As of this writing at 3am PST on Thursday morning, also known as the day of Game 5 of the NLDS between the Dodgers and the Nationals, the Dodgers have still yet to announce their starting pitcher [ed's note, it's 10 ET and we still don't know). At this point, it’s probably fair to say that the decision comes down to either Rich Hill or Julio Urias.
Of course, if you ask Rich Hill who’s starting, he’s going to say that it’s already been decided.
Rich Hill says he is starting Game 5.— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) October 12, 2016
But if you ask anyone else in the world, such as the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, they’re going to answer with something a little different.
Andrew Friedman says Rich Hill is not officially the Game 5 starter. "It's not decided," he said. "But that means he really wants it."— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) October 12, 2016
If I were a betting man, I would guess that Hill does end up getting the nod, with Urias the first one out of the bullpen if need be. But let’s break down the case one can make for each pitcher.
The Case for Rich Hill
Lest you forget, despite battling blister problems, Rich Hill was really, really good this season.
Among all MLB pitchers that hurled at least as many as Hill’s 110.1 innings this season, only one had a lower ERA than his 2.12 mark, and that was teammate Clayton Kershaw at 1.69.
Only three pitchers had a lower FIP than Hill’s 2.39 (Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and the late Jose Fernandez), and the next-closest to Hill was James Paxton at 2.80. The point I’m trying to make is that Rich Hill was a darn good pitcher in the 2016 regular season, and it was both recent enough and large enough of a sample size to believe that he is probably still a darn good pitcher today.
There are quite a few question marks surrounding Julio Urias.
Urias just turned 20. Or, to put it another way, I’m a junior in college, and Urias is five months younger than me. Of course, that means that he probably has a bright future ahead of him, but for this analysis, all we care about is today, and it’s more-or-less a given that pitchers aren’t in their performance prime at the age of 20. Also, if you’re into narratives (hint: you shouldn’t be), there’s a common one that young pitchers rattle easily and wilt under pressure. If we’re comparing importance, the difference between the importance of this Game 5 start and the next-most important start of Urias’ career is like the difference between alpine skiing and peanut butter (read: they’re very different).
There are other drawbacks to pitching Urias, too. For one, Urias hasn’t pitched since the regular season, September 29th to be exact. Yes, rest is good, but you can have too much of a good thing, and that is especially the case with getting rusty in professional sports. He may have thrown a bullpen or two between then, but that doesn’t replicate valuable in-game repetitions.
Even if Urias is at tip-top shape for this start, you should be concerned that he’s still a young player with pitching warts. For example, he walked a whopping 3.62 batters per nine innings this season, good for a 9.2 percent mark. The Nationals are also a patient team, with Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon occupying three of their four middle-of-the-order spots. If this offense could keep an all-time great like Clayton Kershaw on the ropes for two starts in a row, you better believe they have the ability to handle Urias, particularly if he exhibits shaky command.
Rich Hill isn’t as equipped to throw out of the bullpen as Urias.
This is somewhat subjective, as Hill has made numerous relief appearances in his career. However, Urias is the more prototypical reliever with better stuff, and he also appeared out of the bullpen multiple times in the regular season. Hill, on the other hand, has not appeared as a reliever since his career rejuvenation at the end of last season. He solidified himself as a starter and has been in that routine for over a year.
Urias is a wild pitcher facing a very patient lineup, and he will likely struggle to go deep into the game. Hill isn’t guaranteed to give the Dodgers a ton of length, either, but Urias is more of an ideal candidate to follow Hill than vice versa. To use both pitchers most effectively, it seems the case favors starting Hill over Urias.
The Case for Julio Urias
Lest you forget, Julio Urias is really, really good.
Urias dominated at every stop, every season, of his minor league career. He was considered a top prospect for virtually all of it. At the time of his call-up, Urias was arguably the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. He was called up at the age of 19. He then proceeded to throw 77 innings of 3.35 ERA/3.17 FIP baseball, shaking off a rough start to get better as the season progressed.
The dude literally struck out one-fourth of all MLB hitters that he faced in his age-19 rookie season. His career path is currently in its early stages, but it lines up favorably with many all-time greats. Talent is talent, and Urias is potentially generational.
