It's been an interesting week in Rockies baseball to say the least. Jeff Francis is shaping up to be the best 75-pitch pitcher on the staff. The offense split a series with the Washington Nationals, arguably the best team in the NL. Josh Roenicke continues to wriggle his way through the season with an ERA below 3, a FIP above 4, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just above 1. Dexter Fowler, Jordan Pacheco, and Chris Nelson continue ripping the cover off of the ball.
To top it off, the Rockies unveiled one of the strangest plans for a pitching staff that I've ever heard.
You've probably all heard the gist of it: this 75-pitch limit for starters, 50-pitch limit for long relievers, and then single innings for everybody else is just the beginning, and before long, we'll just be watching a string of relievers, day in and day out, all pitching their inning or two, and constantly being cycled out with other bargain-buy free agents and/or waiver claims.
The obvious downside to this plan is that it's damn crazy. In essence, you lose the possibility of having one guy completely confuse batters for 6-9 innings, you put extra work on the entire staff, and really, it's operating under the assumption that "pitcher who can't pitch 6 innings can pitch 2 innings." And come on, isn't this just a blatant overreaction to one incredibly crappy season?
Crazy as it may be (and for the record, I really have no faith in this plan whatsoever, but with a season that's pretty much already shot, why shouldn't we?), there's something to this. I know that I've toyed with the idea before, wondering how it would go to literally just string relievers together from the first inning and onward. It kind of works like that in the playoffs, right? Here are a couple of reasons that I think this could make sense for not only a MLB pitching staff, but for the organization as a whole.
1. Change in mentality
The role of a traditional starter in a rotation is ambiguous. Their job is go to out and pitch effectively for as long as possible while giving the offense time to put some runs on the board before the relief staff comes in. Relievers tend to have that one-inning mentality, where they come in, get a few outs, and sit back down.
Matt Muzia of SB Nation Denver had a chance to sit down with Rockies prospect Chad Bettis this past week. One of the topics on their agenda was the current 75-50-1 inning pitching format:
"75 pitches, you don't go into that saying 'Let's try and throw a perfect game today', you just go out there and try and give your team the best opportunity to win."
"It helps be more efficient. Gets outs early, you pitch ahead in the count... If you only go 75 pitches in 2 innings, then so be it."
With the set pitch count, pitchers know what they have ahead of them. The ambiguity still somewhat remains, because a pitcher could go 5-6 innings on 75 pitches, or they could flame out after 2. Knowing you're going to go out there for just an inning or two gives a set goal every game for every pitcher. With a 75-pitch limit, you could go 6 innings and be a stud, or you could go 2 innings and be a goat, and then that will dictate how the rest of the staff behind you is utilized. On a set 2-inning outing, you go out, you get your outs, and then it's the next scheduled pitcher's turn to go do the same.
2. Pitch effectiveness
If the Rockies do start transitioning to a few 2-inning pitchers to begin every game, you'll have guys less worried about stretching their stuff out for 6-7 innings and more worried about doing their set job to the best of their ability.
"Starters, you're not going to throw 4 or 5 pitches in 3 outs. You're going to throw your best 2 pitches that you know you're going to get outs on."
A big reason that starting pitchers need to have a 4-5 pitch arsenal is to keep batters off balance. 2nd or 3rd time through a lineup, MLB batters will adjust to your primary pitches. A starter needs a strong collection of secondary pitches to force batters to swing or strike out on your primary pitches, even later in the game. Having a guy only go through the lineup once won't give batters a chance to adjust, because once you've gotten your 6 outs, it's time for a new pitcher with a different arm slot, different approach, all that jazz. Time to figure out another pitcher.
3. Cost Effectiveness
The Rockies have trouble acquiring pitching from external sources. Free Agents under the age of 35 don't exactly like coming here, unless they're already on the cusp of washing out of MLB. Trading for pitching costs valuable prospects which the Rockies are already loath to part with. This leaves homegrown pitchers and waiver claim caliber pitchers.
Thing is, the waiver wire is typically stocked with guys like Matt Belisle (2009 edition) and Adam Ottavino: failed starters who are out of minor league options and whose MLB clubs don't have the bullpen room to deal with the remedial work to make the conversion to relief. This is where the Rockies' plan could shine: capitalizing on these failed starter types to be the 2-inning pitchers on whom this 11-starter plan will rely on.
Along with availability, these guys tend to sign minor-league or near-league-minimum contracts. If you find a few (like Belisle) who stick, then you can start worrying about multi-year deals for more than $500k.
Some of the concern for the players themselves will be the potential that the salary arbitration process will be skewed toward the team, given the lack of the almighty pitching wins. The upside for them is that if they can stick in the regular short work rotations, they'll still get their innings, their strikeouts, and their ERA, but that 5IP minimum for the W is going to be very rarely met.
"You're going to get your innings, it's just going to be everybody is going to get innings. Instead of 200 innings, you're getting 150, or 130ish. It's going to minimize how many pitches you have."
Certainly, it will be interesting to see how pitchers react to such a situation, and even moreso, their agents. Will this system continually sway arbitrators toward the team as suggested, or could this be the start of yet another revolution in how MLB pitching is handled?