• Revisiting the 4-Man Rotation

    Parker Hageman posed his thoughts on how the Twins can improve their rotation through free agency. The players he suggested were either once-good pitchers who are now in decline or once-promising pitchers who have failed to keep their promises. If you are the Twins GM and those are the best pitching options the team can hope for in 2014, you wonder if there might be a simpler (and much cheaper) solution that nobody's thinking of.

    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.
    This article was originally published in blog: Revisiting the 4-Man Rotation started by Teflon
    Comments 19 Comments
    1. Rosterman's Avatar
      Rosterman -
      The pain now is that with lefty specialists and such, plus relievers only going an inning (Duensing), the long-man has all but disappeared. You need to have three guys, in the least, that can go 3-4 innings, and then they can only be used every other game at the most, and probably every third day at the least, and if they are good enough for that role, why not just make them a starter.

      My favorite of the old 4-man rotation days (in which you did have a fifth man, by the way, who was around for double-headers or to sometimes give a rest...when starters threw more innings) were the starters like Jim Kaat who also threw 4-5 games out of the bullpen.

      Right now, I almost wish the bodies were up here that the Twins could go with a 6-7 man rotation for the final two dozen games just to see pitchers (and where is Hermsen...at least let him shine or tank up here to see if he is valuable enough for a 40-man spot).

      I imagine DeVries and Diamond and Tonkin will join the team momentarily. But who do you drop from the 40-man if you wish to add Beresford, for example.
    1. Mchans24's Avatar
      Mchans24 -
      I've never understood how on the modern era of medicine pitchers continue to be able to throw fewer and fewer innings and pitch counts continue to dwindle. My theory is that arms are babied entirely too much. Look at the twins who NEVER challenge pitch counts in the minor league, yet they continue to have a ton of guys needing TJ. It just baffles my mind.
    1. orangevening's Avatar
      orangevening -
      Weren't the Rockies experimenting with 6 man rotations last year or something in this vein
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      I have been suggesting a 3 man rotation, with relievers that throw 2-3 innings covering the other starts for some time. You use AAA to stash guys as you need them, if you need them. The math is not that hard, having the guts to try something new is very, very, very hard in baseball.
    1. Tibs's Avatar
      Tibs -
      This is definitely an interesting concept to me. How does this rotation work if you have someone like a Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw though? Would they still only be limited to 5 innings?
    1. DAM DC Twins Fans's Avatar
      DAM DC Twins Fans -
      I like this idea. A couple of modifications--keep somebody like Swarzek around to cover for doubleheaders or injuries as a long/man and starter. If we find a top of the rotation guy (say Diamond) next year--keep him in thru 7 innings if he is getting the job done (or we have a big lead).
    1. Wookiee of the Year's Avatar
      Wookiee of the Year -
      I wish more cellar-dweller teams (like, unfortunately, the Twins over the last few years) showed more willingness to try outside-the-box thinking like this. When it's apparent you're going to be bad, why not dare to be different to see if you can change that?
    1. h2oface's Avatar
      h2oface -
      Nice! Absolutely. I just put DEVO on.
    1. Teflon's Avatar
      Teflon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Tibs View Post
      This is definitely an interesting concept to me. How does this rotation work if you have someone like a Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw though? Would they still only be limited to 5 innings?
      It wouldn't be used except when your team has a shabby starting rotation and it wants to limit the exposure of those pitchers in each game. If you have a staff with quality pitchers like Verlander & Scherzer or Kershaw, Greinke, & Ryu there wouldn't be a need to do that.
    1. Teflon's Avatar
      Teflon -
      Quote Originally Posted by orangevening View Post
      Weren't the Rockies experimenting with 6 man rotations last year or something in this vein
      Yes they were. Nearly identical to what I proposed in the blog, in fact. (I wish I'd been aware of that when I wrote it - I would have referenced it.) Jim Tracy experimented with four starters in the rotation limited to 75 pitches per game and "piggy-backing" relievers.

      Here are a couple of articles from the Denver Post

      Rockies four-man rotation gaining traction as season continues

      Colorado Rockies plan to use "piggyback" four-man rotation in 2013.

