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June 20, 2012

Manufactured Runs

Does the Rockies' Four-Man Rotation Make Sense?

by Colin Wyers

Well here’s something you don’t see every day—the Rockies are going to a four-man rotation. And what’s more, they’re going to put their four starters on a 75-pitch limit. Jim Tracy explained his decision like so:

"I felt we had to do something non-conventional," said Tracy of his beleaguered pitching staff that includes a reliever Josh Roenicke who has thrown more innings than one of the team's starters. "I was given the opportunity to tweak this. We are going to see what transpires as we move forward."

A four-man rotation was last regularly used in the major-leagues in the 1960s and early '70s. Asked if a starter would be pulled at 75 pitches with no runs allowed, Tracy insisted he was committed to this experiment.

"He has got to come out because he has to pitch four days later," Tracy said. "But if he goes five innings, he has pitched you to the point where you can go to a bullpen with some very significant people."

Jeremy Guthrie moves to the bullpen as part of this “non-conventional” move. On one hand, it’s easy to see why a manager might be tired of rolling Guthrie out every day, given his sparkling 7.02 ERA, 6.79 FIP, and 6.43 Fair RA—he’s been bad pretty much any way you want to slice it. But one wonders if the cure isn’t worse than the disease, especially given Doctor Tracy’s diagnosis:

"Very similar to Jason Hammel last year, maybe coming out of the bullpen for even a brief period of time will help get Jeremy back to where he needs to be," Tracy said. "Because right now where he’s at it's not benefitting him or our club. We are throwing entirely too many bullpen innings out of the same guys on a daily basis."

It’s true, the Rockies are throwing too many bullpen innings. There’s really only one cause of this—not enough innings coming from the starting rotation. Going into last night’s action, the Rockies had the second-fewest innings pitched per game started of any team in the majors, with only the Royals getting fewer innings out of their starters.

That’s a problem for the Rockies, aside from the fact that the starters aren’t very effective even when they do pitch. Looking at teams from 1993 through 2010, each additional inning pitched by a team’s starters per game resulted in a 0.072 increase in win percentage, even after controlling for the Fair RA of a team’s starting pitchers as a unit. This is of a piece with past research I’ve done showing that starting pitchers who go deeper into games get better bullpen support. Typically, when a team has to use its relievers more frequently, those additional innings do not go to a team’s closer or any of its top relievers, but instead are soaked up by the team’s worst relievers—so the more innings a team’s pen has to throw, the worse it can be expected to perform.

In terms of getting innings out of starters, Guthrie has actually been one of the team’s better pitchers:

NAME

GS

IP per start

Total IP

Jeremy Guthrie

11

5.4

59.0

Juan Nicasio

11

5.3

58.0

Jamie Moyer

10

5.4

53.7

Christian Friedrich

8

5.6

45.0

Alex White

8

5.7

45.3

Drew Pomeranz

5

4.6

23.0

Jhoulys Chacin

5

4.9

24.7

Josh Outman

3

3.8

11.3

Jeff Francis

2

4.3

8.7

Guillermo Moscoso

2

4.7

9.3

Total

65

5.2

338.0

It doesn’t need to be said that it’s not a good thing if the guy who has pitched more of your team’s innings than anyone else so far has an ERA north of 7. But the one nice thing you can say about Guthrie’s performance for the Rockies so far this season is that he is soaking up more innings per start than the average Rockies starter.

So here’s how it shakes out. Up until now, Guthrie was making 17 percent of the Rockies’ starts. Those starts are getting replaced by pitchers on a 75-pitch count. Let’s assume that Tracy stays true to his word and holds to those counts. So far this season, Rockies starters have recorded .1666 outs per pitch (Guthrie himself was responsible for .1659 outs per pitch, so in that respect he was a typically average Rockies starter). At 75 pitches per game, that’s 4.2 innings per game, not the five innings Tracy spoke of. If the Rockies’ starters manage to improve to league average, which is .1826, that’s still only 4.6 innings per start.

Is it possible that the remaining starters could adapt their pitching styles to try and stretch to five innings? Pitching to contact, for instance, doesn’t seem to reduce pitch counts the way some suppose that it does—throwing fewer pitches to each batter doesn’t reduce your pitch count if you’re letting those batters get on base. The way to economize your pitches boils down to three things—strike out more batters, allow fewer hits on contact, and cut down on walks. If that also sounds to you like three ways to just pitch better, you’re not wrong. The Rockies, realistically, have to get an above-average starting pitching staff to get five innings out of 75 pitches, and if they had that kind of pitching staff, they probably wouldn’t be trying this idea to begin with. PECOTA, for instance, sees a collective ERA of 5.07 in the future of the four pitchers (White, Friedrich, Outman, and Francis) left in the Rockies’ rotation, and while that would be an improvement over what the staff has done so far, it does not get them within spitting distance of average.

