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October 22, 2008

Prospectus Today

It's Hamels' Time

by Joe Sheehan

When you have to win four games-and can lose just three-there's no time to waste. Game One of a best-of-seven takes on added significance, because teams usually have their best starting pitcher on the mound, for one, and because there are tactical and strategic advantages to having that one-game lead. Winning the first game of a World Series is a strong indicator of future success. The last five World Series have been won by the Game One victor, and all-time, the winner of the first game is 63-40 in the Series.

Whatever history dictates, increase it for the Phillies. Their chance to beat the Rays over seven games may come down to whether they beat them in one: Game One. Tonight's game, and next Monday's scheduled rematch, are the only two games in which the Phillies will have the better starter on the mound. The gap between Hamels and the rest of their rotation is wide, especially given the Rays' problems with left-handed starters. Hamels saved 85 runs as compared to a replacement-level pitcher; Jamie Moyer saved 66, and Brett Myers, 50. He was worth 7.9 wins above replacement, where Moyer and Myers were worth 9.1-combined.

The game plan for the Phillies is fairly simple: win both of Hamel's starts and steal two other games. I'm not sure-no, let me make this stronger-the Phillies cannot win the World Series unless they win tonight's game. The only time they even might have the better starting lineup is when Hamels pitches.

Given the importance of Hamels to the Phillies, his superiority over their other options, and the importance of the games, wouldn't it make sense to treat Hamels like the ace he is and get him three starts in the World Series? We've taken to regarding this kind of usage as unusual, or even abusive, but that's another example of how we've gone too far towards conservatism in the handling of pitchers. Hamels doesn't have to throw 140 pitches in a start, and he isn't being asked to make 40 starts in a season. But with four months of rest ahead of him and a title on the line-one that no player is guaranteed another chance at-isn't this the time to modify his usage just a bit to maximize the Phillies' chances?

The risk isn't even as great as it sounds. You're definitely moving up Hamels to make one start on short rest, in Game Four. The second start on short rest would only come into play if the season were to come down to one game, and I think we can all agree that making such a start is, to some extent, why Cole Hamels picked up a baseball in the first place. At 24 years old-25 in eight weeks-Hamels is past the point where you have to be hyper-conservative about his workload. The entire reason that you nurture a pitcher like Hamels is so you can win a championship on his back.

Is Hamels on short rest still an ace? Is he better than Joe Blanton, or in a different scenario, Jamie Moyer? Let's be frank: I have no idea, and I'm going to speculate that no one else does, either. The numbers say that making starts on three days' rest hurts a pitcher's effectiveness, and turns good pitchers into fourth starters. However, the sample size we're dealing with is tiny, and there are enough instances of success-CC Sabathia this year comes immediately to mind-that it's hard to make a strong argument against the idea. Starting Hamels three times is a mild risk, but when you're the underdog, you assume some risk for the upside.

What would it look like? Well, one problem with starting your ace one-four-seven is that you need someone to start Game Five. That's your number-four starter or your number two on short rest. I don't think Myers on short rest is better than Blanton, so I would use Blanton in Game Five, and Myers, on a short leash, in Game Six. More creatively, you could start Moyer in Game Six and go to Myers after one time through the order or so, turning the Rays' lineup around and gaining whatever benefits may be gained by switching from the soft-tosser to the hard thrower. The entire bullpen, coming off of an offday, would be available behind the two.

Starting Cole Hamels three times in the World Series maximizes the Phillies' chance of winning by sending their best pitcher-by far-to the mound as often as possible. With not much data to go on, the safest assumption is that he would lose some effectiveness, but not enough to make him worse than the other options. Hamels' upside is also a bit higher than that of the other pitchers. The threat to his well-being is not much more than it would be in a normal start, and the pursuit of a championship is the time to take that risk.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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