(*) RESEARCH: The Rockies' bold experiment
This article was adapted from a Master Notes segment on the June 30 edition of BaseballHQ Radio.
In the BaseballHQ Radio podcasts of June 30 and July 7 (our midseason BHQ experts’ roundtable), the Colorado Rockies’ announced experiment in managing their pitching rotation will be a much-discussed topic.
And our interest pales by comparison with the frenzy in the baseball blogosphere—at least in part because sighting an original idea in MLB is like spotting a sasquatch in the Monster Seats at Fenway Park.
If you haven’t heard about it, the Rockies have said they are going to greatly reduce the number of pitches thrown by their starters. Coors Field is just 100 feet short of being a mile above sea level, and there is about 17% less available oxygen than at sea level.
Less available oxygen means pitchers get fatigued more quickly, and therefore lose effectiveness and are more prone to injury.
(There’s a growing body of injury research that suggests fatigue is a critical element in pitcher injuries because fatigue leads to changes in pitching mechanics.).
In late June, when the plan was announced, the Rockies’ starters had the worst ERA in the majors, well over 6.00, and the staff as a whole was likewise the worst, at well over 5.00.
After examining the data, Colorado moved Jeremy Guthrie to the bullpen and said they will use just four starters: Alex White, Christian Friedrich, Josh Outman and Jeff Francis.
The team will go into each game with a starter and a long reliever pre-designated to throw a total of about 135 pitches. The team believes this will let both pitchers throw with more intensity, because they won’t be trying to “pace themselves” to throw 100 pitches or more.
So, “go all out for about 75 pitches” is what the Rockies will tell their starters. If they get 140 quality pitches from their two guys, that’ll deliver the game to the bullpen in good shape to close out what would be a thoroughly well-pitched game.
As an added benefit, holding down starter pitch counts should let starters pitch more games. In a typical five-man rotation, a starter gets about 34 starts per year; a four-man system increases that to 40 or 41. And why wouldn’t you want more starts from your best starters?
We’re not privy to the data the Rockies are using, but we can look at the track records of the four starters now in the COL rotation. And at first glance, the low pitch limit looks like it makes at least some sense.
We used times through the order as a proxy for pitch counts, and rates per 38 plate appearances as a proxy for rates per nine innings. All rate references in what follows will be per 38 PA.
Here are the rates for all COL starters this season, for their first two passes through the orders of opposing batters, and the third:
COL 2012 SO BB Cmd HR R H OPS H% S% ======== === === === === === ==== ==== === === 1st 2 6.4 3.2 2.0 1.4 5.6 10.8 .927 36% 67% 3rd 5.9 3.4 1.8 1.5 6.6 10.8 .905 35% 60%
We see some notable differences in the third pass, presumably as these starters skirted with and passed the 75-pitch threshold. Strikeouts fell, walks and HRs rose. Most notably, from the team’s point of view, the rate of scoring per 38 PA rose by a full run, as strand rate plummeted, due in large part to the drop in Ks and the bump in HR.
Remember, too, that the third-pass stats include pitching by starters who must have been doing relatively well in the games, or they’d have been lifted. And they’re still costing the team runs.
Now, the three rotation members with 10+ starts (Francis has only four starts):
Friedrich SO BB Cmd HR R H OPS H% S% ======== === === === === === ==== ==== === === 1st 2 8.0 3.4 2.4 1.5 6.3 11.8 .992 42% 65% 3rd 8.1 1.7 4.7 1.2 3.5 9.2 .722 30% 76% ------------------------------------------------------- White SO BB Cmd HR R H OPS H% S% ======== === === === === === ==== ==== === === 1st 2 5.2 2.9 1.8 1.2 6.0 10.7 .933 .343 62% 3rd 5.4 5.4 1.0 1.4 6.1 8.1 .810 .270 61% ------------------------------------------------------- Outman SO BB Cmd HR R H OPS H% S% ======== === === === === === ==== ==== === === 1st 2 6.3 1.9 3.5 1.8 6.3 11.3 .918 .350 60% 3rd 7.6 11.4 0.7 0.0 7.6 11.4 1.029 .600 67%
Friedrich appears to be capable of going longer than the 75-pitch limit, improving in several key metrics and holding his ground in others. White has shown some control trouble in the later parts of his game tenures and a bit more trouble with the long ball. Outman’s control essentially vanishes, although we must note that he faced only 10 third-pass batters as of these data, likely because the team knows he can’t go any further.
And of course, these are all young pitchers, so the team might also be looking to protect its long-term investment in them by reducing fatigue-related injury risk.
What about sea-level teams? The data suggest that even where teams aren't dealing with oxygen deprivation and young pitchers, the Rockies’ approach might pay dividends. Here’s what happened across the sport in the full 2011 season:
MLB 2011 SO BB Cmd HR R H OPS H% S% ======== === === === === === ==== ==== === === 1st 2 7.0 2.8 2.7 0.9 3.9 8.7 .677 29% 72% 3rd 6.0 2.9 2.0 1.1 4.5 9.4 .774 30% 69%
All the major skill metrics got worse as starters went through lineups. Strikeouts were down from 7.0 strikeouts to 6.0, meaning starters went from being Chris Carpenter or Matt Cain to Kevin Millwood or Freddy Garcia.
Walks rose, though less dramatically: 2.8 to 2.9. As a result, Cmd Ratio fell from a solid 2.7 to a borderline 2.0.
Hits rose from 8.6 to 9.4, because hit% (which reflects how hard balls are being hit) rose from 29% to 30%. OPS soared from .714 to .774.
And HRs went up, as you’d expect, from 0.9 to 1.1 per 38 PA.
Most importantly, runs again rose, as they did in COL, from a 3.9 rate to 4.5. Six-tenths of a run per game is a bigger deal than it might seem: Over 162 games, it’s almost 100 runs, about 10 wins. And 10 wins is often the difference between playing baseball in October and playing video poker.
So what’s the difference for fantasy owners?
Assuming the Rockies enjoy some success, a lot depends on how quickly other teams adopt the idea. If adoption is inconsistent across the game, we might have to recalibrate starter expectations for adopters versus non-adopters, aiming to get significantly better ERA and WHIP results from the four-man rotations, but perhaps fewer wins because of the pitch-count limitations (somewhat offset by the extra five or six starts per season.
We’d also have to take a long look at those second-man long relievers, who could be all-world LIMA candidates, with much greater opportunities to earn vulture-type wins while also putting up decent ERA and WHIP.
We also might have to adjust expectations of pitcher injury risk. As mentioned, fatigue has been implicated in many or most pitching injuries, and pitch counts have been implicated in fatigue. Reducing pitch counts would reduce fatigue, and that could mean solid starters are much less prone to DL stretches.
As a result, top starters in the reduced-count system might move up our draft boards and figure for more aggressive auction bids, as their inherent risk is lessened by the plan.
And finally, we’d also expect the current offensive declines to continue or get worse. Between advanced pitching concepts and the increasingly adroit use of positional defense, including radical defensive shifts, it’s going to get a lot harder for batters to see pitches they can hit, and to guide their batted balls safely through for hits.
As BHQ Radio commentator Matt Beagle said on the podcast on June 30, many Sim/Strat players have been messing around with these kinds of seemingly off-the-wall ideas for years—especially unusual batting orders—and doing quite well with them.
You have to like a major-league team that’s willing to take a page out of Sim gaming to be genuinely innovative about things, especially things that have been etched in stone since Abner Doubleday.
We’re moving out of the Stone Age, and it will be extremely interesting to see what happens next. The time to start thinking about it is right now.