If you challenge conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.
By all accounts, baseball is a game of cat and mouse. One doesn't need to look beyond the most recently played Major League game to prove this–Game Seven of the 2017 World Series. The 101-win Astros rolled past the Dodgers for a 5-1 victory and their first ever championship.
The title was the culmination of a rebuild spearheaded by Houston's GM Jeff Luhnow. The former Cardinals scouting director and his brain trust may have inherited key pieces such as Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, and George Springer, but the Astros' teardown as they sank to the bottom of the standings allowed them to net the top draft picks that helped restock their farm system. Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Derek Fisher, and Lance McCullers were among the players Luhnow and Co. drafted. They also selected top prospects like Daz Cameron and Mark Appel that were parlayed into acquisitions including Justin Verlander and Ken Giles.
The tanking model employed by the Astros as well as the 2016 World Series champions (who we will not refer to by name on this sacred website that is vivaelbirdos.com) has caught on, with numerous other franchises choosing to hop on the bandwagon.
This all cuts into a deeper, larger-scale trend across the sport. A youth movement is sweeping over front offices as the crimson of Harvard and the blue of Yale now call the shots, assisted, of course, by intricate computer models that spit out the results of a simulation run tens of thousands of times over.
This homogenous, Moneyball-esque landscape that has seized control of the league has led to like-minded teams conducting off-field business in a similar fashion, eliminating a significant competitive advantage that analytics-pioneers like the Athletics once held.
So pressure was reapplied on baseball's innovators to find the next edge, the next way to jump ahead of the curve. The Rays began experimenting with defensive shifts, a driving force behind Tampa Bay allowing the lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) over the past 10 seasons. Inevitably, the shift was replicated by opponents, becoming a commonplace shortly after its inception.
And the search for the next revelation continued.
In Game Five of the 2016 ALCS, Indians manager Terry Francona pulled his starter Ryan Merritt with one out in the fifth inning as the southpaw's evening concluded after facing just 14 batters. Through his bullpen, Francona bridged his way to the final 13 outs and the American League pennant as Cleveland silenced a raucous Rogers Centre crowd–and one of the game's most potent lineups–in a 3-0 shutout.
Francona's message rang loud and clear: Merritt was not going to stick around to see the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion a third time. That year, the league average fielding independent pitching (FIP) figure for starting pitchers was 4.15 the first two times through the order, a number that ballooned to 4.78 on the vaunted third trip. This is before accounting for any survivor's bias that would only widen the gap. (After all, injured and/or ineffective pitchers are less likely to last deeper into a game.)
In 2017, the average Major League start length was just over 5.5 innings. When the Cardinals won it all in 2011, the average start duration exceeded six innings. Still, no team has committed to an overarching strategy ensuring that starting pitchers won't be pummeled at their weakest.
A day when such a tactic is utilized is on the horizon, but not imminent in the immediate future. Regardless, the Cardinals find themselves in an ideal position to lead the charge.
First off, the Cardinals stand to gain more than the average team by implementing a plan that more or less caps their starters at two rounds against the opposing lineup. Last season, the average club saw its starting pitcher weighted on-base average (wOBA) increase by 17 points the third time through the order relative to the first two. By comparison, the Cardinals worsened by 26 points, the ninth worst drop-off.
This strategy's benefits wouldn't be confined to run prevention, either. For a National League team without the luxury of the designated hitter, shorter starting pitcher outings would limit the number of plate appearances wasted by pitchers. In 2017, the average NL team lost 51.2 runs–or about five wins–from having pitchers hit according to FanGraphs' offensive runs above average metric. Even if you assume that pitchers will still come to bat sometimes and that the typical pinch-hitter isn't a league-average offensive player, this plan still projects to add a couple wins per season. The Cardinals' pinch-hitters have also led Major League Baseball in wRC+ each of the past two years. While not a perfect barometer for assessing bench talent, FanGraphs' designated hitter depth charts provide a snapshot of the players on each NL team who only grace the everyday lineup during interleague matchups. These same projections peg the Cardinals' DH slot (comprised of overwhelmingly bench bats) to be the second best group in the National League.
Of course, an overhaul of the orthodox pitching rotation would require a rearrangement of the innings load. Luckily for the Cardinals, their pitching talent is distributed fairly evenly. In other words, their staff is depth-centric rather than top-heavy and reliant on a few stars. Whatever loss in talent they may suffer with a pitching change would be mitigated by the effectiveness of a fresh arm with a similar talent level.
While the Red Sox–who are projected to have the greatest disparity in FIP between their three most valuable relievers and the rest of their bullpen–would have to rely on more work from people like Brandon Workman (projected 4.51 ERA and 4.48 FIP), the Cardinals are a different story. Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty could help eat the innings that would otherwise go to a worn-down Michael Wacha, whose wOBA skyrocketed 89 points when facing hitters for a third time in 2017.
The Cardinals' bullpen is projected to produce a top-ten WAR in 2018, containing six relievers projected to post sub-four ERAs (Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Tyler Lyons, Josh Lucas, Ryan Sherriff, and John Gant) in addition to Sam Tuivailala and Matt Bowman (projected ERAs of 4.01 and 4.05, respectively). The Cardinals still possess the ability to supplement their current depth by adding another pitcher or two, which would only further incentivize a move away from the standard starting pitcher role.
As I wrote back in September, "quite literally nobody in all of Major League Baseball has been burned by a slow hook as badly as the Cardinals." That said, St. Louis doesn't appear to have any intentions of limiting their starters to 15-20 or so batters in one game, at least for the foreseeable future. This tactic might not be best suited for every single pitcher in every single game, but the first team to test it in some meaningful capacity is going to reap the rewards.
Why not us?