Will Obsession with Preserving Pitchers Soon Lead to 6-Man MLB Rotations?

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Will Obsession with Preserving Pitchers Soon Lead to 6-Man MLB Rotations?
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The most sensible solution to Major League Baseball's pitcher injury problem is to just equip all hurlers with bionic elbows and shoulders. Make 'em into Termipitchers.

Sadly, that's not a practical solution just yet. So in the meantime, MLB teams must consider the practical solutions that are at their disposal.

We're here to discuss the merits of one of them: going from five-man starting rotations to six-man starting rotations.

Which, you know, is hardly a revolutionary idea these days. 

The Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees toyed around with six-man rotations in 2011. In 2012, the Atlanta Braves gave it a go for a time. Last year, it was the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. Before Brandon Morrow got hurt, the Toronto Blue Jays were pondering a six-man rotation this year.

When six-man rotations happen, SI.com's Joe Sheehan had the right of it when he noted in 2011 that it's often because teams think they have six good starters to rely on. Rather than demote one of them, why not use all six and hope the extra rest for each starter helps?

Because we haven't seen any teams try a six-man rotation for a full season, we really can't answer the question of whether they help on either the performance front or the injury front.

But to the latter end, we can at least say that six-man rotations hypothetically could help. They'd reduce injuries by reducing the number of starts and, by extension, the number of innings handled by a starter.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Since we're talking about limiting innings, here's an obligatory picture of Stephen Strasburg.

It's the decrease in innings that's particularly appealing, as a recent study by Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus found. Somewhat surprisingly, innings pitched have more predictive power with injuries than batters faced.

That led Carleton to ponder:

Perhaps we’ve been a little too focused on pitch count, thinking that the part of pitching that was so dangerous was the consistent throwing of the ball. Maybe the bigger issue is the number of times that he has to sit down, then stand back up and go out for another 10-15 minutes of throwing, and then sit down again...

Something I'll add to the mix is that starters aren't making it easy on themselves by throwing harder than ever. Check out how their average fastball velocity has gone up since 2008 (via FanGraphs):

Starting Pitcher Fastball Velocity, 2008-14
Season FB% FBv
2008 59.7 90.3
2009 59.0 90.8
2010 57.3 90.7
2011 56.4 91.0
2012 55.9 91.0
2013 56.4 91.3
2014 58.0 91.1

FanGraphs

This could be a big reason why pitching injuries haven't fallen off since teams started watching pitch counts like so many hawks right around 2000

"The highest-velocity guys have the highest chances of getting hurt," Glenn Fleisig, a leading expert at the American Sports Medicine Institute, recently told ESPN the Magazine.

So in the idea of six-man rotations, here's us looking at something that can cut down on the number of innings starters throw and, with them, potentially the number of high-velocity pitches they throw as well. In doing so, six-man rotations would take the fight to two known sources of injuries.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

If we stop this discussion there, yeah.

But we're not going to do that. We've considered the pros, but we must not ignore the potential cons.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
This is Kyle Lobstein. You don't know him, but you would if the Detroit Tigers went from a five-man rotation to a six-man rotation.

The list of those begins with the topic we were just discussing. While going to six-man rotations might cut down on velocity-related injuries, it could just as easily up the ante. 

After all, one explanation for the rise in starting pitcher velocity is that they're throwing harder precisely because they don't have to throw as much. Whereas they had to hold back when they were expected to go the distance every start, they can now cut loose and try to blow away as many hitters as possible before the magic number hits.

To this end, switching to six-man rotations might actually make starters even bolder.

Given that the whole idea would be to prevent injuries, pitch count limits would presumably remain in place. But because starters would have an extra day of rest to lean on, maybe they'd cut loose with their hardest stuff even more often.

If so, one of the biggest potential benefits of a six-man rotation would be rendered moot.

Even if that scary possibility weren't to come to fruition, there are still complications with the idea of six-man rotations. Implement them and that would mean:

  1. Fewer starts for teams' best pitchers.
  2. Teams making do with either an undermanned bullpen or an undermanned bench.

The first point is simple. In a five-man rotation, baseball's 162-game season can provide each starter with around 32 starts per year. In a six-man rotation, each starter would work more like 27 starts per year.

Just think about where those lost starts would come from and where they would go.

For the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, it would mean Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu handing over 15 or so starts to Stephen Fife. 

The Detroit Tigers would lose 15 starts between Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez and give them to Kyle Lobstein

The Washington Nationals would lose 15 starts between Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann and give them to Taylor Jordan.

Should MLB move toward six-man rotations or stick with five-man rotations?

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And so on. There's an awful lot of starting pitching talent in MLB today, but not enough to justify stretching rotations from five to six. Even if value was gained through the prevention of injuries, that value could easily be lost at the hands of the sixth starter. 

As for the other conundrum, teams are only allowed to carry 25 players. To carry a sixth starter, a team would either have to ditch a reliever or a bench player.

Neither is a particularly agreeable proposition, but the idea of six-man rotations costing teams a reliever is downright dangerous.

Assuming pitch count restrictions remained, clubs would still need deep bullpens to pick up the slack for starters. To boot, teams having a sixth starter would more than likely leave bullpens with more messes to clean up.

Any teams going with a thin bullpen over a thin bench in the event of a six-man rotation would be tasking fewer relievers with potentially more work, meaning the possible trade-off for more healthy starters could be more injured relievers.

That we've seen teams experiment with six-man rotations is a sign that there's more curiosity about the idea than there's probably ever been. And at least hypothetically, the ways in which six-man rotations might be able to cut down on injuries certainly does make them intriguing.

But then there's the possibility that injuries wouldn't be prevented if starters used the extra rest as an excuse to throw harder. And in light of how deeper rotations would mean fewer starts for premium pitchers and thinner rosters around them, any decrease in injuries could have serious drawbacks.

Thankfully, there are other ways teams can try to prevent injuries to their starting pitchers.

Will Carroll, B/R's resident injury expert, recently outlined a few. Six-man rotations made the list, but took a backseat to other ideas. Three of the best involved individualizing each pitcher's limitations, keeping tabs on how pitchers are recovering and regularly checking for early warnings of injury.

If teams were to pursue these ideas, they'd be fully embracing the idea of treating pitchers as individuals rather than as copies of one another who can all be maintained with the same arbitrary guidelines (100 pitches, one start every X days, etc.).

This beats the idea of embracing six-man rotations.

And also of waiting for bionic shoulders and elbows to arrive.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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