Is 'Project 5,183' and Its 75-Pitch Limit Revolutionary or Simply Insane?
Baseball fans know everything there is to know about "Project 5,183."
Actually, that's assuming too much. One has to be following the Colorado Rockies in order to know all the intricacies of Project 5,183. And at this point only the most diehard Rockies fans are still following the Rockies (hats off, lads).
Nor should anybody besides Rockies fans be monitoring what's going on with the Rockies. They're an atrocious team, currently sitting in last place in the NL West at 40-68 and on pace to lose 100 games for the first time in franchise history.
It's bad. Really bad. A sight not fit for human eyes or human hearts. Project 5,183 was the idea that was supposed to make things better. It's the plan the Rockies put in place in June to use a four-man starting rotation in which each starting pitcher is limited to 75 pitches per outing. In a given game, the starter is swiftly replaced by a "piggyback" middle reliever who takes over for a few innings. Then the game goes to the setup men, who hopefully have a lead to protect.
Per the New York Times, the Rockies put this plan in place on June 20, when they had a record of 25-42. That's a winning percentage of .373.
Since then, the Rockies have a record of 15-26. That's a winning percentage of .366. So, amazingly, things have actually gone from bad to worse after the implementation of the Project. The Rockies should clearly do away with it, right? The phrase "easier said than done" comes to mind.
It would be a stretch to say that the Rockies arrived at Project 5,183—so named for the altitude of Coors Field—by choice. Going to the Project obviously required a drastic decision, but some sort of drastic decision was required due to necessity. The Rockies' best-laid plans for their starting pitching really had gone that awry.
And things are worse now than ever before. Look up the list of players the Rockies have on the disabled list, and you'll find two pitchers in Juan Nicasio and Christian Friedrich who are done for the season, as well as two more pitchers who are on the DL for the foreseeable future—Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa.
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The Rockies are currently using Jeff Francis, Tyler Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White in their four-man rotation because, well, that's really all they have.
If you go looking for positives, you'll have a hard time finding any. You certainly don't want to look at the numbers, as the Rockies rank dead-last in the majors in both team ERA and starters' ERA, according to FanGraphs. Their bullpen ERA of 4.34 isn't the worst in the league, but it's worth noting that Colorado relievers have already logged 421.1 innings.
To put that in perspective, a couple bullpens logged fewer innings than that in all of 2011. People from within the organization are refusing to apologize for Project 5,183. For them, finding positives isn't all that hard as long as you ignore the numbers.
For example, Rockies manager Jim Tracy said that the point of Project 5,183 isn't so much to help the club in the short term as it is to help the club in the long term. Via Steve Henson and Yahoo! Sports:
"We wouldn't have ventured into this if we were in a pennant race. It's very safe to say we're not. We have nothing to lose. We are looking at young players. We're trying to figure out if this will work period, let alone in a pennant race."
He has a point about young players. Francis is a veteran who has been around for a while, but Chatwood is only 22, Pomeranz and White are both only 23, Friedrich is 24 and Nicasio is 25. Though it feels like he's been around forever, Chacin is still only 24.
As outlined by Yahoo's Steve Henson, the plan is simple: "Throw first-pitch strikes, avoid walks, be as efficient as possible with those precious 75 pitches."
In other words, the Rockies are basically grooming a collection of Jered Weavers. They want pitchers who will know how to get ahead and stay ahead by pounding the strike zone. Pitching 101 stuff.
Is it working?
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Not really. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the league average for first-pitch strike percentage is 60 percent. Francis, Pomeranz, White, Friedrich, Chatwood, Chacin and others all have first-pitch strike percentages below 60 percent.
The league average for strike percentage in general is 63 percent. White, Chatwood and Friedrich are all under that mark. Francis is above it, but only by a hair at 64 percent. This helps explain why Rockies starters have a BB/9 of 3.64, worst in the major leagues.
But, to be fair to the Rockies, the idea is more to teach than it is to get results, per se. The point of Project 5,183 is to have the club's young pitchers suck now so they won't suck later, so to speak.
In theory, anyway. Unfortunately for Colorado, there are other pitching theories that suggest what they're doing is going to make things worse for their pitchers in the long run, not better.
Throwing strikes is the single most important aspect of pitching, but pitching is far more complicated than throwing pitches over the plate and getting outs. Good pitchers will do things like bury a curveball in the dirt to set up a high fastball, or throw a slider outside to set up a heater on the outside corner.
In other words, pitchers need to be able to toy with hitters, and that's a trick that involves pitching outside the zone on occasion. And knowing how to toy with hitters is important because it's usually the best hitters who need to be toyed with. The last thing you want to do against the Matt Kemps, Andre Ethiers, Buster Poseys and the Pablo Sandovals of the world is give them too many strikes to hit.
The other major dilemma when it comes to young pitchers is how to stretch them out so they can provide 200 innings on a consistent basis in years to come. This is where the Rockies are doing their young pitchers no favors. As Henson pointed out in his article, the Rockies have a chance to become the first team in major league history to finish the season without a single pitcher having thrown 100 innings.
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General manager Dan O'Dowd hinted to the Times that this is more or less the point. “We have found that every starter who has pitched here for 185 to 200 innings for three consecutive years over the lifetime of this franchise has broken down with a significant injury,” he said.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, there have been only 25 different incidents of a Rockies pitcher logging at least 185 innings in a season. That's since 1993. Want to know how many Rockies pitchers have actually logged at least 185 innings in three straight seasons?
Two. Yes, two. Pedro Astacio in 1998-2000 and Ubaldo Jimenez in 2008-2010.
O'Dowd implies that pitching at Coors Field half the time is bad for a given pitcher's health. Despite the lack of evidence to back that theory up, it's really not such an absurd idea given how different pitching at Coors Field is compared to other ballparks much closer to sea level.
Or it could be that pitching at Coors is just plain bad for pitchers' confidence and psyche (not to mention their numbers). That's a theory that the numbers back up quite well, as Coors Field has a longstanding and well-earned reputation of being the worst pitchers park in all of baseball.
According to ESPN.com, Coors Field rates as the most offense-friendly park in baseball this season. That shows up in the splits for Rockies pitchers, as they have a 6.14 ERA at home compared to a 4.50 ERA on the road. They're allowing an .887 OPS at home and a .795 OPS on the road.
So, the problem the Rockies are trying to solve is essentially the same problem they've been trying to solve for almost 20 years: What can be done to make pitchers pitch effectively while wearing a Rockies uniform?
They've tried everything. Project 5,183 is just the latest experiment.
The Rockies are trying to get people to believe that their plan reeks of ingenuity. Alas, it doesn't. It reeks of desperation.
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