Friday, March 9, 2018

Rotations, multi-inning relief and spot starters

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash plans to use what we might call a 'four man-plus" rotation: Four traditional starters, with a "bullpen game" when a fifth starter is needed.

It's something of a throwback to decades ago. The long-gone age of the four-man rotation did not involve teams using only four starters. There was always the need for spot starts, and teams generally had "swing men" who would start on occasion and relieve in between. The difference is that, unlike the Twins with Jim Perry in the swing man role in 1965-68, Tampa Bay isn't expecting their spot starters to get them seven innings.

Tampa Bay's approach may be more practical this season than in the past, because the schedule has been lengthened with an eye to increasing the offdays and easing travel. More off-days scattered through the season figures to limit the need for, and thus usefulness of, a fifth starter. (It's part of why the Twins think they can avoid using a fifth starter while Ervin Santana is out.)

The Rays are, as far as I know, the only team planning on regularly scheduling bullpen games. But middle relievers were the only free agents who did well this offseason. The trend -- analytics-driven, as most strategic trends these days are -- is for shorter starts, which in turn makes bullpen guys who can go two or three innings twice a week more valuable than they were a few years ago.

The past postseason was something of a template. Houston and Los Angeles, the two World Series contestants, kept their starters on pretty short leashes. If it wasn't Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw -- Cooperstown-bound veterans -- starting, two times through the batting order was pretty much it for their starters. But that was generally about four innings, which leaves the majority of outs for the bullpen. If that's the regular season approach, you almost need a second rotation of bullpenners who can get through the order once and then get a few days off. And shorter starts might mean the starting rotation can be worked more often.

Tampa Bay figures that the bullpen games will be a way to ensure that their multi-inning relievers get the long outings they need to remain stretched out. I'm sure Cash and the front office have mapped out how often they expect to need a bullpen game and what their options are if they get a series of bad starts or extra-inning games that tax their relief corps leading up to a scheduled bullpen game. Of course, the military dictum is that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.

The Rays thinned out their traditional starters by trading Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, then saw two starting prospects they were counting on to some degree this year, Blake Honeywell and Jose De Leon, succumb to Tommy John surgery. But Cash implies that the bullpen game strategy would be their direction without the injuries.

1 comment:

  1. I have a feeling that 4 man rotations won't work nearly as well as front offices might hope. Limiting starter innings to 5 which is almost necessary under such a sinario, plus the occasional short starts will lead to a lot innings by your 12th and 13th best pitchers.

    I suspect it will actually lead to a lot of use from your 14th and 15th best pitchers as well because there will a lot of swapping out at the bottom of the bullpen. I not sure it is actually easier to find and keep healthy a bunch of multi inning relievers versus finding back of the rotation starters.