The Angels are, apparently, committed to trying a six-man rotation. This is interesting, but as FanGraphs pointed out, also problematic because of the strain it puts on the roster. I would add that pitchers tend to get hurt, after all, and most teams have a hard time filling a five man rotation. So a six man rotation is going to be even harder even without the roster crunch.

One of the things that gets lost from time to time is that we still have no idea how to prevent pitcher injuries. There are numerous write ups and studies with no evidence that anything makes a huge difference except that there is a correlation between extreme fatigue and injury. And by extreme fatigue I’m referring to games in which pitchers throw a huge number of pitches or a lot of pitches in stressful situations.

But even that isn’t a great predictor. Indeed, the best way to predict whether or not a pitcher will get hurt is by looking at whether or not he’s been hurt before. And so it may be that these kinds of things aren’t predictable. Some pitchers will get hurt and others won’t and that’s just all there is to it.

So what if a team like the Reds went back to the 4-man rotation? The odds of having any 4 pitchers healthy at once are better than the odds of having any 5 pitchers healthy at once. Given how in-game pitcher usage is changing, the kind of damaging stress that can occur from throwing too many pitches without recovery time is getting very low.

If the Reds were to try it, they would have an Opening Day rotation of (probably): Luis Castillo, Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, and Brandon Finnegan. They would then have a AAA rotation of Tyler Mahle, Amir Garrett, Sal Romano, and Robert Stephenson, any of whom could come in should one of the big leaguers get injured. That’s two full rotations of major league-caliber starters. And we haven’t discussed Michael Lorenzen or Cody Reed.

The idea here, essentially, is that it makes no sense to think of a rotation as containing a set number of pitchers. Rather, we should view it as a set number of slots. If you get the slots down to the smallest reasonable number, then you should be able to maximize the innings you get from your most durable starters, and thus reduce uncertainty.

Think of it this way: There are almost certainly major league pitchers available who can pitch 250 innings. But the way the modern game is set up, it’s almost impossible to reach that number. In a theoretical universe, a team’s top-8 starters might situate like this in terms of their carrying capacity for innings:

250, 250, 180, 150, 125, 100, 100, 50

It is the job of management to maximize the innings they get from their best pitchers. Also, the best pitchers are not always those who throw the most innings. So let’s imagine that the quality of those pitchers goes something like this:

  1. 180
  2. 150
  3. 50
  4. 250
  5. 100
  6. 250
  7. 125
  8. 100

Who do you want in your rotation? You’re almost certainly going to need all 250 innings from pitchers 4 and 6 and you can cobble together another 500 or so from pitchers 1, 2, 3, and 5. You’ve got 7 and 8 hanging out in case you need them, but in a 4-man rotation you probably don’t because pitchers 4 and 6 are eating so many innings, it’s possible to use the other pitchers to compensate for each other. Effectively, the idea behind a 4-man rotation is that it raises your floor without lowering your ceiling much at all.

This is a moderately disorganized post and I’m still figuring out what I think about it, but given that nothing that has been tried has been shown to reduce the frequency of pitching injuries, it makes more sense to maximize the innings you get from pitchers who are physically capable of being workhorses while filling the remaining holes with those pitchers who are more fragile.

Now, let’s look at the Reds top-8 in terms of innings pitched last year. Except for Stephenson, where we’ll use 2016 since he was a reliever for part of last year.  Major league and minor league innings are included.

  1. Luis Castillo – 169.2
  2. Anthony DeSclafani – 6.2
  3. Homer Bailey – 101.2
  4. Brandon Finnegan – 13.0
  5. Sal Romano – 136.1
  6. Robert Stephenson – 163.2
  7. Tyler Mahle – 164.1
  8. Amir Garrett – 137.2

Now, given artificial innings limits, it seems the three pitchers most likely to be able to handle a full season of starting are Castillo, Stephenson, and Mahle. In the next tier you probably have Amir and Homer. Amir because his injury wasn’t an arm injury and Homer because he seems to finally have healed. Next is Romano, and finally Disco and Finnegan – who have to be considered very high injury risks for now.

