Curt Schilling needs the ball

The five-man rotation steals starts from aces and gives them to lesser arms. When will a manager have the guts to ditch it?

Topics: Baseball,

Rany Jazayerli wrote a fascinating three-part series on the Baseball Prospectus Web site over the summer arguing that the five-man pitching rotation is no better than the four-man rotation that was the norm before the 1980s. It hasn’t improved the effectiveness of starting pitchers, he argued, nor has it cut down on injuries or lengthened the careers of starting pitchers.

I couldn’t tell you if the math Jazayerli uses to back up his arguments is convincing evidence or dazzling sleight-of-number, but I think we all know intuitively that pitchers aren’t any less injury prone now than they were 30 years ago, and their careers don’t last longer, or at least not any longer than you’d expect given the medical and training advances that have lengthened sports careers generally. And they’re not more effective than they used to be.

It’s pretty widely acknowledged that it isn’t the frequency of work that injures pitchers — as evidenced by the many relievers happily pitching almost every other day — it’s high pitch counts.

All this makes it strange to me that no one has at least tried a four-man rotation this year. There are several contending teams that, for different reasons, seemed like good candidates.

The team that screams out for a four-man rotation is the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose rotation can be summed up as “Johnson and Schilling, then take a drilling.”

Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, in whatever order, are a 1-2 punch that’s unmatched in all of baseball. When those two start, the Diamondbacks are 53-13, an .803 winning percentage. When anybody else starts, the Snakes are 39-45, a .464 percentage. To give you an idea of the difference, over a whole season, an .803 team would be the greatest that ever played, 14 games better than last year’s Seattle Mariners. A .464 team would be, approximately, this year’s Texas Rangers or Colorado Rockies.

Doesn’t it make sense to get the ball into the hands of Schilling and Johnson as often as possible? Through Tuesday’s games, they had each made 33 starts. In a four-man rotation, they would have made 38. So that’s 10 games where the best 1-2 pitching punch in baseball hasn’t gotten the ball.

But it gets better. Schilling and Johnson wouldn’t be taking starts away from the whole rest of the rotation (with its .464 winning percentage), just from the fifth starter. The third and fourth starters would also get extra starts.

It’s sometimes hard to tell who’s No. 3, 4 or 5 in a rotation by the end of the year, but with Arizona it’s not. Miguel Batista and Rick Helling are the third and fourth starters. When those two, plus John Patterson, who filled in for Helling when he was on the disabled list, take the mound, the Diamondbacks are 29-28. The combined winning percentage of the top four D-backs starters is .667 (82 wins, 41 losses). The fifth starter, either Brian Anderson or, briefly, Todd Stottlemyre, is 10-17, a .370 percentage. (How good is .370? Think halfway between the Kansas City Royals and the Detroit Tigers.)

If those winning percentages hold, and you take 20 starts away from the No. 5 slot and give them to the top four, the Diamondbacks improve from 7-13 in that set of games to 13-7, a six-game swing. That would put Arizona two and a half games ahead of the Atlanta Braves for best record in the league, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, rather than three and a half games behind, as they were Wednesday morning.

Of course we don’t know that those winning percentages would hold. But isn’t it at least worth a try?

The key to avoiding injuries in a four-man rotation, if the historical evidence tells us anything, would be keeping pitch counts down. The manager would face some tough decisions around the sixth or seventh inning of close games. On the other hand, sometimes it’s not so tough. On Sept. 4, the Diamondbacks scored five runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first inning and coasted to a 7-1 win. Johnson threw a 107-pitch complete game. Why? Ten days later, he threw an arm-abusing 126 pitches in a complete-game, 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Why on earth was he out there so long in a meaningless game against a last-place team, with a playoff spot already sewn up?

Another advantage of the four-man rotation is that you get an extra relief pitcher, one who, with a five-man rotation, you were entrusting to carry you every fifth game. In Arizona’s case that’s Anderson, who has a 4.78 earned-run average as a starter, 3.86 as a reliever, when he’s only asked to get batters out once per game, not three or four times, which is tougher.

Adding that extra arm to your bullpen ought to make it easier to pull a top starter earlier in games and keep his season innings total under control. And one more thing: When the postseason comes around, and you want your best guys to take the ball every three games, which is every four days, you’re not asking them to disrupt the regimen they’ve used all season. And now you’ve got yet another good reliever, your fourth starter.

Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly is a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. (That’s probably why he keeps leaving Johnson out there: It just sort of, you know, feels right.) I’m surprised he hasn’t at least given the four-man rotation a shot given his personnel.

Trouble is, if he did, maybe the Braves would respond in kind. Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone is known for having his pitchers throw twice, rather than once, between starts, to better approximate the state of a four-man-rotation pitcher’s arm on starting day. That is, a little less rested, and therefore sharper.

The Braves have a big-name top two, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but their real strength is their entire top four. The Braves are 42-23 (.646) when Maddux and Glavine start — and they’re an even better 42-16 (.724) when their third and fourth starters, Kevin Millwood and Damian Moss, do. That’s a .682 percentage for their top four, or 110 wins over a full season. Their fifth starter is Jason Marquis, with one fill-in start by Jung Bong. That slot is 11-10. That’s not bad, but giving those starts to the other four, if percentages hold, would improve the Braves by four games.

The Boston Red Sox are another team that might benefit from a four-man lineup. The Sox are 43-16 when Pedro Martinez or Derek Lowe starts, 43-49 behind everybody else. Giving the ball to Martinez and Lowe more often, not to mention Tim Wakefield, behind whom Boston is 10-3, might have kept the Red Sox in the playoff hunt.

I could go on — the Oakland A’s are 65-27 when Barry Zito, Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder pitches, 29-29 behind everybody else — but the team that really has me scratching my head is the St. Louis Cardinals. Here’s a club that doesn’t have dominant starters at the front of the rotation, but has had serious trouble finding enough people to take the ball every fifth day. Because of injuries and the death of Darryl Kile, the Cardinals have had 14 different starting pitchers this year, an incredible eight of whom have started at least 10 games. The Cards have relied on retreads, relievers and minor leaguers to fill out their rotation. They’ve also traded for veteran help Chuck Finley and Jamey Wright.

With that patchwork, it’s impossible to look at the performance of individual slots, but we can cobble together a rough idea that Matt Morris, behind whom the Cardinals are 19-11, and a combination of the late Kile (8-6) and the often injured Woody Williams (11-5) are the top two, with a combined record of 38-22. For the fifth slot we can use Travis Smith (6-4), Bud Smith (3-7), Luther Hackman (4-2), Mike Crudale (1-0), Mike Timlin (0-1) and Josh Pearce (0-3), who have combined to go 14-17, often at the price of one fewer available arm in the bullpen for two or three games.

Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager, practically invented the way modern bullpens are deployed. He’s an innovator. I would have thought that if anyone were going to try a four-man rotation, it would be him, but he’s stuck with the new tradition.

I think someone will try it, eventually. Most likely it’ll be the manager of a second-division team trying to make the most of a surfeit of middle-reliever types and a shortage of starters, not the boss of a contender, who would have more to gain but also more to lose. It’s a conservative sport.

Will a four-man rotation succeed in today’s game? We’ll have to wait and see. If it does, the first manager to go back to it is going to look like a genius. I think it will.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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