Why The Nats Were Stupid With Strasburg

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The same variances in human beings that allow a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg to throw 100-mph logically dictate that he is different from another pitcher who achieves his results in another manner. So much goes into throwing a baseball and determining velocity, control and movement that it’s absurd to come up with a baseline that applies to every pitcher and expect it to work.

Arm speed, flexibility, leverage, mechanics, timing, hand size and other factors are relevant when determining how a pitcher does what he does. Would it make sense to compare Strasburg, a tall righty with an effortless motion, with Tim Lincecum? Lincecum is listed at 5’11” but is probably closer to 5’9”; he has a violent, all-out motion. How do you look at both pitchers and say that they should be smashed into the same category when they’re unique individuals?

Without getting into the randomness of innings limits and pitch counts when adhering to an all-encompassing set of rules for every pitcher, I have a question: If the Nationals were so intent on limiting Strasburg’s inning to 160 this season, why didn’t they do something to make sure he wasn’t going to surpass that number without being forced to sit him down for extended periods in August and September?

Why didn’t they use a 6-man rotation?

Years ago the 4-man rotation was what every team used. Then teams slowly began incorporating a fifth starter amid the perception that pitchers were being “babied”. The 5-man became the norm. Then managers like Tony LaRussa began delegating responsibilities to certain relievers for specific situations. That was copied and eventually twisted with LaRussa being blamed for managers who couldn’t think for themselves becoming brainless automatons whose decisions were based on not being criticized for doing something against current convention than for making a team-oriented move to win without caring about perception or having a robotic answer when they’re second guessed.

The 5-man rotation and bullpen-based strategies have been in practice since the late-1980s. Since some teams are now obsessed with pitch counts and innings limits, why are they sticking to what is now an antiquated strategy in the amount of times their pitchers are sent to the mound?

A 5-man rotation averages 32.4 starts each per season. A 6-man rotation would average 27 starts per season. Strasburg has thrown 99 innings this season in 17 starts. That’s an average of 5.8 innings per start. If he had the reins taken off—within reason—and was allowed to make 32 starts, that would come to 186 innings. In 27 starts, that would come to 156 innings. That’s exactly where they want him to be without counting the post-season. A post-season which the Nats are well on their way to participating in and will need Strasburg if they want to have a chance at a championship.

Presumably veterans Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez wouldn’t have been happy about the extra rest between starts, but perhaps making this strategic change would allow them to increase the volume of pitches they’re allowed to throw per start to something commensurate with the extra rest. If Jackson is limited to, say, 115 pitches in the 5-man rotation, why not raise it to 130 in the 6-man and not have to use the bullpen so much?

What makes this worse is that the Nationals weren’t going to be digging for bodies to fill out the sixth position in the rotation. They have veteran lefty John Lannan toiling in the minors, earning $5 million and wanting to be traded. They’re not a club that was short on starting pitching and they had the personnel to do it.

Now they’re in a box. Everyone knows the innings limits and pitch counts attached to Strasburg and the Nats are stuck to giving him extra rest between starts or shutting him down completely to prevent him from surpassing his limit. This is not the way for him to keep his rhythm, maintain his command and stay sharp, but it’s where they are. It could’ve been avoided if they were smart. But they weren’t. Now they have to figure something else out because they didn’t do the obvious thing and use six starters instead of five.

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The Sixth Man in Toronto?

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If the Blue Jays win the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish and sign him, could they make a concession to what Darvish is accustomed to while simultaneously protecting and limiting the innings and workload of their young pitchers by using a six-man rotation?

It makes sense for several reasons.

The Blue Jays have taken a conservative approach in rebuilding Brandon Morrow from his damaging days with the Mariners; they’re developing Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez; with Darvish, they would have a young rotation anchored by Ricky Romero and permeated by arms in the early-to-mid 20s with substantial ability, but still under careful watch.

Since Darvish is accustomed to the extra rest, it wouldn’t affect his command or preparation; Morrow is only next year going to close in on 200 innings for the first time; and Drabek/Alvarez will be in the Morrow position of 2011 with a limit of around 170-180 innings.

As Red Sox pitching coach, Blue Jays manager John Farrell experienced the Daisuke Matsuzaka transition first hand;  Matsuzaka’s complaints about the Red Sox training regimen for pitchers and his attempts to hide injuries sabotaged his production and damaged his relationship with the club—they enabled him; Farrell’s not going to make that mistake with Darvish. If the Blue Jays are making a strong commitment to Darvish, they’ll have learned from the common-denominator mistakes made with Matsuzaka because Farrell was in the middle of them.

With the pitching depth they’ve accumulated, they have the arms to do it in the rotation and bullpen. A six-man starting rotation of Romero, Morrow, Darvish, Drabek, Alvarez and some combination from Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villanueva, Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan would work with the odd-men out functioning as relievers.

The concept has been criticized, but given the way pitchers are babied today and the advent of bullpen roles and rosters carrying 13 pitchers, why not take advantage of the manpower while protecting the young arms?

A six-man rotation would also put a damper on pitch counts and innings limits. The pitch counts wouldn’t be an issue because 120 pitch outings would be mitigated by the extra rest; the innings-pitched would be reduced as a natural byproduct of the fewer starts made by the pitchers.

It could be tweaked as was the similarly criticized change to a five-man rotation in the 1970s and 80s. Back then the top starters were used for 36-38 starts and there was the “swing man” who pitched out of the bullpen, but also took the extra starts when the top four pitchers needed an extra day; eventually the five-man rotation became the norm.

Romero, as the ace, could get his 30-32 starts and the other pitchers would be shielded from overwork.

Pitchers are being babied today but the innings and pitch limits are hindering their growth as they’re punished for pitching deeply into games.

A six-man rotation is a legitimate and workable strategy for the Blue Jays if they land Darvish.

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