The 3-man rotation? It’s coming … sometime
For a long time, there wasn’t any such thing as a "pitching rotation." The managers didn’t want to be locked into anything, plus the uneven schedules didn’t really allow for it. Fairly strict four-man rotations became popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, and finally the five-man rotation took over for good in the 1980s.
In the past few years, there’s the occasional talk about the six-man rotation and its even more occasional deployment. But never seriously, or for long. Essentially, we’ve been stuck with five men for roughly 30 years now.
To be sure, some things have changed. Thirty years ago, Bert Blyleven led the majors with 24 complete games, and 13 pitchers finished at least 10 complete games; this year, nobody completed even five games.
Still, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello points out, the decrease in starters’ workloads hasn’t been nearly as dramatic as you might think. In 1995, starting pitchers accounted for 66 percent of all the innings in the majors; this year they accounted for 65 percent. It seems that for every time a starter comes out "early," another stays in later.
Still, change is a-coming. Change is always a-coming; it’s just a question of how long you’re willing to wait. And Petriello makes the case for a fairly radical change, citing the now-familiar fact that starting pitchers are significantly less effective the third time through the order: "Unless you have one of baseball’s truly elite aces, you almost certainly don’t want your starter facing more than 15-18 batters. It’s the wave of the future, coming soon to a ballpark near you."
I’m glad he says "15-18" rather than just 18, since of course "time through the order" is an artificial dividing line. There is no magic line; the line depends on the hitters, along with the durability of the pitcher and how many pitches he’s thrown already. Along with a half-dozen other things.
The wave of the future? I don’t know. Maybe. At least with the lesser starting pitchers. We’re not going to see Clayton Kershaw coming out after five innings and 74 pitches. I don’t think. Nor does Petriello advocate such a thing. So yes, I think he’s right.
But what we’re going to see in the near future is something we’ve already seen, at least in October. It’s evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
Earlier this week, Bill James suggested a revolution.
I quoted the end of Petriello’s essay. Here is the beginning of Bill’s:
It is entirely possible and entirely practical, in modern baseball, for a team to use a three-man starting rotation. I realize that this is probably not going to happen, but … this is how it could work, and this is why it would work.
Suppose that a team used a three-man starting rotation, but limited each pitcher to 80 pitches a start or five innings. (This actually would work with 90 pitches a start, but 80 is more conservative, so I’m going to use 80 as a working premise.) Anyway, a starting pitcher always and absolutely comes out of the game as soon as
1) He has pitched five innings, or
2) He has thrown 80 pitches.
No exceptions. Eighty pitches, it’s the fifth inning, you’re ahead 9-0 and you have two outs and two strikes on the hitter … tough luck, Sally, you should have thrown more strikes earlier in the game.
Bill expands upon this proposal in great detail, and I highly recommend that if you’re interested in this idea — and if you’re here, how could you not be — you read the whole thing. Just in case you’re too busy, though, a quick outline:
1) The current system is not keeping pitchers healthier than the system of 40 years ago did;
2) the current system, which focuses on pitching every fifth day and throwing no more than 110 or 120 pitches per start, has actually resulted in less durability, not more; and
3) pitchers could throw more often, and more innings per season, if they threw fewer pitches per start.
Which leads to Bill’s proposal, three-man rotations and strict in-game limits of five innings or 80 pitches, whichever comes first. In practice, Bill says, nobody wound wind up with more than around 245 innings in a season. That’s not a huge number when you consider that seven major leaguers topped 220 innings in the 2015 regular season.
But now you’re getting 10-25 percent more innings from your three best starters, and 100 percent fewer innings from your worst starters (not counting injuries, of course). Meanwhile, your starter is literally never pitching to the opposing lineup a third time in a game. Which, again, is a good thing.
Who soaks up the rest of the innings? Well, Bill says an eight-man bullpen can handle things: closer, eighth-inning guy, three sixth- and seventh-inning guys, two situational lefties, and another lefty or a long man. If the starting pitchers pitch a little less than five innings per start that’ll be 760 innings per season," Bill writes, "which leaves about 700 for the bullpen. With eight relievers that’s 88 innings per reliever. That doesn’t strike me as an extraordinary number."
Well, yeah … but it would strike nearly every current manager as extraordinary. Five closers racked up at least 40 saves this year. They averaged only 70 innings apiece. And then you’ve got the situational lefties, including a bunch who pitched in more than 50 games but logged fewer than 50 innings. Bottom line, the workloads of nearly every relief pitcher would have to rise significantly if starters are limited to five innings.
Now, there are some pretty smart people who believe that relief pitchers are perfectly capable of pitching effectively and staying healthy with larger workloads. It’s just nobody who actually works in baseball seems to believe it. Well, except for Bill. I should say nobody who works as a manager or a pitching coach.
But maybe the bigger issue is the starting pitchers, because who wants to be the guy or gal who tells Clayton Kershaw next spring that he’s going to start 54 games, and won’t pitch into the sixth inning in any of them? Who wants to be the guy or gal who tells Matt Harvey’s agent something like that?
But I don’t believe Bill’s thinking about next spring. If there’s one thing we know about how pitchers are used today, it’s that they won’t be used in exactly the same way 10 years from now. Or 20. Which is why I can imagine Bill’s idea, or something like it, taking root at some point in the foreseeable future. I think you would need to start with pitchers in your farm system, get them used to the idea of starting a lot more often; and yes, maybe winning 25 games in a season, which is an interesting notion. I think you’ll also need a 12-man staff — which is what team generally have now, actually — or maybe even a 13-man staff with 10 relievers. Which is tough with a 25-man roster, but does anybody seriously think we won’t see 26-man rosters before passing from this mortal coil? Mind you, I’m not advocating a 26-man roster, because I recoil from specialization. But with a 26-man roster, you can carry 13 or even 14 pitchers. Which opens all sorts of unorthodox doors.
The changes might continue to be gradual, in which case we’ll continue to hardly notice. But they might come suddenly, in which case some of us will lose our heads. But most of us won’t, because it’ll still be guys pitching and guys hitting and guys fielding, wearing the same laundry we’ve always loved.
Well, except with ads. But most of us will get used to that, too.