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Rethinking the rotation: Four-and-swing?

Sep 7, 2011, 10:00 AM EDT

Justin Verlander Getty Images

Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan is always good for a big idea column or two each month, and his latest is one that I’ve long been arguing half-drunkenly to anyone who will listen (i.e. no one):  chucking the straight five-man rotation and going to a modified four-man thing. The idea would be to keep your four best on a firm four-days-rest schedule, skipping the fifth guy as often as possible.

As Passan shows, using the Tigers, Rangers and Angels as his examples, such a plan gives your team’s four best guys anywhere between one and three extra starts and simultaneously takes away that many starts from your worst starter.  And if you’re smart about who that worst starter is, you can give yourself something that is a vanishing breed: a bona fide long man/mopup man in the pen.

Passan notes the obstacles to this, chief among them that baseball people tend not to engage in too much original thinking unless they can help it, but he makes all kinds of sense in my view.

Problems?  Other ideas?  That is, other ideas keeping in mind that no one is going to go to a straight four-man rotation in this day and age.

  1. halladaysbiceps - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    I’ve always liked the idea of a 4 man rotation, with a 5th guy making a spot start here or there. I think if you have 4 decent starters, it gives your team a better chance to win more games than putting another guy in there who at best is a AAA pitcher and will probably get knocked around.

    I believe Nolan Ryan in the last few years has instructed his minor leagues with stretching out their pitchers to throw a lot of pitches to build up arm strength with the idea that the Rangers big league ballclub will be able to go to a 4 man rotation and throw pitch counts out the window. I really want to see this experiment succeed.

  2. yankeesfanlen - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    We’ve had a four-man rotation all year. Just can’t figure out who the four men are.

    • Francisco (FC) - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:14 AM

      I think the Yankees have had a four-man rotation in the 5th starter spot all year long…

  3. gmf1991 - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    I’ve always liked the thought of a 4-man rotation, but Passan mentioned limiting innings for young pitchers. My thought is small, but nevertheless an improvement. Rather than just 4 starters, you have 5 starters, however you cycle your #1 & #2 (if #2 pitcher has the experience and stamina) through the 5 man rotation. Meaning, they pitch on shortened rest while your other 3 starters get the normal rest. No idea how many more starts your #1 & #2 starters would gain in a season, maybe someone can figure out the math on that one ;)

    Example of my idea of cycling your #1 starter:
    Day 1 #1
    Day 2 #2
    Day 3 #3
    Day 4 #4
    Day 5 #1
    Day 6 #5
    Day 7 #2
    Day 8 #3
    Day 9 #1
    Day 10 #4
    and so on….

    • Bryz - Sep 7, 2011 at 6:31 PM

      You expect a non-Joe Maddon manager to be able to keep track of that order?

  4. dondada10 - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    My only issue with this is that the playoffs are a lot longer than they used to be in the days of a 4-man rotation.

    It used to be that if the team was the regular season champion, they won the pennant and advanced to the World Series. Now, there’s two additional rounds. A “#1″ could get as many as 8 extra starts in the post season.

    Couple that with a 4-man rotation, and you have the potential of your ace making over 45 starts in a season. I don’t know if a franchise would want to trot their big money guy out there that often.

    • kopy - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:39 AM

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:42 AM

        ’nuff said.

      • pmcenroe - Sep 7, 2011 at 2:33 PM

        lol if there’s ever a bad time to yell this in a random conversation I haven’t found it

  5. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    I say pitch Hernandez first, then Bernandez the next day, then Mernandez the third day, next pitch Pernandez fourth, and finally, finish off day five with Fernandez.

  6. thefalcon123 - Sep 7, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    I’ve found it odd that teams don’t seem to use scheduled in off days to their advantage when setting the rotation. I’ll use the Phillies as an example to get everyone’s attention.

    Let’s say the 2011 Phillies stuck with the same rotation all year. Everyone is healthy and Blanton doesn’t get replaced, something that easily could have happened. Here would be the number of starts ever player gets:
    Halladay: 33
    Lee: 33
    Hamels: 32
    Oswalt: 32
    Blanton: 32

    Now, Blanton is obviously the weak link. Using off days to your advantage, a team could easily have the following # of starts with each pitcher still getting at normal rest:
    Halladay: 35
    Lee: 35
    Hamels: 35
    Oswalt: 34
    Blanton: 23

    You turn 9 Joe Blanton starts into Halladay, Lee, Hames and Oswalt starts and everyone still gets 5 days rest. I have no idea why teams don’t do this more often than they do.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Sep 7, 2011 at 12:16 PM

      35 starts * 9IP/start (the minimum for Halladay and Lee this season, or so it seems) would equal 315 innings pitched. Some guys arms can take that, and some can’t. The only way to find out is to push the arm to its breaking point, which is generally considered disadvantageous.

      How about lettering your starters pitch 2 or 3 innings, stacking them up and using them every other day? You could have
      Halladay-Lee-Hamels
      Lee Hamels Oswalt
      Hamels Oswalt Halladay
      Oswalt Halladay Lee

      Maybe you need a bullpen, maybe you dont.

      • tacklemeelmo - Sep 7, 2011 at 1:52 PM

        This was attempted by Lou Pinella I believe? It was not well liked but I think it’s still an interesting concept and wish someone would give it a go again.

      • ippoic - Sep 7, 2011 at 3:06 PM

        That would never happen because pitchers want to get wins, but I’ve always thought it was an ideal situation. It would afford a ton of flexibility, it would give the opposing team fits as they’d rarely ever see the same pitcher twice in a game, and, if a guy was truly dealing, you could simply leave him in for another 3 innings.

  7. fcmlefty1 - Sep 7, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    I’ve also wondered about this too – especially for sinkerball pitchers who swear that extra rest does them more harm than good.

  8. RickyB - Sep 7, 2011 at 12:00 PM

    This makes me wonder where Jim Slaton is, so I looked up his numbers and found that he wasn’t really as much of a swing guy as I remember him from my youth — big part of the Brewer rotation in the ’70s (save that year in Detroit), then more of a swing guy in the ’80s. But his numbers bear out that he probably should have been for most of his career …

  9. Joe - Sep 7, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    I think it’s more “retro” thinking than original thinking, because this was fairly commonplace in the 1970’s.

  10. evanhartford - Sep 7, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    I think the big problem would be injuries. Not that it isn’t ALWAYS a problem but with a 5-man rotation you can lose a pitcher and take your time finding a replacement. With a 4-man rotation you don’t have nearly as much flexibility and could end up on the wrong side of the negotiating table with some lackluster, journeyman, meatball-hurling, pseudo-starter.

    While we’re thinking outside the box. I’m not sure why teams even have starters. Why not just sign a bunch of elite closers, a bunch of elite setup men and a bunch of long-relievers? Couldn’t you just constantly call up starting pitchers as you need them from your farm system and cycle them out when you need fresh meat? Most closers can pitch on barely any rest, so you really only need pitching into the 5 inning to make this work. I mean, you could end up spending a lot less on pitching and throwing all your money at defense and hitting.

    • yankeesfanlen - Sep 7, 2011 at 1:55 PM

      I thought that was the Yankees gameplan. Although, Soriano et al are pretty pricey.

  11. bleedgreen - Sep 7, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    Don’t the Phils now have TWO bonafide long men/mop up guys in Blanton and Kendrick in the pen? Both have been bottom of the rotation starters. Hell, Blanton was a #3 for most of last year.

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