Last night, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo made things official when he publicly stated September 12 would be the last time his ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg would be taking the mound, effectively shutting him down for the remainder of the 2012 season, including the playoffs. Apparently their starting pitcher, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery, has reached his innings limit and they do not want to risk his future potential for what could be a short term gain. You can imagine how well the National fans are taking all of this, playing five plus months, having the best record in baseball, turning into a legitimate threat to win the World Series and then losing their best pitcher for the championship run; not by injury but by choice.
Because he reached his innings limit with at least two months left (and potentially 10 more starts that he will miss) National fans are screaming about how they should have done something to stretch him out throughout the season. One of those options, is something former WSCR Radio host Mike Murphy has been predicting to happen for years, but has consistently been slapped down by Chicago White Sox broadcaster and baseball expert on “The Score” Steve Stone, the six man rotation. The six man rotation has a lot of upside, but also a lot of downside.
With the six man rotation in effect, your best pitchers will have less strain on their arms come the playoffs, and be strong enough to give you their best effort. Can you imagine what could have happened in 2003 for the Chicago Cubs if Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were a little more rested and had less wear and tear one their arms? You could tell that both Prior and Wood were gassed in the National League Championship Series. They still went out and fought like mad and did fairly well, but they were missing the extra little push that you need if you want to win the big games. If they were already gassed in the NLCS, what would they have had left to give in the World Series? Not too much.
With a six man rotation though, your best starting pitchers will get a little more rest. Instead of starting every fifth day, they get one extra day off between starts. They would be stronger in for every regular season start and be better prepared for the extra starts in the post season. In this instance alone, you have to see how great of an idea adding one extra starting pitcher to the rotation would be.
However, if there are upsides, there are also downsides. These, I feel, will be the greatest reason to staying away from the six man rotation. By adding one extra starter to the mix, you lose starts by your best pitchers in order to give them to a lesser pitcher. Currently, barring injury, your number one and two pitchers get 33 starts, with the remaining three pitchers in the rotation each getting 32. If you add an extra pitcher, starts get taken away from all of them. Each pitcher in a six man staff will get a total of 27 starts.
In order to see how bad of an idea this is, let’s take a look at the Cubs this year. Let’s take a look at how things could have gone this year if the Cubs used this idea from the start of the season when they still had Ryan Dempster on the team. Would you want to take six starts away from him in order to give them to either Casey Coleman or Randy Wells? Remember, Chris Volstad was already in the rotation as the fifth man. I am sure that would work out great in the standings.
Now, take a look at next year and how the pitching rotation could potentially work out. At the moment, I foresee a starting five of Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Chris Rusin, Brock Ramsey and Chris Volstad (not necessarily in that order). However this is just a prediction, and we all know that nothing is guaranteed. Now, if this stands pat and the Cubs do not bring in another starting pitcher (which is likely) would you want to see starts taken away from Samardzija for Justin Germano, Coleman or Wells? The benefits of keeping your best starting pitchers more rested throughout the season, are overshadowed by them losing starts for a lesser pitcher.
In a perfect world, a team could go to a four man rotation like the Colorado Rockies. If you have a strong enough bullpen, this is the greatest way to ensure that you get more starts out of your best starters as well as keeping all of them fresh. In order for this to work though, the starting pitchers in the rotation need to agree to put the team ahead of themselves and not care as much about wins.
With the Rockies moving to a four man rotation, the number one and two starters will each get 41 starts, with the other two each getting 40. Each of them are also on strict pitch counts which limits them to around 80 pitches per outing. With a pitch limit of 80 pitches per start, they or may not reach the required five innings of work, which is why they must be willing to put the team ahead of themselves. Much like moving to a six man rotation, this is also a great way to keep your starting pitchers fresher for a longer period of time ensuring they are ready for the long haul of the season and post season if you are able to get there.
The problem with this idea though, is you need to have a very trustworthy bullpen. You need to have all eight pitchers in the pen (yes I said eight, with one less starter you get one extra reliever) to be able to pitch the final four innings of every game. Finding a bullpen that can boast three or four pitchers is hard enough, with a four man rotation you need more than just three or four dependable pitchers in the pen, because those three or four cannot pitch every game.
Another aspect to think about in terms of changes in rotation, is the financial aspect. If you move to a six man rotation your starting pitchers will be pitching less which means they will be asked to take a pay cut. The starting pitchers will not be overly thrilled with this idea and will likely want to go elsewhere to a team that will pay them more for pitching a normal workload. With a four man staff, asking a pitcher to care more about the team than his own personal statistics might force teams to spend a little more to attract pitchers to come to your team. You will also need to spend a little more in free agency to get the better relievers, who lets be honest are usually hit or miss.
Both have their upsides and downsides and both theoretically have the same end result of your best starting pitchers being more rested come the post season. Personally, I would love to see the Cubs turn back the clock and return to the age of the four man rotation. How about you? You play the role of Theo Epstein. Which do you prefer? The four, the five or the six?