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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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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Oswalt as the 6th Man

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When the Blue Jays were one of the frontrunners for—and in fact were widely expected to get— Yu Darvish, I wrote that their intention might have been to use Darvish in his familiar 6-man rotation to both make him comfortable and manage his workload while holding down the innings counts of their young pitchers Henderson AlvarezKyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow.

The Blue Jays missed out on the Japanese/Iranian righty and the Rangers eventually got Darvish.

After shifting Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation and signing Joe Nathan to take over as closer, the Rangers’ rotation appears set.

But their interest in Roy Oswalt lends another option into the mix along with questions as to why they need another established starter.

Could it be that the Rangers are also considering going with a 6-man rotation, but for different reasons?

Because the Rangers have gone so far against the new conventional orthodoxy of babying their starting pitchers and are telling them as they make their way up through the minor league system that six innings and 100 pitches (whichever comes first) aren’t going to cut it, they’ve been the subject of resistance from the Rick Petersons of the world who are invested in the “scientific” study of pitchers (along with selling their theories to information-hungry and desperate amateurs).

What would a team that specifically pushes their starters deeper into games have to do with a 6-man rotation?

If they implemented such a plan, the Rangers would be diminishing the workload of their pitchers in a different way than limiting their innings and pitches. The extra day of rest would allow the pitchers to go even deeper into games than the 7-8 innings and 120 pitches that are now seen as extreme. They’d be able to rest their bullpen periodically while not putting forth the perception of abusing their pitchers in some random experiment that has no basis in the hard (and ineffective) data that has led the Yankees to placing the likes of Joba Chamberlain in a plastic bubble and simultaneously destroying any chance he ever had of fulfilling his potential.

The Rangers, staffed by Hall of Fame former pitchers Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux along with the highly respected pitching coach Mike Maddux, can look at a pitcher and use their own experiences to say, “his back leg is dragging”; “he’s not following through completely”; “his hips aren’t turning with the same force they were earlier in the game”; or “he’s not showing the same ferocity” and determine that the pitcher is tired because of fatigue, not because he’s reached a previously prescribed number that they pulled out of the air and are referencing a series of studies to justify their paranoia.

Thinking one is tired and being tired are two different things. If a pitcher knows beforehand that he’s only expected to put in a certain amount of work, that’s how his mind will focus and he might think he’s got nothing left when he does have something left.

Not everyone is a Roy Halladay and wants to finish what he starts.

As pitchers, Greg Maddux and Ryan weren’t babied and stayed out on the mound in good health and effectiveness to a remarkable degree.

This isn’t to suggest that the pitchers should be told to toughen up and stay out on the mound if they’re not feeling right—Greg Maddux was criticized late in his career for pulling himself out of games after a certain number of pitches—but it’s understanding what they’re looking at and taking into account everything that goes into throwing a baseball in a repeated and stressful manner every 5 (or 6) days.

These men are in a unique position to say what they’re doing and why without adherence to outsiders telling them they’re wrong.

Shunning the armchair experts like Keith Law, who vomit scouting terminology and say things to make it sound as if they’re insiders when they’re only putting forth a pretense of such; or looking at the specious and self-indulgent reasoning behind writer Tom Verducci’s so-called “Verducci Effect” aren’t indicative of resistance to an ever-changing reality, it’s actual analysis without cowering amongst the masses in an effort to avoid criticism if it doesn’t work.

Calculating an individual on a chart, graph or by sputtering randomness because it sounds good and having the hypnotized sheep take every word said as gospel doesn’t make one an expert. For all of his down-home, country simplicity in a pleasant Southern drawl and known old-school Texas conservatism, Ryan was one of the first pitchers to lift weights; he paid close attention to his mechanics and was willing to listen to others like the late Angels coach Jimmy Reese, who showed him the value of vitamins and good nutrition. Ryan trusted his own instincts and understanding of his body and he’s transferred that to his work as an executive.

In certain circles, a 6-man rotation would be seen as a concession to the times. Some would probably twist it to validate themselves. But if the Rangers consider it, it will be because they have a method behind doing it and not because they want to place their pitchers in a sealed sarcophagus and protect them from the war of attrition known as pitching, preferring failure to the risk of injury and a misinformed public’s vitriol.

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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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