With the Yankees closing in on a playoff spot, the thoughts of many Yankees fans are turning to the postseason roster. One major question that has yet to be answered is what the playoff rotation will look like. While CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte are likely to make 4 of the 5 starts in the first round, the role of Game 3 starter is still up for grabs. The two candidates are AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes, both of whom will likely be given the opportunity to win the spot over their next few starts. Let’s take a look at some factors that might influence Joe Girardi’s decision.
The first thing to consider is whether the game is at home or on the road. If the Yankees win the division, Game 3 would be on the road, while it would be their first home game if they end the season as the wild card team. Burnett has actually been a bit better at home, with a lower ERA and more strikeouts per nine than he has on the road. Conversely, Hughes has been stellar on the road while struggling at home. However, it is important to note that despite Phil’s struggles at home, his numbers at Yankee Stadium are still as good, if not better, than Burnett’s. I’d say that Hughes should be the favorite for a road Game 3, while this factor is not determinative if the game is at home.
Another item to consider is recent performance. Hughes has surpassed his career high innings total, and has seemed a bit tired in recent weeks. While his stuff looked sharp last time out against Tampa, it is fair to question whether he will have anything left in the tank come October. I would keep a close eye on him in his remaining starts, and skip one of them to keep him fresh for the postseason. Meanwhile, Burnett has been adequate in four September starts after an atrocious August, and seems like he might be hitting his stride at the right time. Of course, with Burnett, his control could disappear in an instant, which brings me to a third factor.
I think the range of expected outcomes for the two pitchers is an important factor to consider. Looking at Phil’s gamelog, you can see that he is a fairly good bet to pitch into the 6th inning and give up between 2 and 4 runs. He has pitched into the 6th and allowed 4 or fewer runs in 19 of his 27 starts this season. Even his poor outings tend to be far from atrocious, as he only failed to reach 5 innings on one occasion and has yet to allow more than 6 runs in a start. Conversely, Burnett’s gamelog is filled with atrocious starts. In just 16 of his 30 starts did he pitch into the 6th and allow 4 or fewer runs (to be fair, he had 3 starts shortened by rain). Additionally, he allowed more than 6 runs on 4 occasions (and allowed exactly 6 five times), and failed to finish the 5th on six non-rain shortened occasions. Quite simply, while he is more likely than Hughes to go 7 innings and give up just one run, he is significantly more likely than Phil to be knocked out of the game in the 4th inning after having allowed 6 or 7 runs.
Taken together, these factors suggest to me that Hughes should get the ball in a Game 3, provided that he does not show clear signs of fatigue over the next few weeks. Even if you exclude his excellent first 6 starts from his ledger, his numbers stack up favorably next to Burnett’s. Considering the high variability in the quality of AJ’s starts and the solid consistency of Phil’s, he is simply the safer choice. Getting 6 innings of 4 run ball from the Game 3 starter should be just fine, particularly when one considers the strength of the Yankee offense and bullpen.
Who would you hand the ball to for a Game 3 start?