Now, I don’t know what kind of rotation you cobble together from that, but I do know that a four-man rotation gives you a lot more options. I’m interested to hear what you folks think in the comments.

22 Responses

  1. sultanofswaff

    I like the idea. With so many off-days early in the season, we should definitely be talking about a 4 man rotation the first month. The Rays are gonna do it. The benefit is that the guys battling for that 5th spot would get regular work at AAA or as the long man. As we all could see, inconsistent playing time did nothing for our young pitchers last year!

    At the same time, I could envision a month-long stretch in August where a six man rotation would provide some benefit in the form of extra rest. I’m not a fan of skipping starts because it messes with their preparation too much.

  2. cfd3000

    It’s a complicated equation involving effectiveness and durability. The Reds SHOULD have five effective starters from the ten you mention, and if they do then a five man rotation is an easy call. But if they don’t, for reasons of injury or ineffectiveness, then I’m fine with a four man rotation. It seems like the fifth starter has been just awful the last couple of years – think Arroyo and Bonilla in 2017. We don’t need more of that just for the sake of convention. A six man rotation makes no sense to me. If you can’t find five good starters, how does six make any sense? And there should be nine or ten “experience” slots between Cincinnati and AAA. All the candidates should pitch regularly, and be tested and evaluated, in one of the two rotations. My hope is that four or five very reliable starters will carry the Reds to a winning season in 2018. My expectation is that it will take most of the year to identify those pitchers and 2019 will be the next winning year. Maybe determined guys like Garrett and Reed and Lorenzen will prove me wrong, soon. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

  3. Bill

    I still like a 6 man rotation. If we want to see what the young pitchers can do at the major level why have a 4 man rotation with 3 having injury histories.

    • da bear

      I like it too. In a way the Dodgers last year employed 7 or 8 starters thanks to injuries and it worked out pretty well for them.

      • daytonnati

        Me too, at least until the dust settles and the consistent quality starters reveal themselves.

  4. Seth R

    The 10 day DL should help with the 4-man rotation, right? You can cycle SP5-8 in once or twice a month, giving the top 4 guys a rest when in a long stretch of consecutive games or on a road trip. Might be hard on the AAA guys, but in a vacuum it gives you more roster flexibility.

  5. Reds Fan in FL

    Having a 4 man rotation in which every pitcher only pitches 5-6 innings max per start is a reasonable strategy. Assuming everyone is healthy and doesn’t miss a start (last time I believe that almost happened in Cincinnati was 2012) would result in 200-240 innings pitched per pitcher. Most likely, most of the pitchers will have some bad outings and pulled before they hit their 5-6 inning limit and will probably miss starts due to soreness, aliments and various injuries. But if none of the time off or missed starts are significant, one can assume 170-200 innings for a core 4 man rotation.

    You can then have 3 “long relievers” who are expected to pitch 2-3 innings every 3rd day to get the game from the 5th/6th inning to the 7th/8th inning. These would be the “starters in waiting” if there is an missed outing or injury to the starting 4 man rotation. Add in 2 or 3 situational relievers, 1 set up man and 1 closer and you have a 11-12 pitchers on your roster.

    • Reds Fan in FL

      Most teams are now carrying 11-13 pitchers on their 25 man roster. My proposal would be 11-12 pitchers. This would leave 8 starters and 5-6 bench players which is in-line with what the Reds and others have been doing.

      • Reds Fan in FL

        No assign your best 4 to be the everyday staters – assuming they stay healthy, they start 40 games x 5 innings = 200 innings a year. Do you know how many Reds SP pitched > 150 innings last year? ZERO.

