This recent piece by Dave Krieger examining the current state of the Rockies front office got me thinking a bit more about the Rockies four man rotation experiment. Not so much the failure of the pitching staff this year but more in terms of a 30,000 foot view of the franchise, perhaps as a GM would look at it. This notion of no pitcher ever having sustained success at Coors and the elevation having a negative effect on health is downright scary; much scarier than the ball carrying further or pitches not breaking as much. Tom Glavine is quoted here saying that he was more sore after a start at Coors. The problem it that it is hard to draw lines between development issues and health issues and the plain fact that many MLB pitchers have spurts of success that are not sustained. But if there is a fundamental health hazard to a pitcher’s arm at altitude, that really is something that is worth instituting an unconventional change. As Doctor Glenn Fleisig says here a pitcher’s arm is constantly breaking down and repairing over the course of a season. Throw a baseball and your arm breaks down in some manner. Rest your arm and it repairs. Of course keeping a pitcher healthy is some sort of a balancing act of the repairing more or less keeping up with the breaking down. This is why there is some skepticism of the decision to hold back a healthy Stephen Strasburg at some point this year. If his arm is actually in good health there may be no greater chance of a big one time injury (UCL tear) on October 1st than on June 1st. If the Rockies have found or been advised that the Coors Field altitude does either accelerate the breakdown or decelerate the repair than all options should be on the table. In that case, it is possible that a four man rotation could be in the best interest of the Rockies while not making sense for the rest of baseball. The 2012 Rockies pitching has been a mess, beyond what a change to or from the 4 or 5 rotation can help. But it is work considering what benefits the four man rotation could have with a better, more consistent staff.
To begin, the effect of the 4 man rotation is not to change the workload of the 4 starters; it is to redistribute the workload. The top 100 starting pitchers in MLB over the last 5 years (according to fWAR) have averaged 6.24 innings pitched per start. I used this group because it seems to represent a cross section of “competent solid” pitchers. Of course it includes Halladay and Verlander, but also Daisuke Matsuzaka, Erik Bedard, and Randy Wolf- solid yet unspectacular guys. Over that time the average NL starter used 16.18 pitches per inning. In a conventional 5 man rotation (32 starts) that means the average top 100 pitcher would go 199.68 IP in a season, or 3,231 pitches thrown in season. For the 4 man rotation with solid competent pitchers (40 starts per year), the numbers compare like this:
If 75 pitch limit: 4.64 IP per start (= 185 IP for season, 2,993 pitches thrown in season)
If 80 pitch limit: 4.94 IP per start (= 197 IP for season, 3,187 pitches thrown in season)
If 85 pitch limit: 5.25 IP per start (= 210 IP for season, 3,398 pitches thrown in season)
So for the 4 starters in the rotation, the total season workload is going to be about the same, however the work will be distributed as less strenuous work more often. Or, going back to the medical view: less breakdown in the arm but also less repair time. If the Rockies find that for some reason this is preferable at Coors than it should merit strong consideration.
Beyond the health considerations, the four man rotation is interesting. The reasoning that a stacked team does not go to a 6 man rotation is that it would result in the team’s 6th best starter is talking innings away from the team’s other 5 superior pitchers. And it has also been generally accepted that pitching every 5 days is the acceptable balance point of a starter being utilized in the most frequent way that also preserves his health. So if a team can go through a whole season of a 4 man rotation remaining healthy it means that the innings that the 5th starter (inferior to the other 4) are not thrown into the mix for starting games. Of course those innings need to be reallocated, and that theoretically results in adding one or two long men to the bullpen. This is where I think a big benefit may lie. Instead of having a 5th starter trying to go 6 or so innings, he can pitch every 3-4 days for 2 innings, avoiding batters ever seeing him more than once in a game, which would give him an advantage. It may also decrease the walks of the long man given that they should be able to utilize their 2 or 3 best pitches and feel the need to depend on their 3rd or 4th best pitch less often, resulting in better command. So while many have focused on the “times-through-the-order effect” for the starters, I think it is even more beneficial to the man who would have been the 5th starter, his numbers should figure to be much better than if he were starting in a conventional rotation. The ultimate success of the 4 man rotation is probably most tethered to having two pitchers that perfectly fit the mold of the long man. Think for a moment about Alex White in this role. He would almost never see a batter twice in a game, and he would be able to utilize his sinker more and his lesser developing pitches would be less of a liability.
Here is how the starters will enjoy benefit from the “times-through-the-order effect”. It is certainly real. So far in 2012, MLB league wide shows significant splits between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd times through the order for starters:
1st time .251/.312/.402
2nd time .260/.321/.418
3rd time .272/.332/.443
The more times a batter sees a pitcher in a game he gets more hits, walks more, and hits for more power. The starters will no doubt benefit in some way from this fact. And the MLB wide 1st at bat against a reliever is even better than 1st time against a reliever, let alone a 3rd at bat against a starter. So far in 2012 MLB batters have batted .242/.318/.380 against a reliever the 1st time through the order. So the long man could really have a chance to succeed much more than if he were to be a 5th starter in a conventional rotation.
A few misconceptions have surfaced in regards to the 4 man rotation. One is that it would only work with 4 Nolan Ryans or other titans of durability and deep pitch counts. That is a fallacy. The point is not to rely further on the 4 starters; the point is to more efficiently redistribute their innings over the season. The Rockies don’t need 4 absolute studs to make the 4 man work, just 4 solid performers, which has been the whole problem.
The problem is that the Rockies may have done this at the worst possible time, trying to combat the rotation being miserable with this change has obviously not been effective. My point is that the four man rotation’s strength may be in the “5th starter that is not starting and the other longman, and the 2012 Rockies have had an absolute dearth of that this year. In fact, at no point during the 2012 season have the Rockies ever had 4 or 5 competent, performing starters. Therefore the possible benefits of the four man rotation cannot be realized. Consider this though: If the Rockies had a healthy JhoulysChacin, Jorge de la Rosa, and Juan Nicasio, this whole experiment would look a lot different. Consider my ideal 4 man rotation assignments with the Rockies current personnel:
Jorge de la Rosa
Piggy back (long man):
In games where your starter can get you 6 innings, you would use your setup men and closer to finish the game depending on the score situation.
In games where starter goes between 4-6 innings and the team has the lead or is within a few runs, use White and Friedrich as the piggy back
In games where starter goes 3-5 innings and the games is out of reach use Ottavino or Roenicke as the piggy back. These two could also function as set up men or a long man with a lead depending on the staff wide usage patterns during that time.
I would absolutely like to see that experiment in 2013. That would actually be an experiment, whereas this mess in 2012 has just been an attempt to bandage a gaping wound. I can’t believe that I am saying it… but I would actually like to see the 4 man rotation return next season.