Maximizing Pitching Utility and the Greater Good

Years ago, smart baseball people determined that pitcher wins is a meaningless and stupid statistic. And yet Major League Baseball is yet to really acknowledge this fact. Sure, the Cy Young Award is not immediately handed to the season’s win leader anymore, but other than that, baseball is still set up around the idea that a starter goes out and tries to get a win, while between one and five guys come out of the bullpen to save it for him. I propose that this may be a bad idea. And I also propose that I may have a better one.

The Cardinals currently have nine awesome pitchers: Wainwright, Wacha, Miller, Lynn, Rosenthal, Siegrest, Martinez, Kelly and (if healthy) Garcia. They currently condition their pitches’ arms so that they are either ready for one hundred pitches or so on four days rest or twenty pitches or so on one to zero games of rest. Overused relievers like Mujica burn out before the season ends and overused starters like Miller wind up spending their post-season in the bullpen, playing checkers with Rob Johnson and wondering what they did to deserve exposure to The John Axford Amateur Comedy Hour.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What if, and believe me this is a big IF, but what if we took those nine pitchers and conditioned them all to be starters and then put a regular season inning cap on each pitcher based on how they’ve experienced seasons of pitching before (i.e, Wainwright definitely gets more innings that Siegrest because Waino’s body is used to the grind of a season as a regular starter)? If you assume extra innings will go to pitchers other than the nine listed above, that leaves you with 162 innings per pitcher for your nine studs. You shave a few off Rosie, Siegrest, Martinez, Kelly and Garcia and hand those shaven few to Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn and Miller and you can handle every inning in the game with some semblance of your best pitching. Most importantly though, you don’t allow any pitcher a third time through the opposing lineup.

Imagine Wacha and Lynn warming up on the same day. Imagine Wacha just throwing five diabolical innings, allowing a double or something, and then giving way to Lynn. Opposing lineups would all have to adjust constantly and would never see a pitcher three times. Also, every pitcher they see would be well rested (and therefore real nasty) at any given time in the season.

And the thing is the Cardinals are already kind of geared up for this kind of experiment, anyway. There are three major reasons why the Cardinals are the right fit for this experiment. First the starters are already in some kind of Children of the Corn-esque hive mind: they watch bullpen sessions, compete with each other, care for each other—hell, they even stretch together. So if any team is mentally prepared to adapt to a two to three starter per game kind of strategy, it’s the Cardinals. Second, they have a weird problem: too much good pitching. The solution to this problem doesn’t have to be: trade someone. It could be: maximize the utility of the pitchers you have. And third, this would absolutely drive Tony LaRussa nuts. He would kick himself for not having come up with the idea on his own, years ago.

If the toughest time to pitch to a lineup for a starter is the third time through the order and nine of your pitchers could conceivable start for a major league team and pitcher wins is a stupid stat and keeping your pitchers healthy is important and your pitchers are already happily working together, it stands to reason that you could revolutionize the way pitching staffs are managed by simply eliminating the third trip through the opposing order from all your pitchers’ outings, thus maximizing the utility of all your pitchers and increasing the chances to win. Yes, you would eschew certain roles like closer, set up man and long relief man, but so what?

The idea is to win ballgames, and maybe this strategy gives us the best chance.

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