In June of 2012, the struggling Colorado Rockies tried something new: a four-man rotation. This experiment was exciting and interesting at the time, but it is now largely forgotten outside of Colorado and the small circle of baseball aficionados who care about things like rotation optimization. The Rockies planned to pitch their starters every four games and make up for the shorter rest by limiting them to around 75 pitchers per start. They also had three swingman-type relievers (each a former starter) who were expected to pitch at least a few innings in relief of the starters every few days. The idea was that they’d be able to have their best starters pitch more often, and that they’d have to go fewer times through the order.
The reason that this experiment is largely forgotten? It didn’t appear to work. The Rockies’ pitching staff—full of middling starters like Juan Nicasio, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jhoulys Chacin—was not talented enough for any advantages of the new system to become apparent. Pitchers complained of tiredness after their short rest, and the Rockies turned in a 64-98 record. Colorado abandoned the strategy late in the season, and by 2013 everyone moved on with traditional five-man rotations in place.
It makes sense that it would be difficult for MLB teams to switch over to new rotation formats. Young starting pitchers are trained both physically and mentally to go deep into games, and most of them internalize this training and message so much that they are disappointed by anything short of the six innings requisite for what we’ve termed a “quality start.” It’s why we saw Jason Hammel get so frustrated after being pulled early from many second half starts; it’s likely why Joe Maddon let Jake Arrieta throw a complete game for his 20th win in an otherwise meaningless late September game; it’s why we worry more about pitch count than times through the order. Relief pitchers, generally, internalize a different mission, but one that is relatively similar in its narrow focus: be ready to max out your stuff to get a few outs.
And so we are left with a system that works, but isn’t flexible. Starters go as deep into games as they can every five days, and then late inning relievers deal with whatever is left. “Long” relievers exist, but they usually are just a starter who wasn’t good enough to make the rotation—someone only viable to pitch in a game that is already a blowout. And each pitcher is very clear on his role and where he fits in. There is nothing inherently wrong with this system, except for the fact that teams have never really tried very hard to see if they can make it better.
The biggest roadblock to rotation experimentation is that pitcher roles, for the most part, are set in stone by the time they establish themselves in the big leagues. Jon Lester is a starter, and a damned good one. Hector Rondon is a shutdown late-game reliever (“closer” is the shorter and more limiting term here), and it would be ridiculous to try and change that. The Rockies’ plan failed because they tried to mold their pitchers into roles that they weren’t mentally or physically trained for.
But! There are some pitchers—not many, but some—who have proven their flexibility at the Major League level. These are the players who have not been molded into one specific role and who, I’d argue, any attempt to change pitching staff usage should start with. And, coincidentally or not (probably not), many of these pitchers will be on the Cubs’ 2016 roster.
Travis Wood proved he could fit this role last year: after struggling in the rotation, he became a borderline dominant lefty reliever who could pitch effectively for one out or for three innings, if needed. Clayton Richard was acquired for next to nothing as a spot starter in July, but quickly showed that he could be similarly effective in a similarly flexible role. Trevor Cahill, formerly a starter for the Diamondbacks and Braves, was acquired in late August as a flyer and performed admirably (for just over a month) in relief duty. The Cubs re-signed him as a free agent and claimed that he will get a chance to start in Spring Training.
Most recently and perhaps the most on-purpose, the Cubs acquired successful swingman Adam Warren from the Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade. Warren has proven that he can pitch effectively in a multitude of roles—last year he had a 3.66 ERA as a starter in 96 innings, and a 2.29 ERA as a reliever in 35 and 1/3 innings. Having all four of these pitchers on the staff gives the Cubs an incredible amount of flexibility — one rarely, if ever, seen in MLB. These are pitchers that the Cubs don’t have to peg into any one role. And I’d be surprised if they do.
What does this flexibility mean for the Cubs? Well, it could mean a whole bunch of things. It is likely that starters—even the etched-in-stone top of the rotation starters like Jake Arrieta, Lester, and John Lackey—will be removed earlier from games than we would normally expect, especially early in the season. The Cubs have a staff that can bridge the gap from a top starting pitcher to the back end of the bullpen, and they can use it to make sure that their best pitchers are well rested as they head towards the playoffs. The Cubs can’t afford for Jake Arrieta to become fatigued again down the stretch. This extra rest isn’t the only important advantage of getting starters out early, though. It also means they will go through the opponent’s batting order fewer times. Hitters get much better when they are seeing a pitcher for a third time; for example, Kyle Hendricks has allowed a .651 OPS the first time, a .575 OPS the second time, and a .811 OPS the third time through the order in his career. If he can easily be replaced by Wood or Warren in fifth inning without burning up the bullpen, this pattern becomes much less concerning.
There are many other potential advantages to having these flex pitchers. Pitchers can throw harder and put more movement on pitches when they know they are coming out earlier. We saw this effect with Wood, who added almost two miles per hour to his fastball after moving to the bullpen last year. And the Cubs can weather injuries without calling up a spot starter from Triple-A—they have the flexibility to do “bullpen games.” We could (and I think we likely will) see games started by Warren, who could be replaced by, say, Richard in the fourth, before turning it over to Justin Grimm or Cahill in the seventh.
Injuries will likely occur, and it is a huge advantage to be able to plug big-league pitchers into the void instead of minor leaguers. Plus, in general, the Cubs will just have more options for their rotation. Hendricks and Jason Hammel might be the best options for the backend starting spots on paper, but if they need to be spelled or if they simply aren’t the best matchup for an opposing lineup one night, the Cubs will have many ways of tailoring their pitching staff to the matchups they are most likely to succeed in. Simply put, the Cubs’ staff has the potential to truly maximize well-pitched innings without too much disruption of pitcher roles. And that is what a pitching staff should be built to do.
There is a scenario in which the Cubs proceed with the status quo. They could run out a rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hendricks, and Hammel with all four of the swingman-type pitchers pitching in normal relief roles out of the bullpen. Indeed, this very well might be how they start the season, on paper. But if this is how they end up structuring their rotation and staff, I’d imagine that the usage will still be very different than what we’re accustomed to from the starters. And with Joe Maddon at the helm, I’d be surprised if this newer usage isn’t also better.
The Cubs are making baby steps towards what might just be the next revolution in pitching, and they are doing it the right way. Instead of molding pitchers into new roles, they are finding the pitchers that are already built to fill these roles. Now, they just have to experiment with the nearly endless possibilities they have given themselves. The 2016 Cubs pitching staff usage certainly won’t be as revolutionary as what the Rockies tried in 2012, but they have the pieces in place for it to be much more effective.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.