The 4-man rotation.
Like nearly everyone, you were ready to dismiss this as foolish or irrelevant in this day and age of delicate arms, guaranteed mega-contracts and pitch counts. But what if you didn't use it to divide more innings among fewer starters. What if you adapted it to address this fundamental premise:
A mediocre starting pitcher's third trip through the lineup is usually crap.
And to that end, you could attempt to optimize those opportunities for disaster by replacing them with something better.
How would it work? First, you'll need to say arrivederci to your 5th starting pitcher and 3rd catcher. Replace them with two relievers and then smile inwardly just a bit because you know this fundamental premise to be true, but not leveraged: Serviceable relief pitchers are easier to find than serviceable starting pitchers. (Cheaper, too.)
With your 25-man roster now aligned as needed, you then set these two rules for utilizing your mediocre 4-man rotation:
- Have no expectation to EVER pitch a starter more than 5 innings.
- Plan for regular use of a 6-man combo of middle relievers to share middle innings.
Seems pretty simple. You're exchanging that third trip through an opponent's batting order by a mediocre pitcher for some fresh-armed innings of relief from an expanded relief corps. Hell, you can even do some lefty-righty match-ups you didn't have a chance to do before.
You've looked at the K-rates and opposing batting averages of your pitchers for years acknowledging (but not exploiting) the fact that a player pitching out of the bullpen does better in those categories than when he starts. (You might be looking at Glen Perkins as you muse about this) You know that's because he can throttle-up in a much shorter appearance and he doesn't get exposed to any batter more than once. Why then, haven't you thought it would be advantageous to have more of those kinds of innings as opposed to the tail end of a Mike Pelfrey start?
You shake your head when you realize that your team's old pitching philosophy was to let a mediocre starter pitch until he got into trouble. This meant that you were usually engineering a trouble situation to be your key to make your pitching change.
This is definitely better, you think. It does all of the following:
- Takes away 25-30 starts from a horrible starting pitcher
- Doesn't add any innings to the 4 starters. Just shifts their innings from the ends of games when they're tired to the beginnings of games when they're fresh.
- Limits starting pitchers' exposure. Starters will not get a third time through a batting order.
This really is just evolution, you think. This philosophy is already used for closers. They don't get used to respond to specific game situations but rather to optimize the 9th inning. Same with the setup pitcher. He optimizes the 8th inning. Why shouldn't you optimize the middle innings as much as possible, too?
Is there a downside, you wonder? Your four starters will still pitch comparable innings to other starters so don't have to worry about how their stats compare at contract time - plus they should get a couple more wins because they're still going 5 and getting more starts. Hell, pitching more innings when they're fresh might even improve the quality of their stats. Quite possibly their health and longevity, too.
Inter-league play? Does losing a bench player mean you lose an opportunity to pinch-hit? You still have 12 batters. You could still pinch-hit 3 or 4 times in a National League game. You can live with that.
Workload for the bullpen? You're not getting them up in knee-jerk response as much and you added 120-140 innings worth of arms out there. Pretty close to the innings lost from a 5th starter.
Prep time for the starters? Can they adapt to three off days instead of four? Is that adequate time to recover from a now lessened 80-pitch workload? That's going to be the main question to answer. Hopefully one you can test this season.