Today, we’ll pick up last week’s discussion where we left off.
(Take a look
at last week’s article if you haven’t already.)
To answer the question I ended last week’s column with, it is very important to
understand that my support of the four-man rotation is not, in any way, mutually
exclusive with my belief in the importance of limiting pitch counts. It is
fairly well-established (albeit not as well as I would like) that high pitch
counts increase the risk of pitcher injury. But it does not follow that
starting on three days’ rest is more dangerous than starting on four days’ rest.
This is not a paradox at all, as both phenomena can be explained by one simple
principle, which is important enough that it ought to be named and capitalized.
Let’s call it the Principle of Pitcher Fatigue:
Throwing is not dangerous to a pitcher’s arm. Throwing while tired is dangerous
to a pitcher’s arm.
A gathering body of orthopedic evidence suggests that pitchers lose their
mechanics as they become fatigued, and it is those imperfect mechanics that put
undue strain on the arm, ultimately leading to injury. This is why a single
150-pitch outing can be more dangerous than a dozen 100-pitch outings. This
the PAP3 system works.
But this also explains why working on three days’ rest may not be any more
dangerous than working on four days’ rest, because there is no evidence –
absolutely none – that a pitcher needs a fourth day off to reach a maximum state
of rest. I’ve searched the medical literature for any study that measures a
pitchers’ resting strength following a start, and such a
study doesn’t exist. No one has gotten around to measuring whether, to return
to full strength, a starting pitcher ought to rest his arm for 3 days, or for 3
hours, or for 3 weeks. The move to a five-man rotation is simply not based on
hard medical evidence.
Does a reliever need four days of rest? Of course not. Jesse Orosco has been
pitching every other day since a Beatles reunion was still possible. If more
rest were always beneficial, then it would follow that five days of rest is even
better than four. No one believes, that, of course, which is why no team has
ever seriously flirted with a six-man rotation.
Certainly, every pitcher is constructed differently, and it’s possible that even
four days of rest isn’t enough for some pitchers. For decades prior to the
standardization of regular pitching rotations, teams would routinely give
veteran pitchers five or six days of rest. The tradition of the "Sunday
starter" culminated when the Chicago White Sox gave Hall of Famer
Ted Lyons, then 41 years old, twenty starts in 1942. Lyons completed all
20 starts, went 14-6, and led the league with a 2.10 ERA.
The practice of giving certain pitchers additional rest is complicated by having
to keep other pitchers on rotation, but occasionally the situation warrants it–for
example, with Pedro Martinez. From 1999 through last year, the Red Sox
tried their damndest to give him five days of rest when they could. Pedro is
not a large man at 5’11", 170 pounds, and the Red Sox were tacitly admitting
that Pedro’s small stature meant that they had to personalize their care of him
to account for his particular situation.
Their method didn’t keep Pedro from breaking down, though, because the Red Sox
continued to let him throw 120 or 130 pitches when he did start. Despite making
only 29 starts in both 1999 and 2000, Martinez eventually wilted from the abuse
and missed half of 2001. Upon his return this year, the Red Sox have not only
given him as much rest as possible, they’ve also limited his pitch counts–he
hasn’t thrown more than 117 pitches all season. After a spring in which it
looked like he would never return to his dominant form, Pedro has only gotten
stronger as the season has gone on.
The example of Martinez not only illustrates the limitations of additional rest,
it also points out the importance of integrating a move to the four-man rotation
into a comprehensive philosophy on monitoring pitcher workloads. The last time
a team seriously experimented with the four-man rotation was in 1995, when Bob
Boone went with four starters for the first half of the season. After getting
off to a rousing start–Kevin Appier began the year 11-2 with a 1.89 ERA–the
trial was scrapped after Appier and Chris Haney suffered arm problems. The
downfall of the experiment was that Boone did not compensate for his starters’
decreased rest by limiting their pitch counts. On the contrary; Appier threw
141 pitches in a start shortly before he went into the tank.
I am confident that the organization that is willing to return to the
four-man rotation, in conjunction with strictly monitoring their starters’ pitch
counts, will gain tangible benefits without increased risk to their pitchers.
There is another substantial benefit that comes from the four-man rotation,
which is that pitchers have better command on three days’ rest. Almost every
pitching coach–and most pitchers that have tried–will tell you that when you
pitch on three days’ rest, your stuff is a little sharper, and has a little more
This sounds like mere anecdotal evidence, but in this case the anecdotes are
fortified by the statistical data at hand. With the help of Keith Woolner and
the wonderful people at
I was able to obtain start-by-start data for
all pitchers back to 1978. In the past 24 years, no less than 160 pitchers have
made at least 8 starts in a season on both three and four days’ rest. By
looking at how their performance on varying amounts of rest, we can determine
whether being brought back one day earlier had any deleterious effects.
