On Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to be one of the callers on Mile High Sports Radio who got to pose a question to Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd and Rockies owner Dick Monfort. So I used the opportunity to address one of the major reason's why they decided to switch to a four man (three piggybacker) rotation last June, and specifically question why they chose that method over another system. Before I get into O'Dowd's answer though, I want to go into deep detail about that "other system" which I'll label as the "six man / three day" rotation.
First off, take a look at the two charts below. The first one is OPS against Rockies pitchers and the second one is OPS against N.L. pitching as a whole (Basically a league average).
One thing to quickly note; I used all of the data available post humidor installation but did not use 2012 data because there's an extraneous variable involved. Once the Rockies limited their starters to 75 pitches, the only pitchers who were ever going to see a decent number of hitters in a lineup the third time through were the ones who were already pitching well that night by throwing strikes and limiting their pitches per plate appearance to batters. Meanwhile, the sample that would be used against Rockies pitching the first and second time through the lineup is still loaded with all of the outings where the starters were terrible. In other words, the 2012 numbers are going to give us misleading data when it comes to determining if there is a significant rise in OPS that third time a pitcher faces a hitter in a game.
Each column is as follows...
1) The year
2) The OPS against starting pitchers the first time through the lineup
3) The OPS against starting pitchers the second time through the lineup
4) The average OPS against starting pitchers the first AND second time through the lineup
5) The OPS against starting pitchers the third time through the lineup
6) The difference in OPS points between the OPS against starting pitchers the third time though the lineup and the average OPS against starting pitchers the first and second time through the lineup.
(Data provided by baseballreference.com)
The data here is pretty incredible. It shows that there is a DRAMATIC rise in OPS the third time a starter faces an opponent across the National League, but more importantly for Colorado, it also shows that the rise is about 30% higher for Rockies pitching. Even more amazing though is that the 30% increase in the rise seen here includes all of the Rockies road games.
Before the opportunity to address this on the radio came up, I was working to figure out just how large that rise was at Coors Field specifically since baseball reference only breaks this down for teams throughout a whole season. Unfortunately that's an enormous pain in the butt as you have to add up all the data yourself. For that reason, I didn't get to finish everything from this large time period, but the data I have collected so far seems to indicate that the rise in OPS against Rockies pitching at Coors the third time through a lineup is going to be somewhere around 100 to 105 OPS points.
This would make sense too as you would expect the OPS rise against Rockies pitching on the road the third time through a lineup to mirror the league average numbers which the second chart shows to be right around 64 OPS points. Assuming this is true, then you would need to see an OPS rise of about 100 points that third time through a lineup at Coors in order to arrive at the overall OPS rise of 83 points we see against Rockies pitching the third time through the lineup at the bottom of the purple chart. In short, that 100 to 105 OPS point rise number passes the smell test.
Knowing this, we can deduce that the likely increase in OPS from 2002 through 2011 when a lineup faced a starting pitcher at Coors for the third time was approximately 60% higher than the National League average.
The Rockies Front Office saw these numbers (Or at least their own version of these numbers), correctly tried to take advantage of them, and ended up implementing the four man rotation. This plan would limit, but not completely eliminate exposure of the starters to a third trip through the lineup.
When I first saw these numbers, the four man rotation made sense to me - But after thinking about it for a while, I began to realize that there was an even better way to address this unique property of Coors Field. Instead of using seven pitchers in a four day rotation (the four 75 pitch starters + the three piggybackers), it would make much more sense to use a six man / three day rotation in which you have two "starters" each game throw about 55 pitches. Pick your six best arms, pair them into three groups of two, and repeat the process every three games.
For example, your "A" pair could be Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa, your "B" pair could be Drew Pomeranz and Juan Nicasio, and your "C" pair could be Jeff Francis and Tyler Chatwood.
There are many benefits to doing this, and some even go beyond the impact we see in the charts above, but I'll run through my top five here.
1) You completely eliminate your opponent seeing your starting pitcher a third time through the lineup.
From 2002 to 2011, Rockies pitching faced an opponent a third time in a game just under 1,100 times per season. With a six man / three day rotation, that number would be cut almost to zero as pitchers would rarely get into a lineup for a third time in 55 pitches. Taking away the 1,100 most productive plate appearances from your opponent and replacing them with plate appearances where the OPS is going to average 83 points lower will do the same thing to opposing offenses as if our opponent could magically lower both Tulo's and Cargo's OPS by 83 points. It's that significant.
2) You can strategically pair two "starters" together who are left handed and right handed giving opposing managers nightmares about lefty / righty match ups.
There's no way the opponent can win here. They have two choices and neither of them are good. They can either suffer through two of the first four plate appearances in a game in which they will have an undesirable lefty / righty match up as it relates to guys with large platoon splits - Or they can start pinch hitting in about the fourth inning and have a very small bench left by the latter third of the game.
