Killing The Mythic Beast: Part 2 | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

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.

Piggybacking Starters:

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.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Nicholas Zettel says: February 27, 2013

    I’m really glad you’re writing about this, Ryan. Thanks for the thought-exercises. I certainly could see abolishing the starter working in cases where you’d have “lines” (like a hockey team), or different groups of pitchers. One of the things that could help get that concept going — and give guys rest — is that some starters still can pitch very well in long roles. Certainly you’re not going to ask Yovani Gallardo to limit his pitches and work shorter outings; a guy like Gallardo can and should throw as deep into games as frequently as possible (but, guys that can actually do that are much rarer now).

    One question I’ve been meaning to ask, in general: why do pitchers that are conditioned better than ever need pitch limits in a four-man rotation scenario? I understand why it’s bad for starters to work inefficient outings where pitch counts are accumulated during stressful innings (and multiple shifts between the stretch and wind-up).

    But, it stands to reason that these guys should be able to throw on 3-days rest simply by virtue of their training. Are batters so much more specialized now, or so much better now, that pitchers have to exert more energy throwing? (Serious question).

    • Ross B says: February 27, 2013

      I think you answered it yourself with the batters being better now. They can’t take pitches or at bats off now, apart from against their counterpart in the NL, because batters not only reaped the same benefit for modern training techniques, but have cut into the pitchers deception advantage by watching video of their motions. I know pitchers can watch video as well to find holes in a batters swing, but it is easier to plan for one guy, the next days starter, than it is for the pitcher to plan for all 8 or 9 he faces the next time on the bump. Plus there are more limits on a pitchers ability to exploit these holes, since he needs to both throw the pitch the guy struggles against and have it be a good enough pitch to take advantage of it. For example, it doesn’t matter if batter X struggles recognizing sliders if Pitcher Y either doesn’t throw a slider or does and it isn’t all that good to begin with.

      • Ryan Topp says: February 27, 2013

        All makes perfect sense to me.

    • Ryan Topp says: February 27, 2013

      Thanks Nick.

      - As for Gallardo, I actually had that in the original draft, but dumped it for space and simplicity sake. I sort of envisioned a situation where young starters would sort of earn the right to a more “regular” schedule. Guys like Yo, who can go deeper with effectiveness, you wouldn’t want to give that up. You would just fit it into one the rest of the plan. No need to be dogmatic about it. Pragmatism is king!

      - The second question, honestly, I don’t have the answer for. I suspect it’s partly what you’re talking about, that batters require more effort to get out now. Koufax has basically said as much, to his great credit. The other factor probably has less to do with a change in the game on the field than it does the money involved. When guys were on year to year deals, no guarantees for the future, teams could be much more cavalier with their use. Now, with the investment involved, they have to be more cautious and more concerned about avoiding injury.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: February 27, 2013

      Great points, Ross and Ryan.You know, the more I think about it, I gather the distribution of HR has probably hurt pitching approaches more than the general increase in HR; sure, there are more HR now than in most eras, but I gather the elite guys like Braun or pure sluggers like Stanton aren’t hitting HR much more frequently than the greats of other eras; but, in the 1960s deadball eras, or even some of the 70s and 80s, how many Rickie Weeks were there? Now an average batter could take pitchers for 15-20 HR in a season. Even at 2B!

      I also agree about the money — certainly, investing $10s of millions in pitchers changes the outlook on wear and tear.

  2. Luke says: February 27, 2013

    These ideas have been floated before, and I believe they’re ahead of their time. Some team will implement one or more of them and enjoy great success with it. I’d love to see the Brewers try it, seems like they have the right personnel for it.

  3. Johnny says: February 27, 2013

    Interesting article. I had thought about a similar approach a couple of years back. I think this really has a future, especially in the NL. If you could start a pitcher that throws 2-3 innings, then pinch hit for him and bring in the next pitcher, the lineup starts to look a lot better. It would require using bench players more often which could get tricky, but would really shine if you have a couple pitchers on your squad that can hit like Gallardo. If he’s not pitching that day anyways you can pinch hit him for a guy that swings like Sheeter and you’re getting way more production. It’s probably a long ways off if it ever happens, but I think it would be interesting to see how much more productive an NL lineup would be with this approach.