Rich Hill would be pitching on three days’ rest.
Let it be known that Hill has never, in his entire major league career, started on three days’ rest after another start. It may not often be considered, but starting on short rest isn’t just one fewer day of rest for the day of the start; it’s one fewer day of rest for the entire pitcher’s routine. Starters usually throw a bullpen three days after their start, which is two days before their next one.
Do you throw your pen on short rest also, in order to allow the usual one day off in between bullpen and start? Do you throw your pen on regular rest and forego the day of rest in between bullpen and start? Do you change your bullpen to abbreviate it and save bullets for the start, thereby completely altering your pre-start routine? Do you forego the bullpen altogether? These are concerns that you feel safe navigating with Kershaw, as this is his fourth straight postseason of pitching on short rest. Hill, on the other hand, has never done it, so a game with his team’s season riding on the line seems like a risky time to start, doesn’t it?
Between Hill’s age, blister problems, and inexperience, pitching on short rest seems like an incredibly dicey proposition for someone that isn’t a bona fide ace like a Clayton Kershaw. It also doesn't help that history has demonstrated pitchers are not very successful when throwing on short rest. Jeff Sullivan laid out the numbers when Clayton Kershaw pitched on short rest a couple postseasons ago, and that's Clayton Kershaw!
Despite Hill’s dominance in the regular season, he has performance concerns
Yes, Hill was extremely effective in 2016, but does 110 innings cancel out a career of mediocrity in the majors? Even if you believe that he has truly transformed, which isn’t outlandish, consider the other factors working against him. Hill basically throws two pitches exclusively (fastball and curve), and he relies on deception and varied arm angles more than most pitchers. This would be the second time in a five-day span that the same lineup will have seen Hill. And don’t forget that Hill wasn’t even that good in his first start. It’s a little bit curious that his team is so eager to run him out again, in worse circumstances, with regards to rest and his exposure to the opposing lineup.
Urias has had success against this offense, something that Hill has not
Urias faced the Nationals twice in the regular season, and he was excellent against them both times. Each time, he was under strict pitch limits, so he didn’t go deep into the game either start, but he allowed two runs and one run in his respective starts, posting a combined 10:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Sure, it’s an awfully small sample size, but it is two data points nonetheless. We have one data point on Hill, as well, and he didn’t fare particularly well in Game 1.
At the end of the day, we cannot accurately say who will pitch better on Thursday. I could tell you I think it’s Urias, and Hill could still get the nod and throw a complete game shutout (doubtful). But I only have the information that is with me now, and I can try to use that to predict who will have the better results over many simulations, knowing that that means one of them will have a slightly higher chance of performing better on Thursday.
If you ask me, Urias should get the nod to start Game 5. Looking strictly from a non-rest standpoint, they are probably at least comparable in terms of expected performance. But just because you’re used to Kershaw starting on short rest so often doesn’t mean that you should overlook how important that aspect is, and Hill has literally never done it in his MLB career. That alone is the separator that determines the decision.
Many of the arguments I’ve heard in favor of starting Hill is that they’re going to be used in a tandem regardless, so it makes more sense to start the one that is less suited to come out of the bullpen (Hill). If he does poorly, so goes the argument, then you can just bring in Urias and go from there.
Well, that’s just not entirely true, because Hill will probably go six or seven innings if he’s pitching well, as he should, and the latter innings will rightfully be handed to the Dodgers’ setup and closing crew. Urias will likely be pitching in relief only if he’s needed as a long man, and if Hill is out of the game that early, then it probably means that the Dodgers are in a hole early on in the game meaning there’s a chance it’s already too late.
Now, obviously the same holds true in the reverse situation, should Urias start the game and get blown up, the Dodgers may be calling on Hill when they're already down by a few runs. There may be a slim chance that one of them prevents runs early, gets into a jam, and is relieved successfully by the other but the most probable outcome is that they are not a true tandem. The situation is not as complex as you may think. as it may already be too late by the time the other enters the game in relief. There's a case to be made for either pitcher, and it will be intersting to see who Dodger's skipper Dave Roberts calls upon, and the role of the rest of the pitchers in the 'pen.
. . .
Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.