So the pitch count is going to force the Rockies to get between two-thirds of an inning to a whole inning more out of its bullpen than it was previously, which is not-so-coincidentally what Guthrie was pitching per team game so far this season (at .91 innings per team game). If Guthrie can manage to pitch the same number of innings out of the pen as he could out of the starting rotation, the Rockies can manage to tread water.

This does not seem especially likely, though. Guthrie would have to work at a pace to pitch 147 innings over a full season to match what he’s done so far out of the pen. The last time there was a pitcher with over 130 innings of relief work in a season was Mark Eichorn in 1986. No relief pitcher has even thrown over 100 innings since Scott Proctor did it in 2006, and even that sort of effort would still require the other members of the Rockies bullpen to increase (not decrease) the number of innings they throw.

Without knowing if the Rockies are even going to try to squeeze that kind of workload out of Guthrie, though, it’s hard to say what kind of performance they can expect from him. Clearly, he shouldn’t be expected to continue to give up runs at his current clip, because of regression to the mean if nothing else. (That said, it should be noted that the mean is a fickle mistress, and just because it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it’s impossible.) But if the Rockies are going to try and use Guthrie to soak up innings in relief, that will likely mitigate some (it’s difficult to say how much) of the normal effect we see from moving a pitcher into the bullpen.

Is there a silver lining to this move? Maybe, but it’s hard to see it. There is the times-through-the-order effect, so in the abstract we could expect to see slightly better performance from the starters than we would otherwise. But it’s not clear that this won’t be counterbalanced by the increased strain of starting games more often. And while the average reliever is likely to be better than a starter who has thrown 75 pitches, the Rockies are unlikely to be able to get average relievers to soak up the additional innings this will incur, especially since we already know that many of those additional innings will be soaked up by Guthrie in long relief.

The Rockies will get a few additional opportunities to pinch hit out of this, which may sound useful in the abstract and might even be useful in practice. But again—additional pinch-hitting opportunities are more likely to go to the bench players who are pinch hitting the least right now, and presumably they’re pinch hitting less because they’re not as well suited to it.

Given the significant problems with forcing your relievers to throw too many innings, there’s nothing in the Tracy plan that seems to help rather than hinder. Tracy should probably be forgiven for not doing anything to aid the pen, in light of the team's lack of options there. But just because one is already bleeding doesn’t mean self-inflicted wounds will do any less damage.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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greg26

Two questions.
1. Is there any evidence that there is "increased strain of starting games more often?"

2. Colin writes: "each additional inning pitched by a team’s starters per game resulted in a 0.072 increase in win percentage ... Typically, when a team has to use its relievers more frequently, those additional innings do not go to a team’s closer or any of its top relievers, but instead are soaked up by the team’s worst relievers." Which is cause and which is effect here? Isn't it that because a team is *already* losing the game, the worst relievers come in to pitch? So wouldn't we say that having a lower win percentage is the *cause* (not the effect) of poor bullpen performance?

Jun 20, 2012 05:02 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

1) No. That's one of the big grey areas here. And we can't even say there has to be a reason teams don't routinely pitch guys on this kind of short rest -- there doesn't HAVE to be. But it's at least somewhat likely that there is.

2) This materializes itself in several ways - in the case of the 0.072 increase, that wasn't looking at individual starters, that was looking at it as a team, for instance (and controlling for quality of pitchers on a rate basis). If you look at a team level, there's also a correlation between starter IP and reliever performance as a rate. There is presumably some effect in terms of ability to deploy relievers situationally, but the evidence suggests that there is some benefit in simply not having to deploy your worst relievers as often.

Jun 20, 2012 07:19 AM
 
swarmee

So for the fantasy players that have any Rockies pitchers (well, some years), this would seem to kill their chances to get wins. Right?
If 75 pitches normally means 4 2/3 innings, and you've got to finish five innings to become the pitcher of record, that would lessen the odds that Rockies starters will accumulate wins.

Should we pick up Rockies middle relievers who will now vulture wins since they'll be coming in during the 4th/5th innings? On a per inning basis, that would be pretty valuable.

