Baseball is a sport of tradition and common knowledge. Managers' strict adherence to rules about closer use and the pre-Sabermetric obsession with stolen bases and RBI are great indicators of this. It is no surprise then that the organization of starting pitcher rotations have not changed in decades. However, with a bunch of young arms in the Washington starting rotation and innings limits on many of them, redesigning the wheel may allow guys like Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman to pitch all season and play lights out. It would also help in the future in regard to injury risks like Lucas Giolito.
My idea is this. Rather than letting pitchers throw for six or seven innings per start and then giving them four days rest, the Nationals could let their starters pitch three or four innings per start, and pitch them every third day. This would lessen the innings pitched, make hitters prepare for more pitchers and give them less time facing each one, shrink the bullpen, limit the babying of closers and also increase home crowd size.
The theory I am advocating would split the baseball game into three parts, with each one being pitched by a different pitcher. While the number of innings thrown by each pitcher could be tailored by the Nationals depending on the durability or talent of individual pitchers, for the purposes of this article I will assume that each pitcher will get a third of the game each, therefore three innings.
This means that the Nationals would need nine starting pitchers, but with their depth at the position this wouldn't be a problem. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detweiler, Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen would make up the nine, and with top prospects like Matt Purke and hopefully Lucas Giolito in the farm system the Nationals should be able to retain the depth to use this rotation.
The main reason for adopting this rotation would be to lessen the innings pitched by the young stud pitchers on the team. Strasburg is under an inning limit this season (at least for the moment) and Ryan Zimmerman has already had Tommy John surgery in his career. Therefore, limiting their innings should help them stay fresh for a playoff run. If we do the math, in a season of 162 games under a traditional five-man rotation that the Nationals currently use, each starting pitcher will throw about 210 innings if they are not shut down. However, in a nine-man, three-day rotation, each starting pitcher would throw just 162 innings a season. The 50 less innings is a significant amount, and this would leave them fresher for the playoffs.
Should the Nationals consider this nine man rotation?
Only pitching, on average, three innings a start should also lessen the chance of injury. The smaller inning count would help, but also there would be less cumulative stress placed on the arm. Although I have no actual research to back this up, it makes sense based on my limited medical knowledge.
Instead of throwing about 100 pitches each time they took the mound, the pitcher would only throw 40-50. This should mean that pitchers' arms would not get as fatigued, and it is believed that fatigue makes injury much more likely. Therefore, as well as saving pitchers for the playoffs more, this rotation could help keep staffs healthier, which is a big deal given that star pitchers are being given monster contracts these days.
On a lesser note, having three pitchers throw a significant amount of innings each game would lump more pressure on hitters. They would have to prepare for three pitchers every game, and this would be especially effective if the pairings were done to match different styles of pitchers with each other. For example, Stephen Strasburg could pitch with sinker baller Craig Stammen, or lefty Gio Gonzalez could be paired with a right-handed pitcher like Tyler Clippard. All this would make it that much harder for hitters in the game.
Using a nine-man rotation would also let the Nationals take a smaller bullpen into games. If one pitcher was hammered early in a game, then a later "starter" could pitch more innings to make up for it. However, it is rare for a starter to be pulled in less that three innings, so more likely the bullpen would be rarely called upon. This would allow teams to carry more hitters in the active rotation, which would be a big help in a National League team who often struggle to carry good DH's for interleague play.
The current babying of closers is a real issue in modern MLB teams, and a nine-man rotation would allow managers to force closers, who are paid handsomely but do little real grunt work under the traditional rotation, to pull their weight. Instead of pitching one inning at the end of a game that is often a foregone conclusion, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen would pitch three innings each time they took the mound. While this would probably lessen their normally superb stats, they would have a much greater impact on the game and help lessen the pressure placed on the five current starters.
Finally, from a monetary perspective, having Stephen Strasburg pitching every three days rather than every five would mean more big crowds. It is no secret that star pitchers draw bigger crowds than back of the rotation guys, so trotting out superstars like Gonzalez or Strasburg more often would help fill the bank account of owners.
Finally, while this would be great in the regular season, once the playoffs started the team would probably revert to a more traditional rotation to allow their best pitchers to throw for most of the big games.
In conclusion, a nine-man rotation with three pitchers throwing three innings a start, with three days rest could have huge benefits for a team with many young and talented pitchers like the Washington Nationals. It would be a huge change in the baseball world, but trendsetters can often cash in with championships if they play their cards right.