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January 13, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Building a Better Starting Rotation

by Russell A. Carleton


In 2013, the average starting pitcher lasted a bit under six innings (5.89, to be exact), and starters as a whole had an ERA of 4.01 (and an earned-or-not run average of 4.17). Collectively, the guys who began the game posted an xFIP of 3.91. They did so by using what has become a standard rotation setup. Five starters take their turns in sequence and throw roughly 100 pitches in an attempt to make it through six or seven innings (the 5-6-7 model.)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been examining the history of how we came to this particular (and peculiar) setup, and in doing so have found some interesting things about the evolution in starting rotation structure, including some things that don’t appear to be backed up by any evidence. It’s one thing to say that there’s a problem with the way things are. As my uncle (who was an engineer) was fond of saying, “Any idiot can make noise. It takes an engineer to make it quiet.” So, a question: Knowing what we know, how can we build a better starting rotation?

A few rules. First of all, we have to use parts that are already on the shelf or that can be bought at the local Radio Shack. “Sign Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish, and Dan Brooks” would make a great rotation, but we are not working in science fiction or sports-talk radio (same thing). No suggesting players who don’t actually exist right now, and whatever plan is out there, the plan to staff it needs to be realistic. Second, we have to take into account real issues like how the new proposal would affect roster construction, salary concerns, and the need to have spare parts available. Third, it has to work both on the game level and the season level. We need to make sure that innings are covered, that the plan won’t overtake the whole payroll, that the plan could be sustained for six months, and that we’re not changing for the sake of changing. It actually needs to make sense.

Let’s look at a few options, shall we?

Option #1: The Status Quo (The 5-6-7 model)
Advantages: Well, there would be no transition problems, and we already know how well it works. I’ve previously shown that one major advantage of using the traditional 5-6-7 system is that it provides bulk innings and conserves roster spaces. The entire baseball infrastructure is set up in service of this model, and you don’t have to put up with those pesky critics wondering why you’re doing something crazy.

Disadvantages: Maybe the biggest disadvantage of the 5-6-7 model is the fifth starter. On a recent episode of Effectively Wild, Sam Miller made the suggestion that maybe the next big thing in baseball is not the all-bullpen approach, but the understanding that not all pitchers are made to go six or seven innings, and while some are, there aren’t really enough to go around who are good at it. Instead of trying to force five guys into a role for which they are not qualified, why not think of ways to integrate the Clayton Kershaws of the world with some alternate method for covering innings? Let’s first look at whether there are pitchers who just should not be allowed to start.

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Related Content:  Starting Rotation

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