Jun 20, 2012 05:09 AM
rating: 0
 
swarmee

Of course, that would mean you'd have to know which relievers were going to be getting 5th inning duty.

Jun 20, 2012 05:11 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

The rules read:

"If the pitcher whose team assumes a lead while such pitcher is in the game, or during the inning on offense in which such pitcher is removed from the game, and does not relinquish such lead, is a starting pitcher who has not completed
(1) five innings of a game that lasts six or more innings on defense, or
(2) four innings of a game that lasts five innings on defense, then the official scorer shall credit as the winning pitcher the relief pitcher, if there is only one relief pitcher, or the relief pitcher who, in the official scorer’s judgment was the most effective, if there is more than one relief pitcher."

So it's not necessarily the pitcher who comes in earliest who would vulture the win, but whoever was most effective (although bear in mind that a pitcher cannot get a save and a win in the same game).

That said, I don't think the Rockies will win enough games to make it worth stashing Rockies middle relievers in the hopes that they vulture wins.

Jun 20, 2012 05:42 AM
 
jb13

And that the Rockies would have and then hold the lead.

Jun 20, 2012 05:45 AM
rating: 5
 
Ric Size

"I felt we had to do something non-conventional," says Tracy. So is rearranging chairs on the decks of the Titanic.

Jun 20, 2012 06:03 AM
rating: 1
 
OonBoon

This is close to how I would manage a bad club, but seems like it would wear down relievers. I would slash down to a 10 man bullpen and use my best 8 guys as tandem starters. Two times through the lineup, or 90 pitches, and here comes the hook.

Jun 20, 2012 06:20 AM
rating: 6
 
bhalpern

There was a minor league team in the 90's, can't remember who, that used a rotation of paired pitchers who each threw 3-5 innings on their start day. This would maximize the 'times through the order' affect,allow a buffer if one starter gets bombed and has to come out, and brings some structure to all the bullpen innings that are going to be needed. I wonder if something like that wouldn't be a better idea.

Jun 20, 2012 08:06 AM
rating: 3
 
amazin_mess

Tracy will be doing something very conventional soon - updating his resume.

Jun 20, 2012 08:14 AM
rating: 12
 
BarryR

Which will be the best thing for his pitchers, as his handling of young pitchers makes Dusty Baker look good.

Jun 20, 2012 10:39 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Too bad the rockies don't have the right pitchers for this experiment. they will crash and burn and then no one will try this again for decades (a la Red Sox closer by committee)

Jun 20, 2012 08:17 AM
rating: 9
 
boards

This is exactly the problem. I applaud the Rockies for even thinking about doing this but they are set up to fail with the pitchers they have on hand. And, as ScottyB mentions, failure will detract any future attempts at better staff management in the near-term.

I like the tandem starter approach better. Get more guys used to pitching slightly less, more often. Then maybe stretch some out a little further and, eventually, you might have a 4-man rotation averaging 6-7 innings.

Jun 20, 2012 11:49 AM
rating: 2
 
thegeneral13

I think tandem starters are tricky in practice because for the back half you need to find pitchers capable of throwing a starter's workload who are also capable coming into games at a variable point in time. That last part isn't as easy as it may sound, both because starters typically have a pregame routine designed to get them mentally and physically ready for a particular time, and because "being ready" for whenever you're needed entails throwing in the bullpen, which is physically taxing. This wouldn't be as big of a challenge if the first guy in the tandem pitched well, but if he struggles and your second guy in the tandem is constantly getting up and down, it could be a problem. Maybe you could have 1-2 short relievers available to bridge the gap if the first guy shits the bed, such that you could guarantee the 2nd guy in the tandem wouldn't enter before the 4th inning under any circumstances. But that would have its own problems. And you definitely need more than just 10 pitchers as a previous poster wrote - what happens if both tandem guys get lit up and you're in the bullpen by the 4th inning? If you have to tap into any of your 8 tandem starters for relief work the system breaks down.

Jun 20, 2012 13:07 PM
rating: 1
 
eyegortroll

Maybe Tracy read the Cliff Notes version of Rany Jazayerli's look at the five man rotation and never went further than Weaver's Seventh Law.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1596
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1605
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1622

Jun 20, 2012 08:38 AM
rating: 3
 
RaysProf

A study worth reviewing.

I would have expected Joe Maddon to be the first manager to be able to convince his starters of the advantage of a 4-man rotation. As the quality of starters from the Rays farm system begins to diminish, e.g., Archer?, and affect the mother team, we might see Merlot Joe make the switch? He could point to Bobby Cox who used a 4 man rotation in April.

