Riding the Hot Hand

I’ve read over and over that Ron Washington has no plans to start Game 4 hero Derek Holland in a possible World Series Game 7, despite the full rest he’ll be afforded by tonight’s rainouts. Washington has made countless questionable decisions this postseason- his lineups were bad enough when his number three hitter had legs, and his intentional walk fetish defies logic- but I’m not sure this is one of them.

In 196 regular season innings, Holland struck out 162, walked 67, and gave up 22 home runs. Likely Game 7 starter Matt Harrison threw 185 2/3 innings in 2011, striking out 126, walking 57, and giving up just 13 home runs. The difference in home runs gave Harrison a better ERA and a better FIP, and likely informed Washington’s decision to start Harrison ahead of Holland in the playoff rotation. That difference is less pronounced in St. Louis, where the ball doesn’t leave the park as frequently as it does in Arlington.

Neglecting homers, Washington’s options aren’t all that different, Holland’s better strikeout rate offset by a few more walks. Why not go with the guy who dominated his World Series start, then?

Well, for starters, Harrison wasn’t as bad as Game 3’s score indicates. In 3 2/3 innings, he struck out three and walked just one, most of the runs he surrendered a function of balls in play falling for hits (or errors), which is more random than informative.

If our expectations of Holland are higher than our expectations for Harrison, it should be more about confidence than recent performance. Psychologically, we expect Holland to be prepared to dominate a team he dominated five days earlier, while we expect that Harrison’s frustration may carry into his next start.

In high school baseball, I suspect it’s true that failure drains confidence, particularly when a pitcher has to face the same team that roughed him up six days earlier. At the major league level, isn’t it at least somewhat true that players who can’t put a bad outing out of memory wouldn’t be pitching at this level?

I tried to tackle this question analytically, but there’s not enough relevant data to compare Holland’s Game 4 outing to that of other young pitchers and see I’d they followed up unexpected great postseason starts with further dominance or regression to their established norms. Cole Hamels and Tim Lincecum each made multiple dominant starts in recent World Series as very young pitchers, but each had an ace’s reputation by the time of those starts. Madison Bumgarner and Jon Lester made surprisingly great World Series starts in their first full seasons, but neither got a second start.

Essentially, if Ron Washington handed the ball to Derek Holland in Game 7, he would be betting that Holland is a Lincecum- or Hamels- type pitcher, and that this World Series is his coming out party. By starting Harrison, Washington is showing faith in his number three starter, while acknowledging at least internally that all hands will be on deck in a World Series Game 7, and if Holland is needed to throw innings two through eight, he can establish himself as a stat that way.

If the series even goes seven games, we won’t know for sure whether Ron Washington’s choice to stick with Harrison was the right one until after the game, and even then there will be room for debate. But by basing his decision on a 162-game sample rather than a single October start, he’s certainly got a defensible case.

Moreso than hitting Mike Napoli eighth anyway.

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