The 6-Man Rotation: Its Wisdom And Its Flaws

MLB

Had the Washington Nationals implemented a 6-man starting rotation in 2012, there’s a very real chance that they would have won the World Series that year. The predetermined innings limit on ace Stephen Strasburg that led to him being shut down in mid-September of that year could very easily have been avoided had the Nats taken the lesser of evils by implementing a 6-man starting rotation. They chose not to do that, sat a submissive Strasburg down, and lost in the National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There’s no guarantee that the Nats would have won that series with Strasburg. Ace pitchers are generally hit or miss when it comes to the post-season – just look at Clayton Kershaw. For the 2012 Nats, it was the bullpen that betrayed them as they were set to close it out. But having Strasburg made the Nats a better team and they didn’t have him not because he was injured, but because they were paranoid and they did something absurd to feed that paranoia and shield themselves from criticism in case he got hurt. That he’s never fulfilled that massive potential is a secondary negative to his career. The protection was, basically, useless.

In hindsight, the Nats still insist they did the “right” thing because admitting to anything less is seen, in the macho and stupid world of sports, as a sign of weakness. Then-manager Davey Johnson was out of the Earl Weaver school of managing and wanted nothing to do with babying his players, but was overruled on the matter. Suffice it to say that had Strasburg been available, Johnson would have been happy to have him on the mound for game 1 or 2 of that series.

Many pitchers dislike the 6-man rotation, but given the dueling agendas of front offices and on-field staff, there are few other options that make sense. Currently, there’s an ongoing debate as to what the New York Mets should do with their enviable surplus of starting pitching. Veteran Dillon Gee is the low man on the totem pole and had a conveniently-timed groin injury. Rafael Montero had a shoulder injury. These issues allowed the club to recall Noah Syndergaard slightly earlier than planned. Syndergaard has nothing more to prove in the minor leagues and has been dynamic in all aspects of the game since arriving in the majors, even hitting a tape-measure home run against the Philadelphia Phillies while tossing 7 1/3 scoreless innings in his Wednesday afternoon start.

They could send Syndergaard down, but he’s earned his position in the big leagues. The Mets would like to be rid of Gee, but don’t want to give him away. Clearly what the Mets are doing for the foreseeable future is giving extra and unwanted (from their perspective) rest to Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon while simultaneously showcasing Gee to try and get something of value for him when they trade him. It’s easy to say “just get him outta here,” but sometimes it makes sense to wait for teams to grow desperate as general manager Sandy Alderson did when he pried the Mets’ future second baseman Dilson Herrera and righty reliever Vic Black from the Pittsburgh Pirates for rejuvenated journeyman outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck. While it’s unlikely they’ll get anything of use for Gee, they might if they wait. The subpar deals that they can make now will still be there a month from now barring an injury or terrible performance.

Akin to the 6-man rotation, pitching once a week is the norm in Japan and it could be the change in scheduling that has negatively affected Masahiro Tanaka as he’s battling numerous injuries with the New York Yankees. In Japan, their workloads are heavier, but they get more rest. In North America, with all the medical expertise and studies that are used to decide how best to keep pitchers healthy, there are still an alarming number of injuries sabotaging these plans and schemes that look retrospectively ridiculous when the foundation of the decision was to keep them healthy and it’s not working.

Suffice it to say that the Mets five main starters want nothing to do with this arrangement, nor would there be any chance of a Strasburg-like shutdown of Harvey if the Mets are in playoff contention down the stretch. Both pitchers are represented by Scott Boras, but that’s about where the similarities end. Boras had a hand in the Strasburg shutdown with an eye toward the future contract his charge is set to command. If he had his choice with Harvey, he’d probably prefer the pitcher take a similarly acquiescent route as Strasburg did, listening to orders and acting like Boras’s brainless dummy, but that’s not going to happen. Strasburg meekly agreed to the shutdown, only resisting in a perfunctory fashion when he saw the public and professional backlash he faced for the perceived selfishness. If the Mets tried that with Harvey, he’d simply tell them that either they let him pitch or they trade him. No pitcher in baseball wants the playoff spotlight and accompanying attention that comes with it more than Harvey and he’s not going to shun that for the protective embrace that the innings limits are supposed to provide, but rarely do.

These are the options:

A) shutdown at X number of innings

B) ignore the research and let them pitch regardless of the workload

C) go with the 6-man rotation

Which is best?

The Nats and Strasburg are headed toward a parting of the ways after the 2016 season as his free agency beckons. They might trade him before that. His talent has been largely wasted at the time in his life when he should have been at the top of his game and pitching for his team in the playoffs. Other teams noticed how badly that situation was botched and are trying to find different ways to protect their young pitchers, adhere to medical recommendations, and still have them available for the entire season without blowing off the innings limits and placing themselves under the microscope for “abusing” their young arms. Some teams simply don’t care what others say and live by the old-school credo. That worked for the San Francisco Giants. The Mets aren’t doing that, but they don’t want to shut down their pitchers either. With all that in mind, the best option of all the questionable options is to go with a 6-man rotation for a few turns to naturally keep the innings down while trying to move Gee. They really don’t have any other viable choice.

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