Give Them The Darn Ball (Or Vamoose! Chacon)

I was going to write Part 4 of “Climbing Out of the Canyon” tonight, but then I found an article (with a little help from a Keith Law ESPN Insider chat transcript) that I had to relate to the Pirates. Had to.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote “Modest Proposal: A Four-Man Rotation.”
First, his intro:

Barring injury, the Cardinals will open the 2007 season with a starting rotation that contributed 20 wins–20 wins total–to the team’s 2006 championship season. That’s one fewer than Chris Carpenter brought back to the opening day rotation a year ago.There’s no bigger question facing the defending champs than how they outfit their starting rotation for the coming season.
And there may be no team better suited to try something retro:
A four-man rotation.
(Insert spit take here.)

Then, some reader support (from Jack of Richmond, Indiana):

“The main argument stands that with ~100 pitch counts, there was no correlation to increased risk of injury. Effectiveness over those 100 pitches seemed to be slightly better than stretching a pitcher for that extra inning. There were other arguments that with a four-man rotation, you carry an additional bat that would likely see more at-bats since your pitchers are going 5-6 innings instead of 6-7. Overall, it seemed to enhance the efficiency of your pitchers, improve your offense, and potentially protect against injury by limiting pitchers to 100 pitches compared to 120+.”

And finally, Goold e-mailed Baseball Prospectus’ Will Carroll:

“Yes, I think it’s viable and have been advocating it for awhile,” wrote Will Carroll…“Wouldn’t most (teams) be better off using four pitches for less pitches per outing (90 to 100) rather than using that fifth man, who as we know tends to be pretty (cruddy)?”…“Some team is going to do it, gain an advantage, and we’ll see a shift in baseball. The five-man is a failed experiment.”

I did a little research. According to Baseball-Reference, the four-man rotation “was the norm…until the 1970s; since 1980, almost no MLB teams have used a four-man rotation regularly.” This Rob Neyer article says that the 1995 Royals used the shortened staff from April until July. As far as I can tell, that’s the last time a team aggressively deviated from the status quo.
Goold argues that the Cards could benefit from the change because they lack quality rotation depth–right now, they have Chris Carpenter, Anthony Reyes, Kip Wells and Adam Wainwright followed by a group of career relievers. Why couldn’t it work for the Bucs, too?
We Pirates fans often refer to Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny as the Big Four. Seems to show a lack of confidence in Shawn Chacon, Tony Armas, Shane Youman, et al. Not the Big Five–or Six, or Seven, or Eight. We have four quality young arms, another handful of injury-riddled former top prospects and a few veterans who are past their prime. Add into the equation that Dave Littlefield has a fever, and the only solution is more middle relievers and voila! We have the staff to pull this off.
Or do we?

Some Quick Math

Let’s look first at the logistics. The Pirates will play 162 games in 2007. Assume that using a four-man rotation, 90 percent of those starts would be divvied up between the regular starters. Say each guy makes 36 starts, leaving 18 to be made by fill-ins. Assume that in those starts, the pitcher averages 5.5 innings pitched. Sometimes he’ll go five, sometimes six–occasionally going more if he’s cruising, or less if he’s having a rough outing. That’s about 200 IP per starter, plus another 100 for the scrap heap.
Can we do that?

