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The modern division of labour among the various members of the pitching staff puzzles me. You know the division I am speaking of- five starters whose role it is to throw 6-7 innings, a closer who takes the ninth inning with leads of 3 runs or less, and six other relievers who fill in between the starters and closer. I suppose it is not too bad if a team has four or five starters who can fulfil the role well. The Angels and White Sox of 2005 certainly made it work, but what if a team doesn’t have those starters on hand?

I am proposing an alternative. It arises from disparate sources- Felipe Alou’s use of scheduled days for relievers on the 1994 Expos, the Texas Rangers’ use of tandem starters in their minor league system and my own observation that some young pitchers are not really suited to the conventional starting or relief roles (I first noticed that a young Kelvim Escobar seemed to flourish when he threw 3 or 4 innings every 3 or 4 days). So, on with the show.


Imagine a team with a great veteran #1 starter, a solid veteran #2 who has had arm problems, a somewhat less solid #3 who has also had arm problems, a gaggle of young pitchers who have been used in both the starting and relief roles in their careers, quite a few short relievers and an ace left-handed closer. Let’s call that team “Your 2007 Toronto Blue Jays”, but really the description fits many clubs.

You have a 3 game rotation. In each game, 3 pitchers are scheduled to throw. So, it might look like this:

Game 1

#1 starter (“Roy Halladay”)

lefty swingman (“Scott Downs”)

right-handed reliever (“Jason Frasor”)

Game 2

#2 starter (“A.J. Burnett”)

lefty #3 starter (“Gustavo Chacin”)

right-handed reliever (“Dustin McGowan”)

Game 3

Young righty swingman (“Shaun Marcum”)

Young lefty swingman (“Davis Romero”)

Right-handed reliever (“Brandon League”)

The names here are purely used for illustrative purposes. Jeremy Accardo or Casey Janssen could be “Dustin McGowan” for instance. From now on, I will be removing the quotation marks.

Now, you don’t want Halladay to throw 7 innings every 3 days do you? But, he could go 5-6 innings twice and then throw an inning the third time with Downs starting. If you wanted to maximize his value, you could attempt to ensure that Halladay’s inning was a high leverage one late in the game. Frasor would pitch an inning or three each time.

You probably want to treat your Game 2 pitchers differently because of the history of arm problems. You throw Burnett for 5-6 innings once, and then Chacin for an inning one start, and the next time, Chacin throws 5-6 innings and Burnett goes 1 inning. McGowan would throw an inning or three afterwards in each case.

For your young’uns in Game 3, you probably would be wise to do something different again. For the first pass through the rotation, Marcum goes 3-4 innings, Romero does 2-3 and League goes 2. For the second pass, League starts and goes 3-4 innings, Romero does 2-3 and Marcum goes 2. Rinse, lather and repeat.

These innings goals are obviously not set in stone. Pitchers have good and bad outings, and one can adjust to the bad ones fairly easily. One tool for doing this are the extra pitchers on the staff, “Accardo” and “Rosario”. Another is your closer, “Ryan”. So, if Marcum crashes and burns in a start- as the first six batters reach base on 3 walks and 3 hard hit balls, he can be pulled with Accardo taking his 3 innings. The Manager will need to periodically give Accardo and Rosario work here and there to keep them tuned. The Manager will also have to ensure that one of them is available to handle significant work in extra innings if required.

Your closer would function much as before, although you would hopefully be reluctant to move out the third pitcher in each game in the ninth inning with a 3 run lead. The 3 inning save should be a regular feature, if things work properly. Conversely, you might want to, at a minimum, bring on Ryan in the eighth inning of tight games to face left-handed hitters.

So, putting it all together, here’s an 18 game chart of the roles for each pitcher for a fictional period of heavy action in June (one off-day between Game 11 and 12).

Gm 1st inning 2nd inning 3rd inning 4th inning 5th inning 6th inning 7th inning 8th inning 9th inning 10th inning 11-15th ining Comments
1 Halladay HLH HLH HLH HLH HLH Downs Frasor Frasor

HLH-70 pitches/easy win
2 Burnett Burnett Burnett Burnett Burnett Chacin McGowan McG McG

Burnett-90 pitches/5-3 loss so McGowan finishes
3 Marcum Marcum Marcum Romero Romero Romero League League Ryan

Marcum-55 pitches 2 runs- 6-4 win
4 Halladay HLH HLH HLH HLH Downs Frasor Frasor Frasor