        The next 3 best starters are the long relievers pitching 2-3 innings every 3rd game = 80-120 innings potential. They are also available to start if/when one of the initial 4 is unable (worked his way out of the rotation due to poor performance, injuries, etc.). This gives the next 3 the potential to pitch potentially 100-150 innings. Do you know how many Reds pitchers have pitched at least 125 innings in a year over the past 2 years? TWO – both in 2016 and one of them (Straily) is no longer on the team.

        This strategy will give the Reds the opportunity to evaluate the top 7 pitchers to see who are the legitimate pitchers for 2019 and beyond.

  6. scottya

    I like the idea of thinking outside of the box. I’m genuinely not sure about the 4 man rotation idea. I have no idea what the answer to this is, but my concern would be effect on the pitcher’s performance come playoff time.

    Things like: using your closer in high leverage situations, using your closer for 2 inning stints, shifts, use of bunting, lineup construction, improving launch angle, taking advantage of platoon splits?, etc are all idea’s the Reds need to be on the leading edge.

  7. Streamer88

    Pitcher injuries are complex no doubt. In addition to your referenced reasons add max effort and muscle mass / weight training.

    The shoulder and elbow are force generators AND force conduits. As in, they can throw intrinsically, and also can receive force from the legs hips and back, in conjunction with their own (much smaller) forces from the rotator cuff and flexor muscles to be a conduit of energy to the ball for even more force.

    If we made pitchers sit on the rubber and throw, there would never, ever be a TJ or cuff injury. Zero. Why? Because the shoulder and elbow cannot overpower its tendons and ligaments with their intrinsic forces alone.

    Why does any of this matter? As players have focused on strength training, sometimes PEDs, explosive non recruited movements, and going “max effort” every pitch, their joints and ligaments are receiving forces that they simply cannot tolerate. This leads to injuries.

    There are many reasons pitchers are now forced more than ever to throw as hard as they can. We measure the speed of every pitch. Sabermetrics, the success of TJ surgery. Hitters are better and more powerful too.

    Taken together, absolutely everything about the pitcher and his game has changed except for the only thing that can’t: the composition and durability of the connective tissues holding on for dear life inside of his shoulder and elbow. These are not “alterable” with strength training like their muscle counterparts.

    4 man rotation? Sure. Why not. No matter what, any plan should be finding guys who CAN throw 98, but demanding, forcing, them to ever only throw it 94.

    • Dave Roemerman

      Agreed – max effort and weight training cause injury, especially since a lout of big lifters ignore flexibility. That said, I’m not sure it’s necessarily even much more frequent for arms to get hurt. Before TJ, a guy “blew out his arm” and vanished from high school, college, or the minors. He disappeared and became an “I was once a ballplayer” story. Now, we put humpty dumpty together again and talk about how many guys have had TJ surgery. I’m not sure the rate of injury has increased. There could simply be more injuries at upper levels and more recoveries.

  8. JR

    I like the idea of a four-man rotation simply because it’s your four BEST starters. A 5th or 6th starter takes away starts from your four-best. But with Price “guaranteeing” spots before a single pitch has been thrown in spring training, what’s the ;point? The Reds pitching staff needs competition, period. And it sounds like Lorenzen, Reed and Amir want it.

    • koverman

      i totally agree setting a rotation before march is assinine

  9. KDJ

    Factors that complicate things are the differences in what pitchers’ bodies can handle and how their psychological makeups differ. For the physical, some perform better throwing fewer pitches more frequently (e.g. Iglesias); others do better with a heavy workload and then some specific number of days recovery. Likewise, some have a closer’s “slam the door” mentality and are fine not knowing day to day whether they will take the mound. Others prepare mentally for days working through plans of how to approach hitters multiple times in one game. Altering their routine will often mess them up. A manager needs to know what kind of pitchers he has and put them in the situations where they are best likely to succeed.

  10. wizeman

    We are still in a rebuilding mode though this is the year we are hoping to see some tangible results.
    Let’s take a look where we are at and apply the dreaded Verducci rule where appropriate
    Bailey coming off multiple years of arm issues
    Disco the same
    Finnegan coming off shoulder issues
    Castillo 169 innings
    Romano 136 innings
    Stephenson 124 innings

    If there was ever a team ready for a six man rotation… this is it

  11. Bill

    What ever number they have in the rotation the pen better be good. For we know every starter will not go 5 or 6 innings every time. It’s nice dreamimg.