    • joeisme says: March 5, 2013

      There aren’t enough good hitting pitchers in baseball to make it work. The bench would be severly short handed.

  4. Dan V says: February 28, 2013

    What is the turnaround time for long relievers? Say the Brewers adopted an approach that utilized 6-7 effective 3/4 inning guys, how fast could they pitch again? Is it all about innings per year or recovery time between short starts? Is Yo more effective going deep into games or throwing 4 innings of scoreless ball every 3 to 4 days?

    Without a ton of impact talent on the way and a lot of guys that seem to limit damage early, and guys whose stuff thus far seems to play up in relief but we keep pushing along as starters, the hole idea of changing the system is intriguing.

    Good thread from this article, time to have a beer and think about baseball stuff.

    • Ryan Topp says: February 28, 2013

      Really great questions Dan. This is something that was at one point in there, but was cut just to keep things short and sweet, at least as much as possible.

      In my mind, I think it would be best to be as flexible as possible with the guys in that last scenario. Say a guy was absolutely killing it. Mowing guys down. You pitch him 80 or 90 pitches and then give him a little extra time based on how he’s feeling. As for Yo, I could see working him (and other guys capable of it) on a more traditional schedule and working the other guys around him.

      Basically, the way it would work for pitchers is they would be given rest based on how much they pitched and also how they felt. Let’s say a guy threw 80 pitches last time, and that normally gets 3 days off before pitching again, but the guy feels good. On that third day, you might make him available, but only if the need was high. You would hope to use him on day 4, but if the need just doesn’t arise you would hold him back and make sure you use him the next day. Again, the key is being flexible, but attentive to the pitchers needs.

  5. joeisme says: March 5, 2013

    I think your last concept is severly flawe. The number of pitchers it would take to make it work would be 13-14 considering minor injuries, etc. Moving guys to AAA and up again coesn’t work because of the waiting period after sending someone down. There aren’t enough good pitchers to make it work. It also makes the bench extremely shorthanded and nearly impossible to work when a position player gets hurt for a short time and doesn’t need to go on the DL.

    • Ryan Topp says: March 5, 2013

      I’ve broken down the numbers, and if you can get 60 pitches each every 4 days by 8 “long pitchers” and 2 appearances of no more than 30 every 5 days from your “short” pitchers, that is 3360 pitches in 20 days, the longest amount of time a team can play w/o an off day. That is 168 pitches a game. Last year, the major league average number of pitches was 145, or 2,900.

      Now, those numbers are conservative. I think that a pitcher given a guaranteed 3 days off can go more than 60 pitches on a regular basis. They can probably actually push closer to 80, if they have that time off. As for the short pitchers, managers will surely be tempted to use them more often and for less time, but if you break down a 70 inning RP, you end up with about the same workload anyway, so we basically already know they can do it.

      The stumbling block here is, and I know it’s big, is that a manager is going to have to have the guts to stick with a struggling “long pitcher” who didn’t start the game the same way that they would stick with a struggling SP when he needs innings now. There is a mindset that it’s OK for a manager to stick with a struggling starter to eat innings, but it’s not OK to stick with a struggling reliever in the same situation. That’s going to have to be overcome.

      But just covering the innings? That’s not a problem under this system if it’s executed the way I laid out. Yes, you’ll need a manager who is flexible, and willing to go with it, and that isn’t happening. But the numbers work, at least as best as I can tell.

      • Ryan Topp says: March 5, 2013

        Sorry, that was with 8 long pitchers and 4 short pitchers. So 12 total pitchers set to give 3,300+ pitches every 20 days w/o an off day without even pushing past 60 and 30 pitch appearances. If you up the staff to 13, which it surely will be at times, then you have more. Also, remember off days will give the staff time to reset. Strictly from the numbers, this can work.

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