Jun 20, 2012 16:53 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Bobby Cox three of those four pitchers were established arms who pitched 220+ innings. They were also future Hall of Famers. The fourth one (Avery, Neagle, etc) usually kept breaking and sure didn't get into the Hall of Fame. I don't think he can point to Cox as precedent.

I do recall, about 5 years back, either the Cardinals or Reds toyed around with the idea of a four man "rotation" with the starting pitchers throwing 3 innings.

Jun 20, 2012 17:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

BTW Ken Funck wrote about SOMA (Shorter Outings More Appearances) in the BP Idol Finale. http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9228

Jun 20, 2012 17:26 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

The Rockies are a team that thought they were a Cuddyer and a Guthrie and a Moyer short of being a contender when they already had Seth Smith and Jason Hammell.

They're also a team that shipped off one of the better catchers in the league for a fungible middle reliever.

And they're a team that keeps benching and/or batting 8th Dexter Fowler while letting Scutaro's "veteran presence" lead off.

No wonder the pitch count limit doesn't add up...

Jun 20, 2012 08:40 AM
rating: 10
 
roxbombers

Def not supporting Tracy at all as I would have liked to see him fired last year but Fowler has been leading off for a while now and hasn't hit 8th in some time.

Hammel hadn't done anything in Colorado to make anyone believe he would turn into this kind of pitcher going to Balt.

Tracy doesn't have some terrible tactical decisions, even last night after a day game giving Fowler the day off when Cargo and Tulo already out injured

Jun 20, 2012 11:08 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Fowler shouldn't have been hitting 8th at all, much less sitting on the bench for the likes of Tyler Colvin. Also note that he's basically a 3/4ths starter, generally sitting one game a week and getting a pinch hit opportunity in the other game. Even Todd Helton has more plate appearances than Fowler.

As an example of the misconceptions surrounding Fowler, here's a line from ESPN "He'll get the day off on Tuesday, which might do him some good: he's batting just .204/.310/.616 in June." I don't know about you, but "just" a .926 OPS is pretty darn good and it's those kinds of numbers that, a player like Iannetta would put up and get benched for.

I'm not a Hammell fan but I was pretty sure that Guthrie wasn't going to do much better... and the Rockies paid quite a few extra million in salary for the privilege. Similar to how the Rockies let Seth Smith go and signed Cuddyer for similar production at quite a few million more.

Tactically, it's funny to say this, but though they are eerily similar in style, I think Tracy's worse than Hurdle. I think Hurdle was a bit better at managing a bullpen, even if it meant some overuse.

Jun 20, 2012 14:01 PM
rating: 1
 
ttt

I like how Jim Tracy said that this helped Hammel, who was dealt for Guthrie. Hilarious.

Jun 20, 2012 09:15 AM
rating: 5
 
eighteen

I can guarantee you Jim Tracy did not analyze his decision with so much as 10% of the scrutiny this article does.

Jun 20, 2012 10:30 AM
rating: 4
 
yadenr

Based on some simple innings counts, it seems you need a 13 man staff to make it happen. 4 @ 185 innings [40 starts each!], 2 @ 100 innings, and 7 @ 66 innings = 1400 innings. Or 6 @ 77 innings. This is assuming you have 2 long guys to soak up 100 innings (maybe in obvious losses), and a larger group of situational guys for close games.

Jun 20, 2012 13:33 PM
rating: 0
 
NYYanks826

Why not call up Pomeranz and ditch one of their more disposable bullpen arms. Keep Guthrie in the pen as a long arm, and stick with a traditional rotation.

Hell, why not even a try a six-man rotation, keeping Guthrie in the rotation to see if a little extra rest might help sort things out?

Sounds much better than a bullpen-taxing, four-man rotation. As "outside the box" as this may be, if this doesn't help to improve the team, Tracy won't last until the All-Star break.

Jun 20, 2012 13:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

I prefer going with the Earl Weaver plan.

Use a four man rotation, like Plamer, McNally, Cuellar, and Dobson, and allow each of them to win 20 games. Case closed.

Jun 20, 2012 19:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

In other news, I'm in a discussion on a Bleacher Report article about the dismal state of the Colorado Rockies, except the author is trying to use batting average to prove people like Pacheco are players that should be built around "because he leads all NL rookies".

*sigh* That's what happens when someone lets the announcers on Root Sports open their mouths...

Jun 21, 2012 00:11 AM
rating: 0
 
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