Despite loss, starting Justin Verlander on short rest was right call

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The Astros were stopped in their tracks by the Rays on Tuesday night, dropping Game 4 of the ALDS 4-1 to force a decisive Game 5 on Thursday. AL Cy Young Award candidate Justin Verlander, who was excellent in Game 1, started on three days’ rest. It did not go well.

The Rays bombarded Verlander for three runs in the first inning a Tommy Pham solo homer and RBI singles from Travis d'Arnaud and Joey Wendle. Verlander would also serve up a solo homer to Willy Adames in the fourth. Verlander was unable to complete the fourth inning. His final line: four runs on seven hits and three walks with five strikeouts on 84 pitches across 3 2/3 innings.

Tuesday marked Verlander’s shortest postseason start of his career. His 33 game score is tied for his worst in the postseason along with his Game 1 start in the 2012 World Series against the Giants.

Starting Verlander on short rest was a bad call by manager A.J. Hinch, right? I’m not so sure. The data we have on pitchers pitching on short rest isn’t terribly great but Craig Edwards at FanGraphs worked around it a bit by focusing on a potential symptom Verlander might show starting on short rest. He created two data sets, called “High Velo Start” (fastball averages 94.5 MPH or better) and “Low Velo Start” (fastball averages 94.4 MPH or lower). Edwards found that in 10 “low velo starts” this season, Verlander’s strikeout rate significantly decreased and his walk rate increased, as did his home run rate. His “low velo” FIP was 4.09.

(Verlander’s fastball, by the way, averaged 95.1 MPH on Tuesday. But pretend we didn’t know that.)

Obviously, Verlander at less than 100% is not the best version of Verlander. But is it better than the Astros’ other options? Wade Miley was surprisingly good for the Astros this season, but he really struggled in September. In his September 5 start against the Mariners, he gave up five runs without recording an out. In his next start, the Athletics walloped him for seven runs in one-third of an inning. On September 21, Miley couldn’t record an out in the second inning before being removed. He ended August with a 3.06 ERA. He ended the season with a 3.98 ERA. To say that Miley’s September performance doesn’t inspireconfidence would be the understatement of the year.

Miley’s regression was somewhat expected. His ERA retrodictors showed him being much worse than his ERA indicated. FIP put him at 4.51 and xFIP 4.52. His SIERA was 4.80. All noticeably higher than Verlander’s “low velo” FIP.

24-year-old José Urquidy was the Astros’ other option to start Game 4. Urquidy was called up in early July, made five starts, and was brought back up when rosters expanded in September. Across seven starts and two relief appearances, the right-hander posted a 3.95 ERA with 40 strikeouts and seven walks across 41 innings. Not too shabby. Urquidy’s ERA retrodictors were decent as well: 3.68 FIP, 4.30 xFIP, 4.03 SIERA. But Urquidy is a rookie. Verlander is a veteran of 15 seasons with 159 1/3 postseason innings logged coming into tonight.

Urquidy was eventually used in Game 4, working the fifth and sixth innings in his playoff debut. He started the inning by hitting Travis d’Arnaud with a pitch but erased him on a ground ball double play. Urquidy then allowed a single to Kevin Kiermaier and walked Willy Adames before fanning Austin Meadows to escape the jam. Urquidy got into more trouble in the sixth, allowing a leadoff single to Pham and a one-out single to Avisaíl García before escaping that jam as well.

The question is: how depleted does Verlander’s battery need to be before you are more confident calling on Miley or Urquidy? Answering this is an inexact science at best and only Verlander can tell you specifically how depleted his battery was on Tuesday night. Hinch’s decision to go with his battle-tested veteran over a struggling lefty and a fresh-faced rookie, however, was quite justifiable. It showed the proper amount of respect to the Rays, who may be a lowly Wild Card team that did not win 107 games during the regular season like the Astros, but is more than capable of pulling off an upset in a five-game series. Moreover, the Astros didn’t assemble a 1-2-3 of Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke not to lean on them when it matters most. And lastly, the Astros still have Cole — an AL Cy Young Award contender himself — to start Game 5 on full rest.