Are Major League Teams Heading Back To A Four-Man Pitching Rotation?


I was skimming through my Facebook timeline the other day when a post in a group that I belong to stood out to me. A member had commented that he believed that in the next five years or so, Major League Baseball teams would switch to 6-man pitching rotations.

He indicated the benefits as follows:

"1- Reducing the innings pitched, pitchers would be stronger at season’s end.2- By reducing wear and tear, pitchers would have an extra season or two of dominance.3- Starters would be more likely to pitch late in games due to lack of fatigue.4- Relief pitchers would be stronger and fresher because of #3.5- Teams would be more likely to use young pitchers in the rotation because they would pitch less often.6- Because of #5, young pitchers wouldn’t burn out before their career really starts."

He also crunched some numbers to show that pitchers would get roughly 27 starts a season, saving them roughly 30 innings a year, thus adding a year to two years over the course of a career.

While some of this makes sense, I have a few problems with it and even argued that the League may actually be going in the other direction.

I think that we may see, over the course of the next decade, teams go back to a 4-man pitching rotation.

First of all, a problem with a 6-man rotation is that teams would only be throwing their ace – who makes usually over $20M/year – every six days. The Mariners do not want to take five starts away from Felix Hernandez each season. The Dodgers do not want Clayton Kershaw on the mound five fewer times each year.

With a 4-man rotation, you get your ace out there every 4th day. How this works – in the simplest of terms – is by limiting their innings pitched per game.

Metrics show that a team’s batting average gets higher against a pitcher, each time the lineup bats around in a game. Thus, a pitcher is most effective against a team the first time through the lineup. Then less and less effective each time through.

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It’s part of the reason why no-hitters and perfect games are so remarkable. It’s relatively simple for a pitcher with good command of his stuff to sit down the first nine batters. It’s another thing to repeat that two more times.

So how would it work?

So here’s the deal. Teams will use their ace and their number two guy for between 5-7 innings per start. They then use their No. 3 and 4 pitchers for 5 IP max each start. Let the bullpen take it from there.

Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon is a big fan of the 8-man bullpen. I think that these will become the norm. With relievers getting bigger contracts, even more of a premium is being put on the later innings. And teams are willing to invest big money in locking up players that can lock down those innings.

If a team has a solid closer and two decent setup men, you can virtually take the 7th, 8th and 9th innings away from your opponent on a nightly basis. Add in some good specialists and you really shorten the game.

So, let’s look at the numbers.

SP1- 41 starts @ 6IP (average) per start = 246 IP (A bit high, but not unrealistic)
SP2- 41 starts @ 6IP (average) per start = 246 IP
SP3- 40 starts @ 5IP (average) per start = 200 IP
SP4- 40 starts @ 5 IP (average) per start = 200 IP

With most clubs having at least four solid options available to start, some of the starts for the SP3 and SP4 could be divided up amongst multiple players. Splitting the work and keeping arms fresh.

For example: With the Mariners, Felix is SP1 and Hisashi Iwakuma is SP2. Let’s say James Paxton is SP3 and Taijuan Walker is SP4. The Mariners could call on J.A. Happ or Erasmo Ramirez or Roenis Elias to fill in for a start here and there in the SP4 spot, giving Paxton or Walker an extra four days to rest between starts if needed.

For the bullpen, every team is different. You can’t suggest that every reliever is going to pitch the same number of innings. But for the sake of averages, let’s look.

Bullpen- 82 games @3 IP (average) + 80 games @ 4IP (average) = 566 IP / 8 pitchers = 70.75 IP/pitcher.

In 2014, the Mariners bullpen pitched 500 IP / 8 relievers = 62.5 IP

So, this plan would ask that each reliever pitch an additional 8 IP each season. And again, the bullpen spots can be swapped out with callups from Triple-A, new acquisitions, etc. These are just the overall average numbers.

It also doesn’t account for extra innings. Each team can usually count on at least 10 extra innings per season (sometimes in one game). That’s where the extra depth in the minors will come in handy.

MLB could also expand the rosters to account for the additional pitching depth. Say, a 27-man roster (one for each out in a game) with teams carrying five starters (but using only four at a time) with a 9-man bullpen, 1o if you count the extra starter.

Pitching wins championships

Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Madison Bumgarner showed the world in the 2014 World Series that one pitcher can make a difference. He showed us that pitchers CAN pitch a lot of innings in one season (217.1 IP in the regular season, 52.2 in the playoffs, 270 total) and stay healthy.

Four man rotations were used for many years. In fact, the Atlanta Braves in the mid-90’s would often use a 4-man rotation, calling on a 5th starter when face with a long stretch without a travel day or if they had a doubleheader.

With starting pitchers making over $25M a year and relievers making more money then ever, I believe that teams will want to showcase their investment as often as possible and put their team in a position to win more games by adopting yet another sabermetric approach to the game.

Do I think it WILL happen? Yes, eventually. I think there’s at least a better chance than teams adopting a 6-man rotation. But it’s gonna take one team to try it, to be first, to be the guinea pig. And once they have success with it, watch the other teams follow like moths to a flame.

So how about it Seattle? Wanna test the waters?