When I first started watching baseball, what broadcasters, newspapermen and other fans drilled into my head was that you batted your fastest guy first, a guy who could hit to right field second, your best hitter third, your strongest guy fourth, pitching was 80 percent of the game, the most important stat for batters was AVG and for pitchers it was Wins.
Of course it all turned out to be false.
But it doesn’t mean that we are completely enlightened now and that today’s conventional wisdom is miles ahead of what it was in the 1970s. We don’t have to look very far to see areas where the majority of clubs are doing things in a less than ideal way.
Every team runs their bullpen to maximize the save chances for their closer, every team employs a LOOGY, seven man bullpens are standard, teams still bat their best hitter third, every team employs a five-man rotation.
Wait, wait – what?
There’s either very little or no proof that a five-man rotation is good for a club yet teams continue to use it, even as good starting pitching is scarcer than ever. Last year out of desperation, the Rockies went to a four-man rotation. While I’m not a Rockies fan, I thought this was fantastic news. Unfortunately, they have already announced plans to scrap it and move back to a five-man rotation for 2013.
But let’s examine the results of the Rockies’ experiment. Here are the stats for their starters when they went on three days rest (four-man rotation) and when they went on four days rest (five-man rotation):
3 days: .296/.356/.499 — .854 OPS, 5.49 ERA, 1.490 WHIP
4 days: .308/.371/.488 — .860 OPS, 5.57 ERA, 1.660 WHIP
Do you see one thing here from a quality standpoint that indicates that the pitchers did better with an extra day of rest? I would gladly trade 11 points of SLG for 15 fewer points of OBP.
It’s important to note that this does not “prove” that a four-man rotation is better. It’s just a single data point – the strongest one we have this century – that shows a four-man rotation does not provide worse results.
Let’s go back to the 1970s, the transition period when teams went from a four-man to a five-man rotation but it was still common to see pitchers go on three days of rest. Picking a year at random, I chose the bicentennial of 1976. Here is the same 3 days/4 days split we used above, this time for the entire NL:
3 days: .249/.313/.350 — .663, 3.35 ERA, 1.281 WHIP
4 days: .256/.313/.363 — .676, 3.47 ERA, 1.284 WHIP
Again, not much to choose from in regards to quality. Of course, if the quality is the same, a five-man rotation could be preferable if it helped prevent injuries. In 1976, 44 pitchers in the NL made 25 starts or more. In 2012, that number was 52. Of course there were only 12 teams in the NL in 1976, meaning an average of 3.7 per team. The average in 2012 was 3.3 per team.
If the five-man rotation kept pitchers healthier, we should have seen more pitchers on average making 25+ starts in 2012 but we found the exact opposite. Now, this could have been a quality issue as much as an injury issue – either way it’s not a ringing endorsement for the five-man rotation. Just looking at the Mets, we saw Dillon Gee, Mike Pelfrey and Johan Santana all go down with injuries last year.
How about the average length of an outing? Last year the Rockies had their starters on a very strict pitch count. But in 1976, the pitchers going on three days of rest averaged 6.5 IP per start while those going on four days averaged 6.6 IP per start.
Of course it should be pointed out that there were 371 starts on three days rest compared to 862 on four days rest in the NL in 1976. So, let’s look at an earlier year to get those numbers closer to even. Let’s try 1970:
3 days: .253/.319/.386 — .705 OPS, 3.90 ERA, 1.322 WHIP
4 days: .257/.322/.391 — .713 OPS, 4.07 ERA, 1.344 WHIP
There were 580 games on three days rest in the NL in 1970 compared to 729 on four days rest. Pitchers on three days averaged 6.7 IP while those on four days averaged 6.7 IP.
Only 39 pitchers made 25 or more starts in the NL in 1970, down from 44 in 1976. But it appears that may be an expansion/quality issue. This was just the second year in the league for Montreal and San Diego and those two only had five pitchers combined make 25 or more starts. Take away those second year expansion franchises and the rest of the NL averaged 3.4 per team, right in line with the 3.3 average of 2012.
So, if there is no improvement in the average quality of pitching, the average quantity of pitching and the average health of pitching with a five-man staff – wouldn’t clubs be better off employing a four-man rotation and having an extra hitter instead?
If you run a true four-man rotation and your top pitcher stays healthy, he should get 41 starts. No Mets pitcher has ever gotten 41 starts in a season. In fact, the record for starts for a Met is 36, done three times by Tom Seaver (‘70,’ 73, ’75) and once by Jack Fisher (’65). You could argue that the Mets never ran a four-man rotation for an entire year in franchise history.
The 1966 Dodgers had a rotation of Koufax, Drysdale, Osteen and Sutton. Those four combined to make 154 starts. That’s what a four-man rotation can look like. And this wasn’t a one-time thing, as Drysdale made 40+ starts in five consecutive seasons. The 1971 Orioles had a rotation of Palmer, Cuellar, McNally and Dobson. Those four combined for 142 starts.
I checked every year through 1978 and the most starts made by four members of the Mets rotation came in 1976, when Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and Mickey Lolich combined for 131 starts. But it’s hard to say they used a four-man rotation when Craig Swan got 22 starts that year.
You might be thinking: This is all very interesting but what does it have to do with the 2013 Mets? With the team’s trouble affording an impact bat in the outfield, they should be open to trading a SP for an OF with the idea of going – at least some of the time – with a four-man rotation.