  12. Jeff Reed

    As the Reds pitching staff prepares for this season, in my opinion, only Castillo is the starter ready to go a complete game. The rest of the possible starters are coming back from injury and the others are young and not yet proven ML starting pitchers with a couple exceptions. The bullpen has been strengthened over the offseason, so until proven different, as the season progresses, I would favor the six man rotation.

  13. Dave Roemerman

    Um…Bailey, Finnegan, Disco, and Castillo? Which of these is a 250 IP workhorse, exactly? The reason for the switch to a 5-man and, possibly 6-man rotation is less injury prevention and more fatigue reduction. Further, reducing innings by going through the lineup twice (as opposed to 3x, the early hook) or pitching on more rest improves, in most cases, the quality of the innings pitched. Finally, there is not much more “crunching” to a roster than a long reliever who is used every 2 or 3 weeks to toss 3-5 super low-leverage innings. It rates right there with a Rule 5 third catcher or a utility infielder who can play only third and possibly some first. We have plenty of arms to run them out there for a lot of starts and see who can contribute in 2019. The absolute last thing we need is fewer starts available! If we’re doing that, let’s limit innings by resigning Arroyo!

  14. Dave Roemerman

    Stengel used to save Whitey Ford through the season to pitch against the better teams and would regularly switch up his rotation. I know that’s a long time ago but think of this:
    The Astros didn’t have a starter who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title! They bring 7 established starters to camp and are fine with it. Depth wins, not 250 IP studs (that we don’t have) throwing all the time.

    It’s great to have Trout (also not here) but three good outfielders produce more than him with two negative WAR guys. Our depth is fine and we should give everyone plenty of starts to find out what we have instead of worrying about fragile psyches and routines for young guys who could end up in the pen anyway.

  15. Michael E

    Well, given managers rarely let pitchers go more than 6 innings these days a 4 man rotation makes 10x the sense a 6 man rotation does. You could carry an extra bullpen arm since they’re getting used tons anyway.

    Having a 6 man rotation and still pulling pitchers after 5 ininngs means you are babying your starters, but at the complete disregard for anyone in the bullpen and their health. It works both ways.

    Personally, I would make it my sole mission to get back to having 30+ complete games by my team, 4 man rotation and each going 250+ innings. No current pitcher should ever make the hall of fame with the workloads of freshmen in high school. It cheapens those that made it throwing 250-300 innings 10+ times in their careers.

    Note, most of our pitchers that got hurt last year, were hurt early, some before throwing 1000 cumulative practice and spring pitches. I think a light workload can lead to an injury just as much as a heavy one. If I barely do any activity and suddenly go out and split 100 pieces of wood, I ache all over, blisters on hands (even with gloves) and other stuff. I remember as a kid, throwing the baseball every day for 2/3 of the year, and hitting often, I had callouses on my hands so that I didn’t need batting gloves. I could go out to warm up for a game and I immediately threw as hard as I could, no worries. I feel I’d have seen injuries had I not, like the time I tried out for high school team in January, and I hadn’t thrown hardly any (footballs a bit) for the previous 3 months and I immediately had a sore elbow, not more than three or four OF throws in….the lack of arm usage caused me to have elbow strain and numbness. I learned then you must throw hard and often if you want to be durable, not soft and less.

  16. Jeffrey Copeland

    I still like the idea of no actual starting rotation. Best pitcher goes no more than 3 innings and then could possibly go every other game. Anyone could start the game because they are not going 5 or 6 innings. They are going 2-3. Always pitch the pitcher that fits the situation. Most 3 game series has each pitcher needing to pitch 2 1/3 innings for the 3 games. It’s completely fantasy, but it would be interesting.