on three days' rest. The only one made by whom I'll label a "top" starter was Matt Moore of the Tampa Bay Rays. He started on May 31 but pitched only one inning and then started on three days' rest (and lasted just two innings).

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFelix Hernandez is third in the American League in innings pitched (191.0).
This year, we've seen just 28 starts on three days' rest. I'm guessing most of those were similar relief-to-start scenarios. Justin Masterson did start and throw 4⅓ innings on May 18 and then started again four days later. That might be the only "legitimate" start on three days' rest all season. Other than an occasional postseason game, the three-day start is all but extinct.

In just a few short years, we've gone from "can an ace pitch on three days' rest if needed down the stretch to help our team get into the postseason?" to "should we give our ace more rest?"

Take Felix Hernandez. The leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award was scheduled to start Wednesday against the Texas Rangers, but Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon instead pushed him back to Friday against the Washington Nationals, meaning he'll be starting on six days' rest instead of four since Seattle had an off day on Thursday. McClendon said he wants to give all of his starters the two extra days of rest as the team heads into the stretch run. The decision resulted in some controversy and discussion across TV and radio on Thursday, as Erasmo Ramirez was called up from Triple-A and got bombed in a 12-4 loss to the lowly Rangers.

It's also not the first time McClendon has pushed Hernandez back from his regular four days of rest. Back in July, he held him back a day so he'd have Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young -- his three best starters -- lined up to face the A's. That was a strategic decision, and the Mariners did win two of three in that series, although Seattle lost a "bullpen" game 4-2 in the series finale to the Minnesota Twins.

In early August, McClendon gave his starters an extra day, telling Greg Johns of MLB.com, "Every chance I get to give them an extra day, I'm going to do it. I think we've done OK with it. Last time I checked, we had the best pitching in the American League, so why break something that's not broken? Keep doing it. Keep resting them. I want to protect them."

In the first half, Hernandez made 12 of his 19 starts on four days of rest (not including his Opening Day start) and the other seven on five days of rest. But since the All-Star break, Hernandez's days of rest have gone: seven, five, four, five, five, four, five and now six.

I'm not necessarily knocking McClendon for this. As he said, he believes he's helping his staff stay strong. Considering the injury histories of Young (extensive) and Iwakuma (he was never completely healthy in consecutive seasons in Japan), he's not pushing Felix back just to keep Felix strong.

But the side effect is clear: In the end, you're still trading a Felix Hernandez start for an Erasmo Ramirez start, and that's a huge, huge drop-off. At the end of the season, those extra days of rest mean you're going to miss an extra Felix start or two you could have otherwise received.

(For what it's worth, in his career, Felix has a 3.12 ERA on four days' rest, 3.08 on five days' rest and 2.93 on six or more, so the difference is negligible. Now, you or McClendon can take those numbers for what they're worth; maybe they'd be predictive for 2014, maybe not. Throughout the majors in 2014, the numbers are 3.83 on four days, 3.81 on five days and 4.11 on six days, not exactly evidence that more rest helps, which, again, doesn't mean that it doesn't keep the pitchers stronger for the stretch run.)

It's an interesting tactical decision for teams to make. The A's pushed Sonny Gray back an extra day for his Thursday start against the Los Angeles Angels, giving Drew Pomeranz the start on Wednesday. But Pomeranz is better than Ramirez and the A's also get Gray going against the Angels instead of the Houston Astros. Gray is also in his first full season in the majors, and there is some intent to limit his innings a bit.

With Adam Wainwright struggling since the All-Star break, and perhaps a little fatigued after throwing more innings last season than any pitcher in baseball, there has been talk the St. Louis Cardinals will give him an extra day or two before his next start, as six of his past seven starts have come on four days of rest. But the Cardinals don't necessarily have a great option to step in for a spot start.

It's easy to suggest managers need to ride their best pitcher, much like the Brewers did six years ago with Sabathia. Is that realistic? It doesn't seem like it. Even with the strict limits on pitch counts (Hernandez doesn't even have a complete game this year), managers are more cautious than ever in how they handle their rotations.

In the Mariners' case, however, what if McClendon looks up after the final day of the regular season and sees the Mariners one game short of the wild card?

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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