This seems crazy on the surface, especially with Gee and Santana coming back from injuries. But that thinking is still clinging to the current conventional wisdom that the extra day of rest keeps pitchers healthier and we just have not seen evidence of that. It’s similar to thinking that Frank Taveras was a good leadoff hitter because he stole a lot of bases and that his .301 OBP was meaningless.
Let’s monitor how pitchers are used in Spring Training. Do they start out on four days rest? I don’t know the answer but somehow it doesn’t feel right to me. My guess is that they start pitching on shorter rest and then switch to four days. If that’s the case, then what if they just never switched to four days and kept on their early Spring Training schedule?
It’s my opinion that the Rockies were on the right path last year in going to a four-man rotation and adhering to pitch counts. Of course, the Rockies’ pitch count was extreme. But there should be some way to have a sensible pitch count combined with a four-man rotation.
Of course it was done in pursuit of the club’s first no-hitter, but in 2013 there’s no reason for the Mets to ever allow a pitcher to throw 134 pitches in a game in which the team wins, 8-0. What’s the point of allowing a hurler to toss 118 pitches in a game the Mets win, 17-1? If a pitcher has a five-run lead after he’s qualified for a win, take him out before he reaches 100 pitches. As bad as the Mets’ pen was last year, it didn’t come close to allowing an average of five runs in four innings. And four innings would be the absolute most the pen would have to deliver in this scenario.
There’s no doubt that in the 1960s and 1970s that pitchers broke down for good earlier than they do here in the 21st Century. Part of today’s improved health can be explained by new surgical techniques that could have saved many of the pitchers from 40 years ago. And it’s my belief that sensible innings (pitch counts) limits have saved even more.
In 1964, Jim Bouton pitched 271.1 innings as a 25 year old. He never threw more than 151.1 innings in a year for the rest of his career. This century, no pitcher has reached Bouton’s innings total. The closest was 26-year-old Roy Halladay in 2003 when he threw 266 innings. And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but Halladay got hurt the following season and only pitched 133 innings.
Let’s look at Bouton’s game logs in 1964. There was a three-game stretch in July where Bouton turned in complete games – 27 IP – in games that the Yankees won by a combined 26-3 margin. There’s nine innings right there that Bouton absolutely did not need to pitch. He made 38 starts in 1964. It’s my opinion that he could have made the same number of starts and pitched 30 fewer innings without any harm done to the Yankees whatsoever.
Current wisdom is that the best way to keep pitchers healthy is to have them in a five-man rotation with a (roughly) 110-pitch limit per outing. But no one in MLB has ever tried having a four-man rotation with this same pitch limit. Back in 1964, Bouton threw 13 innings one game. While we don’t have exact pitch counts in this era, Tom Tango came up with a pitch count estimator and using that, we come up with 190 pitches for Bouton in this outing. In 2012 we lost our minds over a 134-pitch outing. Can you imagine the outcry today if a manager left his pitcher in for 190 pitches?
Pitchers are always going to get hurt, no matter how much we try to protect them. No one knows the optimal approach to handling pitchers. Instead, what’s developed is a CYA approach where every team essentially uses the exact same method in handling its pitching staff. It’s going to take a manager/GM with a lot of juice or a team desperate enough to say, “The emperor has no clothes!” for things to change in this regard.
The 2012 Rockies were in the second category. After two decades of using high draft picks on pitchers and overpaying in the free agent market and continually producing poor staffs – they finally decided to try something new. But the pull of conventional wisdom is so strong that even though there was no performance benefit, they decided to go back to a five-man staff.
It’s reminiscent of the experiment with the monkeys, the bananas and the water spray. Researchers placed five monkeys together in a room, hung a banana from the ceiling and placed a ladder where a monkey could climb and reach the food. Eventually a monkey would try to use the ladder but when he did, he – and the other four monkeys – each got sprayed with ice cold water.
Eventually the monkeys got the message that climbing the ladder was bad for everyone and no one did it. Then they swapped out one monkey and brought a new one into the group. The new monkey would immediately go to the ladder to try and get the banana – but the other four monkeys would kick the crap out of him. New monkey did not get sprayed with ice water but got the message that you don’t climb the ladder.
Once the new monkey got the message, they would swap out another monkey. And they did this until all five of the original monkeys were replaced. Even though no monkey currently in the group had been sprayed with ice water, it was a learned behavior that the ladder was bad and that you beat up any monkey who went to the ladder.
In MLB, the “learned behavior” is that four-man pitching staffs are bad. But we have no idea if this is true. My take is that high-pitch outings are bad, that it wasn’t the 38-40 starts per year that did pitchers in but rather the consistent 125-pitch outings along with the occasional 190-pitch ones that felled a bunch of hurlers in the 1960s and 1970s.
A trade of a SP might make the 2013 Mets a candidate to run a four-man staff. Because they have a respected GM and they are not expected to challenge for the division. So they actually fit both categories mentioned above in terms of what’s needed to buck conventional wisdom and try something new.
Maybe because I grew up in the decade where things like the Herb Washington experience happened makes me more open to trying new things. Perhaps it’s because I saw first hand how the conventional wisdom of one era turned out to be so completely wrong that I’m not married to the CW of this time frame. Regardless, I’m confident that some team in my lifetime will buck the five-man pitching staff trend and be proven right.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful if it turned out to be the Mets as trailblazers in this regard?