I know what you’re thinking: "Why couldn’t I resist this ridiculous click bait?" I feel your pain, as I am often troubled with the same internal struggle. Why can I not let this ludicrous idea go, and move on to enjoying the sport as it’s been played since I was nothing more than a twinkle in my momma’s eye? The answer is Dave Roberts. Dave understood that the weapons waiting in his bullpen were statistically inclined to be more effective against the top of the lineup in the 4th, 5th, or 6th inning. As such, his team won the most regular season games with one of baseball’s lowest starter ERA marks and the least starts of 100+ pitches. This combination has the potential to be deadly with proper bullpen usage, or when approached from a different angle.
Seven starters seem excessive at first, until the whole of the roster is broken down. Let’s start with the offense to get a feel for depth and strength. From the top:
1B- Carpenter (1)
2B- Wong (8)
3B- Gyorko (7)
SS- DeJong (5)
LF- Ozuna (4)
CF- Pham (2)
RF- Fowler (3)
BN- Kelly (C, 3B)
BN- Martinez (RF, 1B)
BN- Garcia (SS, 2B, 3B, 1B)
BN- Grichuk (CF, LF, RF)
Personal preference says we sign either a first or third baseman and put Gyorko on the bench with his positional fluidity. That would necessitate a trade of Grichuk/Martinez/Garcia to keep twelve bats on the active roster. I feel Grichuk would fetch the best return, but Martinez lacks late inning defensive return. Signing Hosmer sends Carpenter across the diamond, back to his natural position where he can play at or above replacement level defensively. Signing Moustakas fills three of four infield spots with average-at-best defenders, but brings a masher out of the Kaufmann pit of despair and into a more neutral park. Trading for Machado moves DeJong to the hot corner and puts two strong defenders up the middle for a ground ball oriented staff. Any of those three additions have their advantages and can boost a lineup into contention with the big boys, but none of them can singularly combat the home run trend plaguing major league pitching staffs.
Since Manfred shows no signs of slowing the juiced-ball revolution, front offices need to be proactive in their efforts to weather the barrage of long balls raining on their pitchers’ spirits. Which brings me to how one can cram seven starting pitchers into a beautifully orchestrated five-man rotation. Twelve bats leave room for thirteen arms, seven of which are starters in this case with six relievers. Okay, so now that we’ve solved that bit of arithmetic, how will these seven starters be used? The answer is by stacking the starters who struggle the most their third time through the lineup, and staggering those stacked starts. I define a stacked start as a game where two pitchers prepare in their normal starting routine, but are only allowed to face the first eighteen batters before getting the hook. The second starter would not enter in the middle of an inning after the eighteenth batter was retired, but rather a reliever would finish the inning allowing the second starter to treat his "relief appearance" as a regular start that begins in the 4th, 5th, 6th, or even 7th inning.
To provide a visual, this is the rotation I propose, given our current staff:
Stacking Flaherty and Reyes allows two young pitchers to save innings and focus on effective pitching over efficient pitching. The front office has stated that Reyes will be working out of the bullpen; my hope is that it will be, at least, a regular multi-inning role. Expecting three quality innings from Reyes could get this combo through the 8th inning consistently.
Stacking Wacha and Waino solves the issue of how to make room for a big name trade or signing of a starter, presuming at least one of Flaherty/Reyes/Weaver is part of that trade. Barring that acquisition, the stacking method for these two pitchers could prove to be the most effective method in the renegotiation of pitching staff usage. Both pitchers show struggles their third time through the lineup, and are frequently betrayed by injuries stemming from overuse and mechanical breakdown. Focusing on pitching effectiveness over innings quantities can drastically reduce the hazards present in unnecessary expectations.
This system would require changing the mindset of a starter away from the notion of a quality start and the 4.50 ERA accompanying it. Rather than going into a game with a soft ceiling of 100 pitches and hoping they can push through at least six innings, give these starters a hard quota of eighteen batters. Allow them to attack from the very beginning knowing exactly where the road ends that day, and exactly who they’ll meet along the way.
