Yesterday, we looked at the current state of starting pitching and concluded that there just aren’t close to enough traditional starters to go around, and particularly that the Brewers currently lack starters who can thrive deep into games. If the Brewers are determined to go with a rotation made up of so many starters with issues facing batters more than once or twice, and deploy them in the typical way, there is a very good chance that it will end badly for them. The question is, what alternatives are there? What can teams do to mitigate the downside of guys like that while still fielding a team with a normal number of pitchers?
The key seems to be trying to find a way to have these pitchers who have enough stuff to get through a lineup once or twice but rarely a third time to pitch a little less than your traditional starter, and a little more often. Here are some possible ways to do it:
Four Man Rotation:
Theoretically, if a team could send it’s 5th starter to the bullpen and ask their best 4 guys to go every 4 days, and hold them closer to 80 pitches than the 100-110 that is now standard, they could reap some substantial rewards in terms of run prevention. The Colorado Rockies tried this last year, and it failed miserably. Of course, one could easily say that it failed not because the design was terribly flawed but rather because the quality of pitchers on hand were so low. So just what would it take to make it work?
- Pitchers would need to be given some time to adjust to the new schedule. Ideally, it would be rolled out in the minor leagues and get guys ready for it before they even pitch in the big leagues. A team would also need to closely monitor how their bodies were holding up and possibly adjust or completely eliminate between starts throwing sessions.
- Teams would need to employ and find new ways to use middle relievers capable of going multiple innings at a time. The average major league team threw 145 pitches per game last year, and leaving close to half of those for relievers by design would necessitate having some guys that are good pitchers who can basically be used to bridge the gap from starter to relievers a couple times a week. Of course, only using 4 starters would undoubtedly leave teams with those types of guys left over from the rotation to plug into the pen.
Beyond the changing of the physical demands being placed on pitchers, perhaps the biggest stumbling block to this is the unfortunate continued existence of the pitcher win/loss stat and it’s demand that starters pitch 5 innings to be eligible to get a win. Fortunately, the stat is dying out in front offices around the game and if a pitcher can be convinced that their future pay isn’t going to be tied directly to how many games they win, perhaps starters could get behind it as a group.
The basic idea is that a team could use essentially 2 starters in certain rotation spots, scheduling them to pitch back to back and hopefully, in theory, covering most or even all of a game with those two guys. This is an idea that the Brewers have actually played with in the minor leagues for years, and employing it on some level could be the best way to utilize the skills of the pitchers the team has this year. To do it with every spot in the rotation would take 10+ guys capable of throwing 60-80 pitches at a shot, and would severely limit the flexibility of the manager to play matchups late in close games because of the number of roster spots it would require. Thus, it’s almost certainly a non-starter from that perspective. How could it be made to work, though?
Picking one or two spots in the rotation to do this with could really help a club on a number of levels, if a team has the personnel to pull it off. By having 2 guys scheduled to pitch who are expected to throw 60-80 pitches each, a team could cover nearly an entire game without having to dip very far into the bullpen on those days. It could also really help limit scoring below what a 5th starter and some bad short reliever could accomplish together in the 5th/6th/7th innings.
It could also be very helpful in keeping the pen fresh through the course of a season. It would require commitment from the manager and front office to stick with it because there will undoubtedly be times when the piggybacker gets in trouble and blows a lead in the 6th or 7th and the howling from fans and media will reach a fevered pitch. Of course, middle relievers blow leads all the time, and when they do managers are generally questioned about it. However, this is different and thus will bring extra scrutiny.
Destroying The Whole Starter Concept:
By far the most radical, and thus the least likely solution, it still bears considering, if only as a thought exercise. Basically, a pitching staff would be split into 2 groups: long pitchers and short pitchers.
Long pitcher: 6-8 guys would be asked to throw 50-75 pitches every 3-4 days, with numbers of pitches thrown depending on how many they threw last time, how long they’ve been off, overall health etc. The best guys would typically start and give way to lesser guys, but that’s not a hard and fast rule and the system would require some flexibility to cover all the games.
Short pitcher: 4-7 guys who would basically be deployed the same way that most short relievers are used now. Single inning stints, up to 3-4 days in a row, something like 50-70 times a year.
This would allow managers to have their best pitchers effect the outcomes of more games, play more match ups all while still covering the innings needed. It would probably require a true rubber-armed junk man (cough cough) to soak innings and go multiple days in a row from time to time to make it work and the occasional shuffle with AAA guys. The main obstacle standing in the way of this is just flat out tradition. It would require that managers, players, media and fans all basically completely abandon their preconceived notions about how to use pitchers. Perhaps one of the above schemes could help pave the way for something like this, but for now it’s just too radical a change to really discuss much further.
Tomorrow, in part Part 3, we look at what the Brewers can realistically do to help get them through this year.