As we saw in part one, there are some very real reasons to rethink the current standard starter/reliever model of pitcher deployment. Those reasons are somewhat true across the game as a whole, but also apply very specifically to quite a few pitchers the Brewers will be counting on to get them through the 2013 season. In part two, we looked at some potential modifications to the current system. Today, we’ll expand on those a little bit and try to apply them to the Brewers to put forth a few humble suggestions for getting the most out of the talent on hand.
First off, it has to be acknowledged again just how hard it can be to break with tradition in the game of baseball and truly innovate. The large number of games and daily nature of the schedule tend to lend themselves to overreaction to every up and down by management, players, media and fans alike. Introducing new ideas that are bound to go through their own sets of ups and downs (like everything else in the game) into this pressure cooker of scrutiny has killed more innovation over the years than a Soviet 5 Year Plan. Still, the Brewers do have some things going for them on this front:
- General Manager Doug Melvin has been toying with finding better ways to deploy his pitchers for years and is at least potentially open to some innovation on this front, even if we’ve seen precious little beyond the very brief ”platoon starters” experiment of 2008. This doesn’t mean they’ll actually try something different, but at least we know minds are somewhat open.
- Any plan that alters the basic structure of a pitching staff is going to require some sales work by management, both to the players and to fans and media. The fans and media are harder to control, but the also tend to go along with things that are obviously successful. The bigger trick will be getting players to buy in, both because this is their livelihood we’re talking about here and also, their opinion actually matters quite a bit. Fortunately, one of the strong suits of the current management team is Ron Roenicke’s player relating skills. That was one of the main reasons he was hired, and it could be especially useful in this situation.
- This is a particularly good time for the Brewers to experiment on a number of fronts. To start with, they probably have the need to do something different. They also have decent depth in terms of young arms to work with, and even more on the way. Finally, the youth and inexperience of those players leaves them less room to quibble and argue with changes in their routines. For all practical purposes, Yovani Gallardo is really the only pitcher with an iron clad claim on even being in the rotation. That should make any change less likely to meet strong resistance.
So what actually is practical? That’s hard to say, but there are a few basic things that would increase the chances for success for whatever sort of innovation they might want to roll out this year. First off, there should be a gradual, step-by-step implementation process. Perhaps a first step could be simply trying to develop one or two “long relievers” that could be used to help bridge the gap between the starters and the regular relief corps. Once you have those, it’s easier to make changes to the rotation itself.
This, of course, means that whatever they do needs to be premeditated and viewed as part of a long-term plan. When the Rockies went to the 4 man rotation last year, if looked for all the world like the result of a failed plan and, basically, a shriek on the retreat. If the team wants people to have confidence in what they’re doing, it needs to look competent, and not like they are reacting to failure.
The plan also needs to leave room for flexibility, while still maintaining the appearance of control. Obviously, this is tricky, but really what it comes down to is not biting off more than you can chew and promising more than you can deliver. Don’t announce some radical plan that limits all starters to 75 or so pitches, like Colorado did last year. Don’t even plan on that. Instead, start looking for ways to get starters who are struggling out of games sooner and make sure you have guys ready to help pick up the slack. Done smartly, a new model could emerge naturally.
Finally, the team should focus on the long term benefits of making a change like this and sell them to players and fans. For instance, if the club makes going deeper into games not just a matter of club necessity, but something that is earned by actually becoming a better pitcher deep into games, they can encourage development while taking advantage of current skill levels of developing pitchers. Getting away from the “inning eating starter” model and going towards something more flexible makes it less important to stockpile perfect, high-ceiling pitchers and places a premium on finding depth. This could be used to alter basic draft and free agent strategies and focus more on finding a large number of “decent to good” arms rather than searching high and low for that increasingly mythic (and expensive) beast: the inning eating “Ace.”
At the end of the day, baseball is always changing. As it relates to starting pitchers, it’s already been changing for years, even if teams have been slow to adjust to those changes as a group. There are some very nice potential rewards waiting out there for any team that has the guts and the initiative to truly adapt to those changes instead of just trying to work around them. Someone is going to do something in the not too distant future, and do it more successfully than the 2012 Rockies. It’s mostly just a question of who is going to be the first to take a successful plunge. Heck, maybe it will even be the Brewers.