In fairness to the Yankees, their adherence to current major league doctrine on relief pitching is in part driven by necessity. Luis Severino, their Game 3 starter, was among the many Yankees wounded this year, pitching only 12 innings in the regular season. At 38, C.C. Sabathia was a shadow of his once dominant self, as was the 36-year-old starter J.A. Happ.
The Astros have three Cy Young Award-winning aces: Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, all of whom threw more than 200 innings and won between 18 and 21 games this season. The Astros will go as far in the playoffs as that absurd abundance takes them. To beat them, the Yankees would be wise to strike early. As is true of most aces, Cole is shakiest in the first inning, when he had a 3.55 earned run average this season.
Greinke, who will start Game 4 on Thursday after a rainout Wednesday, was no different. He posted a 3.55 E.R.A. in his first innings before settling into a 2.93 groove over all. Verlander’s numbers are similar if closer: 3.18 in the first, 2.90 over all. Each of these pitchers, clearly, gets stronger as the game goes along.
Late last year, I considered this question historically. I examined the performances of good-to-great pitchers over the decades: Luis Tiant, Mike Torrez, Pedro Martinez, Tom Browning, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins and the Atlanta Braves’ troika of Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Over and over again, I found the same pattern that exists with the Astros’ aces.
The worst innings were most often the first. Once they discovered a rhythm, these pitchers became far more difficult to hit. Seaver’s career earned run average in the first inning was 3.75. His E.R.A. for the last three innings of a game, the dreaded third and fourth time through the batting order, stood at 2.75. Jenkins, the great Cubs pitcher, had a 4.02 career E.R.A. in the first inning — and a 3.30 E.R.A. in 301 ninth innings.
So conventional major league wisdom — shorter starts and then fresh arms — did a yoga handstand.
It was no different when Cole started on Tuesday. Once he survived that shaky first inning, the odds he would emerge with a victory actually improved as the game progressed.
“That’s old school, right?” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “We like when the starter gets to pitch a little bit.”