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Is Astros' 'Piggyback' Pitching Structure Brilliant Innovation or Idiocy?

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Is Astros' 'Piggyback' Pitching Structure Brilliant Innovation or Idiocy?
Bob Levey/Getty Images

After losing more than 100 games in each of the last two seasons, the Houston Astros are relocating from the National League Central to the American League West, where they’ll likely lose more than 100 games once again.

But that’s OK. In fact, it’s actually part of general manager Jeff Luhnow’s master plan.

After his hiring in December, 2011, Luhnow initiated a system-wide rebuilding process rooted in scouting and player development, his area of expertise. Although he inherited a solid core of prospects from his predecessor, Ed Wade, Luhnow is responsible for the organization’s stockpiling of young players.

Over the last year, the Astros have steadily filled out their minor league rosters through under-the-radar trades for displaced and once-promising prospects, and they've also landed numerous potential impact players in the 2012 draft.

As a result, the organization now faces a prospect logjam at certain levels. More specifically, they have roughly eight starting pitchers set to open the 2013 season in Triple-A, many of whom are part of the team’s long-term plan and entering a crucial developmental year.

But, as always, Luhnow has a solution.

Rather than using a standard five-man rotation and relegating others to the bullpen, the Astros will employ a “piggyback” rotation so as to offer equal innings to each starter. Basically, the rotation will be divided into four tandems pitching every fifth day.

As Luhnow told Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle:

“Pitchers who pitch well get the same amount of innings as they would get in a five-man rotation,” Luhnow said. “It enables you to guarantee all eight of those starters innings. … What happens in a five-man rotation a lot of times is middle relievers get a whole lot of innings. And we feel like these eight starters at all four of our full-season (minor-league) levels are the priority to get the innings.”

*snip*

“They’re pitching more frequently,” Luhnow said. “The person that starts the game the first time around will … not start the game the second time around. So in other words, group one, the starter will either go five innings or 75 pitches, whichever comes first. The second starter will go four innings or 60 pitches, whichever comes first.”

However, the philosophy doesn’t solely apply to the team’s Triple-A rotation. Rather, it’s also being implemented at each full-season level.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
While with the Cardinals from 2003-2011, Luhnow facilitated the same “piggyback” strategy with the team’s affiliates in the low minors. In general, the notion of sharing starts is a relatively common practice across both Class-A levels. For teams with a buildup of young arms, it allows them to effectively monitor workloads while theoretically reducing the chances of a future injury.

Just last season, the Toronto Blue Jays used a similar strategy to control the development of their three-headed monster, otherwise known as Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino. Granted, they are immensely talented, but it wasn’t a coincidence that each player logged a career-high number of innings and registered a career-best ERA.

Given the volatile nature and general risk associated with young pitching prospects, sharing starts will always be best suited for the low minors. In addition to discouraging overuse, the strategy also fosters healthy competition among prospects in a controlled setting.

But as a pitcher reaches Double-A and Triple-A, building stamina and learning how to work deep into games is emphasized in the developmental process. I mean, do you really think Justin Verlander evolved into a dominant major league pitcher by going five innings or 75 pitches in every outing?

That being said, it’s likely that the Astros may only temporarily employ a “piggyback” starting rotation in the high minors. However, because their big-league rotation is expected to be a revolving door for a majority of the 2013 season, offering all eight Triple-A starters equal innings is in the organization’s best interest.

It may seem unconventional, but the strategy can only strengthen the ongoing rebuild. And I don't know about you, but I trust Luhnow.

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