A nine-inning game can be thought of as twenty-seven outs on both sides of the ball. The offense gets twenty-seven lives before being pronounced dead; the defense has twenty-seven tallies to throw bullets at until the lights can be turned off. If two starters are allotted a total of thirty-six opportunities to collect twenty-seven tallies, they would have combined to finish a nine-inning game by allowing exactly nine batters to reach, for a WHIP of 1.00. Even if those thirty-six opportunities only finish eight innings and require a closer to complete, the starters still combine for a 1.50 WHIP. Somewhere in between those two WHIPs is a reasonable number to expect from two guys with careers marks under 1.30. Somewhere in between is the ability for two guys to start and finish a nine-inning game without seeing the same hitter thrice.
Even if the bullpen is required to get outs in the middle of innings between starters or at the end of the game, those spots will be high leverage situations against the top of the lineup, or close and late (exactly what bullpens are paid to accomplish). For statistics’ sake, I’ll presume that both stacked rotations spots will require one bullpen inning on average, with the other spots requiring three. 162 games without extra innings totals 1,458 innings, so rounding to 1,500 gives a comfortable target. Those 162 games can be divided among the rotation into 32 starts on average. Three starters (Carlos, Weaver, Mikolas) averaging 6 innings each would finish the regular season between 180 and 200 innings, a very modern expectation for staff members. The other four starters (Flaherty, Reyes, Wacha, Waino,) averaging 4+ innings each would finish the regular season between 120 and 150 innings.
On the low end, this seven-man rotation would provide around 1000 innings; on the high end they can account for nearly 1200. The remaining 300 to 500 innings would be the bullpen’s burden to bear. As we decided before, a thirteen man staff with seven starters only leaves six relievers. 500 innings divided among 6 relievers would require 83+ innings per, a highly unrealistic expectation and poor position to be in come October. 300 innings translates to a much more realistic 50 per reliever. So, once again, the answer to the problem no one is asking me about lies somewhere in the middle.
Consistent six-inning starts from three rotation spots, and eight-inning starts from the other two leave 358 bullpen innings over 162 games. With no shuffling from the minors, injuries, trade acquisitions, or September call-ups, 358 innings could be covered by 6 relievers tossing 60 innings each. On a weekly basis that is almost precisely two and a third innings, very realistic expectations given the climate of bullpen usage. Relievers are being paid more and, in turn, expected to provide a more dynamic product.
For Lyons, Gregerson, Bowman, and Gant, extended outings would be commonplace and based on pitch efficiency much the way starters’ currently are. If all you need is one or two outs to bridge an inning between stacked starters, a reliever’s pitch count isn’t as important as the fact that he has appeared in a game and, thus, fully activated his only weapon. If a reliever is called upon in the fifth inning of a Mikolas start, he should expect to pitch toward and/or into the 7th under a reasonable pitch count. This reliever would then be set up nicely for a mid-inning gap two or three days later between Flaherty and Reyes. Limiting reliever usage to twice a week, with an occasional third appearance, prevents overuse stemming from unneeded warm-up sessions.
Seven to nine innings can, conceivably, be covered by three of the eleven pitchers covered thus far: one starter and two relievers three times through the rotation, two starters and one reliever the other two times. By staggering stacked starts as numbers 2 and 4, a blueprint can be laid for a rotation of the four middle relievers to protect their arm health by treating their regimen more like that of a starter.
The other two arms would serve as hired guns for late inning leads only. Imagine having a tandem of closers (Davis & Holland) rather than one designated closer with a setup man or men. The four rotating bullpen arms would bridge leads, keep it close, or mop up; the closing tandem would start handling leads as soon as the 8th inning. If one closer can go two innings and close it out, your staff isn’t left short a closer for the next day or two. If one stumbles but still has a lead, the second closer finishes the win and both guys have only thrown one inning or so.
Please tell me to keep dreaming or lay off drugs, because there’s no way this could possibly work. I clearly have not researched enough statistics to feel confident supporting my ridiculous proposal with them, so feel free to tear it to shreds in that manner as well. I welcome all criticism and ridicule!