Player Profiles

Using The Baseball Cube, I computed the Big Four’s average number of innings pitched per game started (IP/GS), allowing three relief appearances to equal one start for the sake of this argument. What I found:
–Zach Duke: MLB 6.25 IP/GS, MiLB 5.8 IP/GS, 215 IP in 2006
–Ian Snell: 5.7, 6.2, 186 IP in ’06
–Paul Maholm: 6.0, 5.1, 176 IP in ’06
–Tom Gorzelanny: 5.6, 5.7, 160 IP in ’06
They’ve all eclipsed the magic 5.5 IP/GS mark. The key, though, is could they reach those same numbers on a shortened rest schedule?
The answer: Certainly.
Duke and Maholm are prototypical soft-tossers. When they’re effective, they’ll have low pitch counts because a ton of balls will be put in play. Snell and Gorzelanny have higher K/9 numbers, but you won’t confuse them with Randy Johnson. As long as Snell can keep the ball down, he could learn to rely on an effective defense more and his strikeout stuff less. To put it simply, our Big Four would reach those 5.5 IP more easily than most staffs because we don’t have a fireballer going deep into counts. Durability would be an issue, especially with the unproven Gorzelanny, but that answer comes easily, too.
You keep your guys on Carroll’s 90-100 pitch limit. Assuming they stay healthy and are effective (big “ifs” of course), they’ll account for 800 innings over the course of the season. A mix of Armas and Chacon would make spot starts as the schedule demands–long stretches of games without an off day, a tired arm in the rotation, etc.–and pick up another 100 IP in starts.
What happens to the last 570 innings of the season?
Eating Innings
The bullpen gets those, of course. And let’s face it–Dave Littlefield has us set up with just the ‘pen for the job.
Salomon Torres has thrown 92, 94 and 93 IP in the last three years. If he’s looking for a theme song, it should be Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business”–because he does it every day. Matt Capps was Sully Jr. in 2006, throwing 80 IP despite being in the bigs for his first full season. Those two get about 175 of the leftover innings. And yes, that means that Salomon isn’t my closer.
No, that job goes to Jonah Bayliss, the righty that put down the hammer for Indianapolis last season. Assume Jonah gets about 40 save opportunities in 2007. That’s another 40 IP off the books. I’ll coddle the fireman.
Who bridges the gap between the workhorses and the closer? John Grabow, Damaso Marte and Josh Sharpless work the middle innings. Damaso was good for about 60 innings in ’06, so we’ll use that as the base. If you’re counting, that’s six guys in the bullpen and 395 innings gone.
That means we’re left with another 175 innings. The spot starter (Armas or Chacon) isn’t going to sit on his duff when he isn’t needed–he’ll be a Vogelsong type. Chalk him up for another 35 IP in a mop-up role.
And, luckily, we have John Van Benschoten, Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, Shane Youman, Marty McLeary, Yuslan Herrera, Masumi Kuwata and the Armas/Chacon loser lurking in AAA. Pick your favorite. He gets the last 140 IP–basically another Armas, but working solely out of the ‘pen, barring injury.
The Breakdown
That leaves the staff at:
–Four starters @ 200 IP each=800 IP
–Two swingmen @ 135-140 IP each=275 IP
–Two ironmen @ 85-90 IP=175 IP
–Three middle relievers @ 60 IP=180 IP
–One closer @ 40 IP=40 IP
And, the grand total is 12 pitchers and 1470 innings. You’re left with the obligatory question: With six guys over 135 IP, why not just go with the normal five-man rotation?
A Conclusion
The difference, I think, is in the quality (not quantity) of innings. You count on your top four starters to throw (basically) every day. You don’t water down your rotation with lesser pitchers. Each game, you start the first inning with confidence in your hurler.
Then it’s up to him. Zach Duke pitches well? He goes his five (or six, or seven) innings before hitting the showers. He bombs? Tracy plays his match-up game and brings in the best reliever suited for the situation. Maybe Shane Youman throws particularly well against the Reds. Or Chacon owns the Mets. He gets the ball next. Eventually, you get to Torres, then Grabow, then Bayliss. Tracy gets to micro-manage until the cows come home–but this time, it’s effective.
Ian Snell has a tired arm and needs an extra day of rest. Who’s the best candidate to make his start? You get to pick from a couple of different options instead of being forced to run out Chacon.
With the four-man rotation, you’re forced to make more decisions. Jim Tracy looks at the stats and brings in the ideal guy for the game. No longer does he have to pick the pitcher who has the most gas in his tank. Your guys are throwing about the same number of innings, they’re just distributed more effectively. Like Indiana Jack said, you “enhance the efficiency of your pitchers.”
Will it happen? Of course not. Goold knows that, and so do I. We’re talking about the Pirates–the team that thought about going to a six-man rotation for a stretch last year. But if I had to pick a team for this experiment? I think you could do worse than the Bucs.

Author: PLCArchives

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  • http://whatswrongwithportland.blogspot.com/ Harry (From WWWPM)

    What happened to Randy Linville?

  • http://mvn.com/mlb-pirates Cory Humes

    Nothing?

  • http://whatswrongwithportland.blogspot.com/ Harry (From WWWPM)

    He didn’t show up in the “Authors” section. But now he appears to be back.

  • http://mvn.com/mlb-pirates Cory Humes

    He never disappeared, Harry. When you’re on the page for an individual story, the only name that appears in the author box is–wait for it–that of the author of the story.

  • Randy Linville

    I’m still here. And I’m not going away. Nice to be missed, though.

  • http://whatswrongwithportland.blogspot.com/ Harry (From WWWPM)

    Ah. That would explain it, Cory. Just wondering.

  • Kurt

    The only question I would have with that scenario is – How much of a long-term impact does this have on the young arms? Imagine if the Pirates went with this strategy and were flirting with .500 around the break. Then in August we lose Duke, Snell, et. al. with elbow injuries (which could happen anyway) and tank the rest of the season with Armas and Chacon carrying a heavy load.
    All of a sudden the blame goes directly to the system in which the Pirates implemented not to the simple fact that these guys are young pitchers and young pitchers tend to get hurt. The risk of MORE bad press for DL and the Buccos would probably keep them from attempting the experiment. Just my thoughts…

  • http://mvn.com/mlb-pirates Cory Humes

    I really don’t think that this system would make them more likely to get injured than any other. It would require a different conditioning schedule, adjusted off-day workouts, etc., but a four-man rotation would work just about the same as the five-man does. Just have to monitor the pitch counts. Like you said, young arms break sometimes. I honestly don’t think we’ll get out of ’07 with our rotation intact.
    I’ll agree that if teams went to the four-man, the Bucs wouldn’t be the first. DL wouldn’t take the risk.

  • Randy Linville

    I think two things, both of which have already been stated:
    1. A four man rotation is a good idea.
    2. The Pirates won’t be trailblazers in that direction b/c if it fails (guys getting hurt), DL would never be able to get another GM position elsewhere.