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The Rockies played their 40th game of the season Tuesday night in Minnesota, and did so under an unusual circumstance: win or lose, they knew they would go to bed in first place. For the Rockies, that’s newsworthy. In the club’s 25-year history, they’ve only been in first place at least this far into a season seven times. Not since 1995 have they spent as much time in first place as they almost surely will this year—as they already have.

Having Nolan Arenado around is nice. He’s the best part of a surprisingly good infield. The Rockies were one of the last teams to aggressively adopt infield shifting as a run-prevention strategy, but this year they’re doing a better job of turning ground balls into outs while shifting dramatically less often. For the most part, though, credit for the strong start goes to the pitching staff, and especially to one of the league’s most interesting, youngest rotations.

I wrote about Antonio Senzatela two weeks ago. He’s remained impressive, but he’s by no means the clear ace of the staff. Kyle Freeland boasts the best ground-ball rate in baseball, and allowed just one home run over his first seven starts. German Marquez has a mid-90s fastball, a good curveball, an improving changeup, and good command; he flirted with a no-hitter against the Cubs last week. Tylers Chatwood and Anderson are less exciting, but they’re the ones with something resembling a track record of success. Both keep the ball on the ground.

That’s not to mention Jon Gray, who was supposed to be the ace when the season began, but who suffered a stress fracture in his foot and won’t be back until next month; Chad Bettis, whose final round of chemotherapy was last Friday, and whom the team hopes to get back down the stretch; or Jeff Hoffman, who ranked higher on the Rockies’ preseason top 10 prospects list than any of the three rookies who have taken up residence in the rotation so far. There’s also Ryan Castellani, who profiles a bit like a right-handed Freeland, working in Double-A.

None of these guys (save perhaps Gray) is an ace, and none will carry the team to the playoffs on their shoulders. Getting there will probably require something from all of the nine hurlers named above. One helpful thing the Rockies have done on that front (whether foreseeing this season’s need or out of some larger effort to build young hurlers’ arm strength, it’s hard to say) is to allow their guys to accumulate somewhat larger minor-league workloads than are typical of today’s prized pitching prospects.

2016 Workloads, Young Rockies Pitchers

Pitcher

2016 Total IP

Kyle Freeland

162

German Marquez

187

Ryan Castellani

168

Jeff Hoffman

150

That’s despite the fact that Freeland was coming off a shoulder injury that truncated his 2015, and that Hoffman was still working his way back toward a full workload after Tommy John surgery in 2014. Not pictured there is Senzatela, who also had some shoulder injuries but, more pressingly, lost his mother last year, and so pitched little. In 2014 and 2015, though, he pitched almost 300 combined competitive innings in full-season ball, at the ages of 19 and 20.

That matters, but the fact remains that Senzatela, Freeland, Marquez, and Hoffman are all 24 or younger. Chatwood is a two-time recipient of Tommy John surgery. Gray should return fresh and ready to handle a heavy workload once his foot heals, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

So far, the schedule has been unyielding to any effort by the Rockies to manage the innings of their young arms. They’ve played more games than all but one other NL team, and the lack of off days has forced them to employ a pretty tight five-man, five-day rotation. Fifty-nine percent of Colorado’s starts, prior to Tuesday’s, had come on four days of rest. That number dipped this week, after the team slid Hoffman into the rotation for one turn last Friday, then had a day off Monday.

They don’t have another scheduled day off until June, though, so it will bounce right back up. Last season, only the Red Sox had pitchers going on four days’ rest more often than the Rockies have so far. That Red Sox team had a knuckleballer and a couple of very reliably veterans, though. (Nor were even those veterans impervious to wear and tear, as David Price is teaching us this year.) They weren’t spinning 22- and 24-year-olds around on such a compact centrifuge.

Bud Black is not ready to talk about a six-man rotation. Not yet. If the Rockies want to keep widening their window for future contention and give themselves the best possible chance to stay in first place this year, however, that should be on the table at some point. During the First Sabermetric Age, there were intermittent skirmishes over whether teams should revert to the four-man rotation. As early stat-heads pointed out, teams’ fifth starters tended to seem stretched in the role. They took starts (and therefore innings, loads of them) from staff aces, who already were throwing less because of pitch-count monitoring. Some very smart, reasonable people proposed simply moving those pitchers back into swing roles and letting good starters start more often.

Today, that thinking doesn’t really hold up. Biological studies of pitchers have shown that their Heart Rate Variability takes four full days to return to normal after a start. Physiology of the arm itself also suggests that an extra day of rest tends to be beneficial. More importantly, perhaps, and especially in the Rockies’ case, it’s no longer Pete Smith who soaks up those back-end starts, and he’s rarely taking them from anyone on par with Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery. Player development has gotten much better. The talent pool has gotten much deeper, especially now that expansion has stopped. (Baseball doesn’t owe anyone an enormous sum of money, and doesn’t seem pressingly vulnerable to a major lawsuit, so expansion is probably not right around the corner, either.)

If Gray returns and crowds Marquez or Anderson out of the conventional rotation, something is certainly gained, but the gain is eventually eroded by the incremental loss of effectiveness all of the starters suffer due to fatigue. This is a very deep rotation, but also a very flat one, so spreading the innings around won’t hurt the way it hurts the Dodgers to give Brandon McCarthy starts instead of Clayton Kershaw coming back on regular rest more often. Even then, the Dodgers (partially because they have made so many unwieldy commitments to pitchers, partially because Julio Urias is still on strict innings limits, and partially because Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and even Kershaw himself are somewhat fragile these days) derive fringe benefits from using six starters.

The four-man rotation is dead, at least until some future point at which all rotations look more like the strange experiment a different Rockies team tried five summers ago: shorter outings, firmer schedules, less emphasis on leveraged relief, and more on a balanced staff. In the meantime, we’re going to see more and more six-man rotations, and while it might annoy both old- and new-school fans, that might be the optimal strategy. The Rockies are good anecdotal evidence for that: a team whose short- and long-term needs would be well served by using six starters.

The Cubs have five good starters right now (including Eddie Butler, whom they acquired from the Rockies), plus Brett Anderson (currently on the disabled list) and Mike Montgomery (pitching in medium-leverage relief, but possibly slated for starting duty in the future). They have gone deep into the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and have had the same top three starters for most of that span. They could benefit from using a six-man rotation for the rest of the regular season, too, both this season and over the next few. When teams (especially relatively disparate teams) can engage in a given strategy without having to make major tradeoffs, that strategy probably has staying power.

The Rockies have a chance to be the poster child for the coming revolution, by being the first team who could credibly claim to have reached the playoffs because of their six-man starting staff. Right now, they’re not ready to take the leap. Sooner or later, though, the schedule (and if not the schedule, then the return of Gray, and if not the return of Gray, then Hoffman knocking down the door by dominating Triple-A) is going to force them into a corner. Rockies fans should hope that when that time comes, Black and the front office have kept their minds open to this option.

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