Today’s Boston Globe sports section examines the “problem” of what to do with all of the pitching talent in the bullpen. There are 13 pitchers and 6 starters or starting quality arms. An article by Tony Massarotti examines five solutions four of which involve demoting a pitcher to the pen and the last one suggests a 6 man rotation.
I think it’s time for bolder thinking.
I believe there should be two objectives for figuring out this rotation (in addition to winning most games). They are:
1. Reducing late season fatigue due to pitching too many innings
2. Keeping pitchers’ heads in the game
The five day rotation has a rhythm that the pitchers are accustomed to. They rest, recover, throw on the side and work on technique, and eventually get ready to pitch again. We wouldn’t want to disrupt the five-day rotation because it might be hard to get everyone on the same page. But we could reduce the innings pitched to preserve arms for the post season.
I suggest pairing two starters or a starter and a reliever as a tag team — the 4-4-1 strategy. Each would be responsible for pitching 4 innings. That leaves the closing duties to the three remaining pitchers in the pen. And if a game is close or the pen is tired, asking a starter to pitch an extra inning (the fifth or the ninth) would not be a strain. To ensure that the starters are kept happy a “starting pair” of pitchers could alternate which chunk of 4 innings they pitch effectively giving each pitcher a start every ten days.
The down side of this rotation would be to leave the pen depleted of short relief. But frequently we see pitchers brought in for the later innings because a starter runs out of gas or long relief because the pitcher’s stuff is no good or because the manager wants to have a match up of lefty vs. righty. But all these strategies are attempts to make due with insufficient pitching power to begin with. In a 4-4-1 strategy we would know a new pitcher was coming after four or possibly five innings no matter what.
In the first four innings of a game these starting pitchers can be reasonably depended on to throw well and I wouldn’t worry too much about a Red Sox starter getting shelled and leaving the game before four innings are up. It could happen but we go into a game knowing no team wins all the time. In the worst cast scenario, if a starter got pulled after only two innings the second starter could be reliably counted on to go the next five or six.
Lastly, the matter of matching up relief pitchers and hitters in the late innings would be less important because there would always be a fresh, high quality pitcher on the mound.
When I was a kid pitchers routinely went 9 innings which resulted in some very tired arms in the later part of the season and the last third of an inning could be a hitter’s dream as the pitcher’s effectiveness wore down. (As a reminder we need look no further than that painful memory of Pedro and Grady Little at Yankee Stadium in the ALCS.) Then we went to 7 innings for starters and to monitoring pitch counts, which is better but we still see late season fatigue and still too many head games (and station breaks) late in games as pitchers are brought in to face one batter.
A 4-4-1 strategy may be the next logical evolution of a system that started with greater reliance on relief pitching, and in a way it is a throw back to little league. Few teams have the talent to even attempt this strategy, which is a good thing because it could prove to be the Red Sox secret weapon for the second half of the season.
A great way to test the effectiveness of 4-4-1 might be to briefly implement it in the run up to the All-Star Game. If the experiment blows up it will have limited impact but if it works it could mean lots of fresh arms in September and October.