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May 20, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Would the Astros' Piggyback Starters Model Work in the Majors?

by Russell A. Carleton


A few weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I suggested that teams might benefit from going to a model that gets rid of the traditional starting pitcher. Instead of having five men who are expected to go 6-7 innings over 100 pitches, I suggested a model in which three pairs of pitchers each throw 50 pitches, and on the third day, they would pitch again, in fulfillment… I should stop there. I argued that a team that committed to that model could leverage a group of (cheap!) pitchers who were good for a couple innings, but not for six. In this way, a team could get the same sort of results that they might expect from having a bunch of pretty good starters, but for a fraction of the (David) Price.

Three days later, Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow announced that his organization would be using a similar model in their minor league affiliates. Luhnow said at the time that the goal was to allow the team to get a good look at eight pitchers (in four pairs, with one member of the pair throwing 75 pitches and the other 50, and the two switching after three days) rather than five in the traditional model. Coincidence? Actually, yeah. On both ends.

The Astros have quietly abandoned the idea at the Triple-A level, seemingly because several key members of their “rotation” were called up to the big club. If we take the Astros at their word, this arrangement makes perfect sense. A tandem starter model does allow for the team to get a good look at more than five guys, and the outcomes of minor league games don’t matter much. Luhnow stated that the Astros have no desire to do this at the major league level.

But what if they did?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
One of the first things that I did with this was to fire up a sim game and play within these rules, just to see what strategic situations popped up that I hadn’t expected. I started as a National League team with no DH, figuring that I could leverage the fact that I could pinch hit in the middle of the game for the pitcher’s spot sometimes. While this happened in a couple of games, I often found myself in a situation where it was the sixth or seventh inning of a close game and the second pitcher in the tandem had thrown 30 pitches (20 short of his allotment). Should I pinch hit?

This sort of decision happens in the traditional starter model as well. The manager must make a decision between the value of the extra inning that the starter might give him versus the increased probability that a pinch hitter might help to score a desperately needed run. But in the traditional model, the manager does it with the luxury of a six- or seven-man bullpen. If there are eight “starters,” a team could really carry only four relievers, meaning that the relative cost of pinch hitting, even in a high-leverage at-bat, just went up. Who would have thought that teams would miss having those two extra lousy relievers?

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Related Content:  Astros,  Tandem Starters

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