      It seems as if the strategy had the desired effect of improving the overall team pitching performance but didn't seem to spawn any strong support.
    1. Oldgoat_MN's Avatar
      Oldgoat_MN -
      This is not the coaching staff that you can hope to bring 'outside the box' thinking to the forefront. I like the idea and would like to see the idea given more of a chance, especially with the staff the Twins currently have to work with.

      Have the Rockies kept at it? What are/were some of the conclusions drawn?

      It is amazing how seldom thinking outside the box happens in pro sports. Remember that Bill James changed the way many people look at hitters, and this is simply not very long ago.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      Great topic. Thanks.

      At one point, not all that long ago (from my perspective anyway...) 5 man rotations were "outside the box" thinking.

      Change can ​happen.
    1. gil4's Avatar
      gil4 -
      Quote Originally Posted by h2oface View Post
      Nice! Absolutely. I just put DEVO on.
      He said "dare to be different," but that's going a bit too far.
    1. Physics Guy's Avatar
      Physics Guy -
      I love the idea and agree it would be an optimal way to grind out some wins with a subpar pitching staff. Here's how I could see it working:


      Swingmen (6th and 7th inning):

      Late Inning Guys:
      Lefties - Duensing and Thielbar
      Righties - Burton and Fein
      Closer - Perkins

      I think you can get by with a 12 man staff with this arrangement. The swingmen are used for 2 innings ionce every three days. If the starters go five, everything works great. If we get a short start, we still have five guys backing up the swingmen that can fill in innings.
    1. Jeff A's Avatar
      Jeff A -
      Twins starters don't often throw much more than five innings anyway. If nothing else, it'd look better if they called it a plan.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      My proposal:

      Gibson, RP 1 (late inning guy), RP 2 (closer)
      RP 3 for 3 innings, RP 4 for three innings, RP 5 for 1-2 innings, closer/whatever
      Nice FA
      RP 5 for 3 innings, RP 6 for 3 innings, whatever

      That is 11 pitchers right there....add 1-2 more relievers, have 2-4 guys in AAA that are "starter relievers" to come up as needed, that's a plan that a team like this should be looking at right now. Because they are not going to find 4 new starters for next year.....
    1. Teflon's Avatar
      Teflon -
      I've been looking at what the Rockies did last year at it appears they had 5 different phases of how they managed their rotation.

      Phase 1 - Starting Normally
      They started the season with a traditional 5 man rotation, pitching all 5 even when off days presented themselves. As a result, there were a number of starts early in the season with 6 days rest. Pitch counts seemed to be limited around 100. They did this up through the end of June.

      Phase 2 - A Quick 4-man Appearance
      For one pass through the rotation at the beginning of July, the Rockies used only 4 pitchers and brought the first one back (Jeff Outman) with only 3 days rest. This may have been in response to his short outing in his previous appearance and a desire not to pitch the normal next pitcher in the rotation, Alex White, who had gotten clobbered in his last start.

      Phase 3 - Back to the 5-man Routine
      After the single 4-man pass, the Rockies returned to the 5-man set-up for two more trips through the rotation sandwiched around the off days for the All-Star game.

      Phase 4 - The 4-man Test
      The Rockies' experimentation with the 4-man starting staff lasted 8 trips through the rotation, from the middle of July to the Middle of August. Starters were cutoff at 75 pitches and faced around 19 batters per game.

      Phase 5 - The 5-man Test
      For the remainder of the season (9 trips through the rotation) the Rockies reverted to 5 man rotation but kept the same reduced pitch count limits as they had used in the 4-man trial.

      I'm in the process of trying to quantify the results from each of the phases and will post them when completed. My early take on the numbers is that the 5-man trial with reduced pitch counts at the end of the season was the most successful phase, but will do comparisons before stating that as a fact.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      But heres' the thing, from that, it is obvious they did not strategically PLAN to do a 3 or 4 man starting rotation. An organization that plans for it, that organization could be successful. An organization that does it because, well, they had not good SP and this might work, they aren't as likely to be successful.
    1. orangevening's Avatar
      orangevening -
      Off topic:here we are talking about 75 pitch count limits, when back in the day (cue the "we-walked-to-school-in-2-feet-of-snow-uphill-both-ways" grumpy old man speech) Cy Young competed 749 of the 815 games he started. 511 wins and 316 LOSES. His stats just boggle the mind compared to what pitchers do today.
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