July means trade rumors. Losing teams look for the most return from their good players. Winning teams scour the market as their fans dream about the addition of an All-Star.
But the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s surprise contender as leader of the NL Central, should think about addition by subtraction. I’m talking about a four-man rotation.
Take a look at the current Pirates rotation, and the stats they have posted in the last calendar year:
One of these pitchers is not like the others. Right-hander Kevin Correia represents a significant drop from the other four.
Since last year’s Independence Day, Correia owns the fifth-worst Earned Run Average among NL starters, and the worst FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, an ERA-style measuring only things a pitcher can control). And Correia isn’t even a true ground-ball pitcher to make up for that; he’s not in MLB’s top 30 in grounder rate over that timeframe.
So has Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talked about a four-man rotation?
“No, we haven’t had any conversation with any traction along those lines,” Hurdle continued after saying hello to Pirates legend Manny Sanguillen. “Not yet.”
Ah, not yet? I will take Hurdle’s leaving the door slightly ajar to make the case: the Pirates should drop Kevin Correia as a starter and go with a four-man rotation after the All-Star break. It would take the 15 games that Correia would potentially pitch, and split them among four distinctly better starters.
Hurdle did get a bit of experience with a four-starter cycle while managing the 2004 Colorado Rockies, the last time an MLB team experimented with more than a passing interest.
“I hesitate to even call that an experiment, because it literally lasted less than two weeks,” said Rany Jazayerli, a baseball writer for ESPN’s Grantland.
Jazayerli wrote a series for Baseball Prospectus on the top of four-man rotations with the lede, “The five-man rotation is a failure.”
He explained (among other things) that five-man rotations only came about in the 1970s and that “pitching in a four-man rotation is less damaging than pitching in a five-man rotation” if you watch pitch counts closely.
That was 10 years ago. So why haven’t any teams caught on? Why wouldn’t Hurdle and Pirates management have a conversation about it?
“There’s just too much institutional resistance to the idea,” Jazayerli said. “Too many peoples’ jobs are on the line if somebody gets hurt while they’re in a four-man rotation. Unfortunately, the culture is being very conservative in resistance to this kind of thinking.”
But Jazayerli added that if any team would benefit from a four-man rotation, it would be the Pirates. Not only are all four starters veterans at age 27 or older, but the bullpen is deep and owns an NL-best 2.71 ERA. One could even say that leading the NL Central on the 4th of July means the Bucs are playing with house money. Why not let it ride?
“The conventional wisdom has moved so far away from four-man rotations that it’s still an uphill battle for any team in contention to try it,” Jazayerli said. “Both [the manager and GM] must have the job security to know they can get away with an experiment, even if it goes wrong, which means you need an owner that is willing to think outside the box.”
Well, Hurdle might be the leading candidate for Manager of the Year. That sounds like job security to me. As for Neal Huntington, who knows.
Are there risks to a pitcher’s health? Sure, but it’s not as if the current system is keeping pitchers like Bedard healthy. And as Jazayerli explains, there is no medical evidence that a pitcher needs four days of rest between starts. There is no substantive research that throwing 105 pitches on four days’ rest is any less stressful than 85 pitches on three days rest. It’s just the norm, but it doesn’t have to be.
If a pitcher in a four-man rotation needs to take a longer rest at some point, the Pirates could have relievers like Brad Lincoln or Triple-A starter Rudy Owens available to spot start. For one span in August, the Bucs play 20 games in 20 days, so a fifth starter could be used to spell the rotation once or twice if fatigue sets in.
For what it’s worth, elder statesman A.J. Burnett would be game for the idea. He has experience pitching on three days rest in Toronto and New York.
“When I did it in Toronto, I loved it. Even in the playoffs, I loved it,” Burnett said. “Some guys don’t like it. Some guys want the days of rest and there’s days I wouldn’t want to do it. Just depends.”
Is the preparation all that different on three days of rest?
“I would prepare the same, I would do the same,” Burnett said. “You would mix in the flat ground stuff” instead of just bullpen work.
Jazayerli suggests that in a four-man rotation, starters should average about 90 pitches per start, topping out around 105 pitches (not the 75-pitch limit placed by Rockies manager Jim Tracy in high-elevation Denver). And it helps that James McDonald and A.J. Burnett have been among the two most efficient pitchers in the National League, averaging less than 16 pitches per inning.
“If you can get guys to consistently get you 90-95 pitches, they’ll work to the 6th inning most of the time,” Jazayerli said. “I think you can make it work.”
Hurdle’s team has a strong, talented bullpen to eat those extra late-game innings, and even has the opportunity to call up good pitchers from Triple-A. He has also demonstrated in the past that he is not too bothered by working with a short bench, if he wanted to have a nine-pitch bullpen.
“We have done that for a couple different times already,” Hurdle said. “We have used that opportunity to go with the extra reliever and we’ll keep it in play as we go forward.”
The benefits from divvying up Correia’s poor starts among better pitchers like Burnett and McDonald could be substantial (especially if Huntington brings in outside help like Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke to replace Bedard).
“My feeling is you’re looking at an additional 10-to-15 percent chance of winning on average,” Jazayerli said. “Over 32 starts, that comes out to 4 to 5 wins per season. That is the equivalent of adding a star or even a borderline superstar player to your lineup.”
Even over the 15 starts Kevin Correia has scheduled for the rest of the season, the Pirates operating a four-man rotation could be worth two or three victories in a pennant race.
With the Bucs leading the NL Central by just one game, even a couple wins brought by a four-man rotation could make or break a playoff spot. That is a potential reward for the longtime woeful Pittsburgh Pirates that far outweighs the risk.