The five-man rotation is a failure.
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic here. I’m not trying to frame ‘failure’ in a
pejorative sense, the way we might describe Tony Muser, or airport security
pre-9/11, or Bud Selig’s ceaseless efforts to acquire a human soul. I use the
term "failure" in a purely literal sense. How else to describe a
concept which has not succeeded in accomplishing the precise objective for which
it was created?
The five-man rotation was a product of the early 1970s, when an era of free
experimentation in our society leeched its way into baseball and a few teams
dabbled in the concept, on the premise that it would keep their starting
pitchers healthy. Most notable among these were the Dodgers, who made the
switch midway through the 1971 season. In 1969, three Dodger pitchers (Claude
Osteen, Don Sutton, and Bill Singer) each made 40 or 41 starts, providing just
37 leftover starts for the rest of the staff. By 1972, Sutton, Osteen, and
Singer were joined by Al Downing and Tommy John, as all five pitchers started
between 25 and 33 games, combining to start 150 of the Dodgers’ 155 games. In
retrospect, it’s easy to understand why the Dodgers went with five starters –
because unlike almost any other organization, they actually had five quality
starters. How many teams can boast five starting pitchers whose names are still
recognizable a quarter-century later?
The Dodgers’ transition to a five-man rotation was not without its hiccups–they
returned to using just four starters in 1974 and 1975–but it was
ultimately irresistible. Since 1975, the Dodgers allowed a pitcher to make more
than 35 starts in only one season, 1982. And during the 1970s, wherever the
Dodgers tread, the rest of baseball was sure to soon follow. As ex-Dodgers and
minor league managers trained in the Dodger Way promulgated their philosophy
throughout baseball, the gospel of the five-man rotation was successfully spread
to nearly every corner of the baseball map. By the early 1980s, only the
Baltimore Orioles had not been successfully converted to the cause.
"It is easier to find four starting pitchers than five."
– Earl Weaver’s Seventh Law. (From
Weaver on Strategy,
In 1973, no less than twelve major league pitchers made 40 starts or more, the
highest total of the 20th century. Following this trend year by year:
Year # of Pitchers >= 40 GS 1973 12 1974 9 1975 3 1976 2 1977 2 1978 3 1979 1 1982 1 1987 1
(The 1987 outlier is Charlie Hough, a knuckleballer.)
Over the years, the concept of spreading starts out to as many pitchers as
possible has been taken more and more literally. Once upon a time, the term
"five-man rotation" meant that your best starters would throw every fifth day,
and starters in the back of the rotation would be bumped when necessary to keep
better pitchers on rotation. Today, teams are loathe to skip even their fifth
starter, preferring to give their starters five or even six days of rest on
occasion. The typical season runs around 180 days, meaning that an Opening Day
starter working every fifth day, as opposed to every fifth game, should make at
least 36 starts over a full season. A look at the number of pitchers making 36
or more starts in a season since 1973:
Year # of Pitchers >= 36 GS Year # of Pitchers >= 36 GS 1973 31 1985 14 1974 33 1986 10 1975 22 1987 11 1976 20 1988 4 1977 17 1989 7 1978 16 1990 2 1979 14 1991 4 1980 14 1992 2 1982 12 1993 5 1983 9 1996 2 1984 5 1998 1
Where have all those starts gone? To less-qualified pitchers, naturally.
Whereas a generation ago, a team could expect to place 80% of its starts in the
hands of its four best starting pitchers, today that percentage is far less.
Compare the status of major league rotations in 1973 compared to 1999. The
following chart lists the average number of starts made by each slot in the
Cumulative Slot 1973 1999 Diff 1973 1999 Diff 1 37.3 33.2 -4.1 37.3 33.2 -4.1 2 34.1 30.7 -3.4 71.4 63.9 -7.5 3 29.6 28.3 -1.3 101.0 92.2 -8.8 4 23.2 23.6 +0.4 124.2 115.8 -8.4 5 14.9 17.9 +3.0 139.1 133.7 -5.4 6+ 22.8 28.2 +5.4 161.9 161.9 0
(The cumulative numbers add up to only 161.9 because of a few rainouts.)
What this chart tells us is that the average "ace" starter made 37.3 starts in
1973, but only 33.2 starts in 1999 – a dropoff of 4.1 starts. Number two
starters lost almost as many starts (3.4), and #3 starters lost 1.3 starts
apiece. Those 8.8 starts have been redistributed to far less qualified
pitchers. A miniscule number went to #4 starters, but the vast majority have
gone to pitchers ranked 5th or worse on a team’s depth chart.
That’s nearly 9 additional starts – 7.5 of which came from the two best starters
on a team – that have been redistributed to fifth starters, spot starters, long
relievers, and emergency call-ups. That’s a pretty steep price to pay for the
luxury of a five-man rotation.
