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How Much Of An Advantage Is Pitching Depth?

Games 3 and 4 represent when the Astros’ pitching depth may hold its greatest advantage in this World Series.

MLB: World Series-Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

If my recollection of the 2019 World Series is accurate, the Nationals had six pitchers — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Joe Ross, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson — account for roughly 76% of their total innings across seven games against the Astros. We all remember that Washington had this blueprint of often using their best pitchers, resulting in overall success during their championship run that year. Their depth, or lack thereof, wasn’t as significant of a factor as some believed.

The situation facing the Astros in 2022, with the World Series tied at one game apiece, isn’t wholly dissimilar from 2019. For one, the Phillies’ pitching staff is noticeably top-heavy, with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler the best among the group. Six of their pitchers — Nola, Wheeler, Ranger Suárez, Seranthony Dominguez, José Alvarado, and Connor Brogdon — combined for 75% of the total innings pitched against the Padres in the NLCS. That said, there was some diversification from Philadelphia in the first two games of the World Series, mainly due to how Rob Thomson managed around his top two starters in Nola and Wheeler, who surrendered a combined nine earned runs (ten in total). Washington didn’t have this issue in 2019, as the combination of Scherzer and Strasburg largely shut down Houston’s lineup. But like Dave Martinez, Thomson was forced to cobble together some innings in unexpected ways, which he did aggressively in Game 1 by bringing in Alvarado in the fifth inning, followed by then-presumed Game 3 starter Suárez in later innings. It paid off as the Phillies mounted a comeback and held on for the 6-5 victory.

Thankfully for Houston, their pitching staff held the early lead in Game 2 to even the series at one game apiece. As such, we’re now entering the territory where the Astros pitching depth ought to become a more significant advantage than it did in the first two games. For the Phillies, however, the waters are a bit murkier as they’ll lean on Noah Syndergaard to start Game 3 with the possibility of Suárez starting Game 4, followed by the bullpen in both games. This development begs the question I have been pondering for the last couple of days: How much of an advantage does pitching depth provide at this point?

As we saw with the Nationals three years ago, and to a certain degree with the Braves last year, there is a particular advantage to using your best pitchers more often in a short series. After all, those are your best pitchers for a significant reason. It makes sense to maximize their skill sets to obtain the necessary outs to win it all. With two off days in the World Series, the schedule also allows clubs with limited depth to throw their best pitchers more, which helps mitigate any depth advantage your opponent may possess. If the Phillies win the World Series, we can point to their best pitchers carrying most of the load as a primary reason.

But there is also a disadvantage as overexposure becomes an increasing possibility — it wasn’t your fault, Will Harris — that could lead this strategy to backfire. This issue, unfortunately, could become a theme later for the Astros if Dusty Baker’s bullpen management earlier in the series is any guide. For as well as Baker managed his relievers in the first two rounds, I haven’t been near as impressed in the World Series as I’d argue he unnecessarily overused Bryan Abreu in Game 1 and Rafael Montero in Game 2. The same thought applies to the Phillies as the distinct possibility of back-to-back bullpen games is present for Games 3 and 4, especially if Syndergaard and Suárez cannot pitch past the third or fourth inning. Baker’s key advantage over Thomson at this juncture is that the former has more options readily available than the latter if the bullpens are called to action earlier than expected.

On paper, the next two games favor the Astros as they have Lance McCullers Jr. and Cristian Javier scheduled to pitch the next two games with a mostly intact bullpen. If possible, I’d argue against using Montero again in Game 3 later this evening. I’d like to see Ryne Stanek or Hunter Brown get a chance if the situation is optimal for them. Baker has numerous options, including for situations if one of his starters can’t pitch past the early innings. Games 3 and 4 likely represent the best time for this depth advantage to take full effect. For the Phillies, however, the next two games are arguably when they are the most vulnerable. The best outcome for Thomson is that both Syndergaard and Suárez get through the order at least twice with minimal issues and turn to his relievers in later innings, with Nola and Wheeler scheduled for Games 5 and 6 if needed. In any case, the blueprint is present for both clubs to take advantage of for the remainder of the series, but the question is now about execution. This reason is why the games are played.