3) More bullpen to work with...
Unlike with the four starter / three piggybacker rotation the Rockies implemented last season in which the Rockies only had five men left to work with in the bullpen, a six man / three day rotation would still leave you with a six man bullpen. There's more flexibility here, and that's always a good thing.
4) Pinch hit when the situation demands it.
Let's say you have a situation in about the 4th inning of a game where the starter is at 45 pitches or so and his turn in the lineup comes up with the bases loaded and two outs. With a conventional five man rotation where the starter is going close to 100 pitches, you have to let him bat in that spot and all but throw away your opportunity to put a big number on the board that inning. However, in a six man / three day rotation, you can end your starter's day without blinking when this scenario comes up and sub in a decent bat for what is likely to be one the most important moments of the entire game. This won't happen very often, but when it does, it has the potential to be the difference maker.
5) You can give the pitchers who are throwing well more meaningful innings and the pitchers who are throwing poorly less meaning innings.
It's possible to do this because you can alternate which of your two "starters" actually starts each game. For example, if the pitcher who is scheduled to be your second starter has been pitching well and the game is likely out of reach one way or the other by the time he comes in, you can cut down the number of pitches he throws in that outing (let the mop up bullpen guy clean it up) and allow him to throw more pitches the following outing as the first starter if he needs them to get completely through a lineup twice. We're not talking about anything major here, but you can definitely tweak things some to make sure that the arms who are throwing the best are throwing as many meaningful innings as possible.
One final note for those wondering - The math works. If a starter throws in 54 games (which they would in this system), and threw an average of 55 pitches an outing, they would throw 2,970 pitches over the course of the season. Compare that to a regular starter who throws an average of 95 pitches an outing over 32 starts and throws 3,040 pitches in a season. This system would be no more taxing on the arms, and if anything, this system could be less taxing.
So knowing all of these benefits, why didn't the Rockies adopt this method? Here is Dan O'Dowd's response...
I can tell you that we looked at that specifically, but there's a human element involved to these things. Wins are extremely important to starting pitchers, and ultimately it's an industry driven system as it relates financially.
We struggled knowing that even with going to a four man rotation and limiting the pitch count a lot of the starters were not getting wins unless they dramatically lowered their pitches per innings and were able to get through five innings. Now you're talking about taking them down to three [innings].
Conceptually you're right on. No argument at all from me at all. It creates a lot more flexibility. It also creates a little more onus on your manager and your bench coach and your pitching coach to manage it appropriately, but you hit on every major point that we actually looked at.
[However], there's a human element involved and that human element is that you've got to get your players to buy into this this kind of concept. That would be a struggle. It was a struggle even to get them to go to the concept we went to and it would be a further struggle to take it beyond that.
I have mixed feelings about this response. On one hand, I'm happy that the Rockies did look into the six man / three day rotation, but at the same time the players rejecting the idea leaves us at quite an impasse. The worlds in which it's a high priority for a starting pitcher (and only a starting pitcher) to get a win doesn't coexist well with a world that's trying to eliminate a starter going through an opponent's lineup a third time for the greater good of the team. In order to get through the five innings needed to qualify for a win without seeing a lineup for the third time, a starter would need to retire at least 15 of 18 hitters - Either that or mix in an extra double play for every hitter he fails to retire. In other words, the math dictates that it just won't happen very often.
While there's no way to know for sure what was discussed between the Rockies Front Office and the team's players last June, it's probably fair to assume that the four man rotation was a compromise settled on between the two sides. The starters could still get their wins if they pitched well, and the amount of plate appearances the opponents would see a starting pitcher the third time through would be limited.
So where does it go from here? That's a really tough question. I'm a firm believer that the greatest pitch a pitcher can throw is the one he can throw with conviction, and if he thinks that he can pitch better when in line to get a win, it's going to be very hard to convince him otherwise. With that said though, I don't think it should be impossible. These numbers are so significant that it would be foolish for the team not to take full advantage of them.
I know Purple Row operates in a vacuum; there's no way we can know exactly what goes on behind closed doors on a daily basis - And most cases we shouldn't. But when the potential for increased production from our pitching staff as a whole is this large, and is sitting right in front of us, it's very difficult to accept our pitchers not buying into it and leaving a potential gold mine untapped. The case for a six man / three day rotation from a numbers perspective is there. It's well supported by a large sample size of data that tells a dramatic story of increased offensive production the third time through the order. There's no denying it.
As someone sitting here with no ability to control what happens with this going forward, a part of me realizes that I just have to accept whatever comes, but I'd be lying to you if I told you that there wasn't another part of me just yearning for this issue to be revisited in 2013.
Yeah, I want more.