The combined numbers of those 160 starters:
Rest IP H ER BB K HR ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR/9 3 days 13666 12986 5428 4270 7516 1087 3.57 8.55 2.81 4.95 0.72 4 days 16082 15658 6882 5063 9052 1389 3.85 8.76 2.83 5.07 0.78
Did the pitchers suffer from being afforded less rest? Hardly. They pitched
better on shorter rest, with an ERA over a quarter run lower. In a combined
sample size of nearly 30,000 innings, that’s significant. 92 of the 160
pitchers (58%) had lower ERAs on three days’ rest. Even if we lower the
threshold to include all pitchers who made even 5 starts on both three and four
days’ rest (368 pitchers in total), the numbers don’t change: 215 of the 368
(58%) had lower ERAs on three days’ rest.
A closer breakdown of their performance lends credence to the idea that pitchers
have better command, and more sink, on three days’ rest. With less rest, the
starters let their defense work for them, with fewer walks and fewer strikeouts.
But perhaps the most relevant effect is that they allowed nearly 10% fewer home
runs per inning.
It’s not unequivocally clear that starters perform better on three days’ rest
than on four. But it is crystal clear that they don’t perform any worse.
A lot has been made of the recent struggles of pitchers who were asked to return
on three days rest. In 1999, Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio each made five
starts on short rest, and Kile had a 7.39 ERA, Astacio 9.83. However, their
performances should not imply that pitchers today have more trouble coming back
on three days’ rest than pitchers of 20 years ago. The last starters to make at
least 8 starts on short rest did so in 1995, when a trio of Royals (Appier,
Mark Gubicza, and Tom Gordon) and a pair of Pirates (Denny Neagle
and Esteban Loaiza) were called upon a combined 47 times on three days’ rest.
Their performance that season:
Rest IP H ER BB K HR ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR/9 3 days 302 310 131 90 214 23 3.90 9.23 2.68 6.37 0.68 4 days 541 561 250 184 325 58 4.16 9.33 3.06 5.40 0.96
The sample size is extremely small, but the performance of this group from just
seven years ago ought to squelch any talk that pitchers today simply can’t come
back on short rest the way pitchers of previous generations could.
Another issue that is frequently raised regarding the four-man rotation is that
it would be difficult to expect pitchers in mid-career, who have been trained to
pitch on four days rest their whole lives, to suddenly change their work habits.
Hogwash. At the beginning of spring training, few teams have settled on their
fifth starter, and most teams put the established members of their rotation on
the mound every fourth day, beginning with long-toss sessions before exhibition
games have started, continuing with 2-3 inning outings in early March, and
progressively lengthening them, before finally switching to outings every fifth
day in the final few weeks of the spring. Keeping those pitchers on an
every-fourth-day regimen would not require a change in their training habits.
On the contrary, it’s switching to an every-fifth-day cycle that requires an
That’s the smaller point. The bigger point is this: if pitchers really had
difficulty adjusting from having to pitch every fifth day to pitching every
fourth day, wouldn’t they have even more difficulty switching from starting to
relieving? John Smoltz had been starting in a five-man rotation for over a
dozen years before he was moved to the bullpen, and he’s taken to the closer
role like a fish to water. Eric Gagne has been a starter throughout his pro
career–did he struggle when moved to the bullpen? Of course not. Neither did
Mariano Rivera, or Billy Wagner, or Billy Koch, or dozens of
other pitchers who started their entire careers before they were moved to the
bullpen and found immediate success.
Starters throw to full exertion, on a regular schedule, with plenty of notice
before their next appearance. Relievers throw in short stints, may pitch in
three straight games or not pitch for ten days straight, and don’t know if
they’re going to pitch on any given night until five minutes before they’re
brought in. You couldn’t create two roles that required more different physical
and mental preparation–and yet pitchers go back and forth between the two all
the time. Yet we’re supposed to believe that a starter can’t adjust to a usage
pattern where he 1) stays on a regular schedule and 2) still knows in advance
when he’s going to pitch, just because he gets a different amount of rest?
Next week, we’ll wrap up this topic by looking at the other, ancillary benefits
of the four-man rotation.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
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