"I expect the real reason baseball will eventually return to the four-man
rotation will be the simplest of all: It helps win games. The five-man rotation
is not on that evolutionary path; it’s a digression, a dead-end alley. Just as
baseball once believed that walking a lot of batters was better than throwing a
home-run pitch, we are now chasing an illusion that our pitchers work better on
four days’ rest and that the five-man rotation significantly improves their
– Craig Wright, in The Diamond Appraised, 1989.
As Wright points out, the crux of the entire argument for the five-man rotation
is that it keeps pitchers healthier. Which makes the crux of my argument this:
the five-man rotation does NOT keep starters any healthier than the four-man
rotation. And if it doesn’t provide any health benefits, what benefit is there?
Between 1973 and 1975, 68 pitchers made between 37 and 43 starts, roughly
conforming to expectations in a four-man rotation. Coincidentally, between 1991
and 1993 exactly 68 pitchers made between 34 and 35 starts, the high end of
expectations for starters in a five-man rotation. Let’s compare the two groups:
Group G GS CG ShO W L Pct IP H HR BB K ERA Four-Man 2676 2642 1088 226 1230 973 .558 19341 18005 1522 6123 11494 3.31 Five-Man 2343 2335 368 101 1040 771 .574 15960 14874 1313 4784 10527 3.51
In terms of quality, the two groups are very similar. The guys in the five-man
rotation had a slightly higher winning percentage (but fewer decisions per
start). They had an ERA 20 points higher than the earlier group; since the
average major league ERA from 1973 to 1975 was 3.69, and the average major
league ERA from 1991 to 1993 was 3.94, the relative ERA of the five-man group
was about 5 points lower than that of the four-man group.
The average age of the guys in the five-man rotation was 29.2 years old; the
guys in the four-man rotation were 29.4 years old.
While the two groups are of comparable quality, their value–owing to the
increased use of the pitchers in the four-man rotation–is not comparable. The
earlier group averaged more starts (38.9 vs. 34.3) and more innings (284.4 vs.
234.7) than the latter group. Fifty additional innings are a tremendous
commodity – remember, we’re talking about the best starters in the league here.
Here’s the kicker: all those extra starts, and all those extra innings, did NOT
cause any long-term damage to those pitchers. If you take the same group of
pitchers and examine their performance 5 years later, here’s what you find:
Group G GS CG ShO W L Pct IP H HR BB K ERA Four-Man 1562 1236 342 75 545 431 .558 8968 8666 756 2940 5200 3.58 Five-Man 1476 1351 121 36 538 473 .532 8722 9010 916 2857 6677 4.31
Five years later, 50 of the 68 pitchers in the original four-man group were
still active, compared to 54 of the 68 pitchers in the original five-man group.
The most likely explanation for the discrepancy is simply age; while the average
age of the two original groups was similar, 9 of the 68 pitchers in the earlier
group were 35 and older; only 5 of the 68 pitchers in the later group were.
But even with four fewer members to count, the earlier group was still going as
strong, if not stronger, five years later. The surviving members of the
four-man group made fewer starts, but pitched in more games, and threw more
innings than the five-man group. (They did suffer a greater percentage drop in
their innings, but keep in mind a big reason for that is that in the ensuing
five years, many of their teams switched from a four-man to a five-man
Their winning percentage, which was 16 points lower than their counterparts in
the original study, is now 26 points higher. Their combined ERA is 24 points
better than league average (3.82), while the pitchers in the five-man group had
an ERA only 17 points better than league average (4.48). This is also a
reversal from five years prior; while the original four-man group had a relative
ERA 5 points worse than the five-man group, the same group now has an ERA 7
The last paragraph is a little confusing, so let’s put that in chart form:
Year 0 Year 5 Year 0 Year 5 Group Win Pct Win Pct Diff Rel ERA Rel ERA Diff Four-Man .558 .558 .000 -0.38 -0.24 +0.14 Five-Man .574 .532 -.042 -0.43 -0.17 +0.26 Rel ERA = Relative ERA
Five years after our study, the pitchers in a four-man rotation had the exact
same winning percentage, and a relative ERA only 14 points higher than before.
By comparison, the pitchers in a five-man rotation saw their winning percentage
drop 42 points, and their ERA rise by nearly twice the margin of the four-man
Bottom line: if these numbers suggest anything, it’s that pitching in a four-man
rotation is less damaging than pitching in a five-man rotation. Now, the
difference between the two groups isn’t enormous, and neither is the sample
size, so I’ll concede the point that these differences are not statistically
significant. I’m not trying to argue that working on three days’ rest is more
healthy than working on four days’ rest, only that it isn’t less healthy. Given
the obvious tactical benefits that come from taking innings away from the worst
pitchers on your staff and giving them to your best, shouldn’t that be enough?
Next week, I’ll address the apparent paradox: if limiting pitch counts is such a
good idea because it reduces the risk of pitcher injury, how can it also be a
good idea to increase pitch totals by increasing the number of starts a pitcher
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
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