HLH-65 pitches/Frasor gets long save
5 Chacin Chacin Chacin Chacin Accardo Accardo Accardo Burnett McG

Chacin struggles
6 League League League League Romero Romero Marcum Marcum Ryan

League-55 pitches
7 Downs Downs Downs Downs Downs Frasor Frasor HLH Ryan

8 Burnett Burnett Burnett Burnett Burnett Burnett Chacin McG McG

Burnett on
9 Marcum Marcum Marcum Romero Romero Rosario Rosario Rosario League League

Romero hit hard
10 Halladay HLH HLH HLH HLH HLH Downs Frasor Ryan Ryan

1-1 through 7
11 Chacin Chacin Chacin Chacin Chacin Chacin Burnett McG McG

Chacin 100 pitches, but on
12 League League League Romero Romero Romero Marcum Marcum Ryan Ryan Accardo 13 inning game
13 Halladay HLH HLH HLH HLH HLH Downs Frasor Frasor

5-2 in the ninth-Frasor gets save
14 Burnett Burnett Burnett Burnett Rosario Rosario Chacin McGowan McG

Burnett-80 pitches in loss
15 Marcum Marcum Marcum Marcum Romero Romero League League League

easy win
16 Downs Downs Downs Downs Frasor Frasor HLH Ryan Ryan

comeback win
17 Chacin Chacin Chacin Chacin Accardo Accardo Burnett McGowan McG

Chacin-75 pitches
18 League League League Romero Romero Romero Romero Marcum Marcum Ryan

The plan involves longer relief stints, and many fewer late-game pitching changes.


Let’s list them:

1. The transition from spring training to April is much easier.

2. Relief pitchers may do better with scheduled work, due to increased ability to prepare and less time spent warming relative to pitching.

3. It is easier to accommodate young and very old pitchers in a variety of roles where they might get appropriate amount of work

4. The alternating of right and left-handed pitchers for extended work in the middle innings is a potent weapon against a lineup that relies on platoons.

5. There is some evidence that in the modern environment, injury rates increase as pitchers throw in the neighbourhood of 200 innings.

April can be a very difficult month to manage a pitching staff, particularly if it was a rainy March in Florida. Getting 5 starters up to the 6-7 desired innings with the days off and rainouts of April is no fun. With the 3 game rotation, and the fewer expected innings for each pitcher, the transition is fluid, and the days off are welcome, allowing the pitchers to often throw on 3 days rest.

The variety of roles and the fluidity it allows is useful in managing the input of new talent, particularly when it is required unexpectedly. Currently when a starter is injured, the options are to try to “extend” a reliever on the roster, or to call up a starter from the minors directly into the rotation. Calling up a starter directly from the minors into the rotation is perhaps not the optimal way of introducing him to the new environment. With the 3-game rotation, it should be a relatively straight forward matter to “promote” one of the 10th and 11th pitchers into the rotation without extending him, and then call up a player from the minors to fill the less important role.

Very old pitchers and knuckleballers can be easily accommodated in the 3-game rotation. Very old pitchers can be given 5 days rest between appearances of 6 innings, in the Ted Lyons or Tom Seaver vein, without disrupting the rotation. Their partners throw 1 inning apiece on the old pitcher’s day and 4 innings apiece on his off day. Knuckleballers historically have functioned pretty well on two days rest.

The effect on injury risk of the 3 game rotation is difficult to evaluate. With fewer pitchers throwing over 200 innings, and fewer pitchers throwing more than 100 pitches in a game, it is reasonable to expect that injury risk may be reduced. There is really no way to fairly test the proposition until it is tried.


The disadvantages that I can think of include:

1. it may be difficult to persuade pitchers to buy into the plan, because of the history, culture and statistics associated with starting pitching,

2. the manager will have decreased ability to match platoon changes in the 7th and 8th innings- there will be no LOOGY, ROOGY and the like

3. the plan is not ideally suited to the playoff format.

The notion that starters pitch most of the game is quite ingrained in the culture and statistics of baseball. “Complete Games”, “Wins” and more recently “Quality Starts” are the statistical reflection of the idea that the starter’s job is to carry the team late into the game with a lead, and ideally finish it off. The role however has evolved considerably since 1870, moving from one pitcher throwing most of a team’s innings and not really attempting to strike out the hitter, to three to five pitchers throwing complete games about one-half the time and striking out on average 3 batters per game, to the modern pitching staff of five starters and seven relievers and strikeout rates of between 6 and 7 per game. Still, baseball is essentially a conservative game. Change is slow. That is why it is important to not change the environment significantly particularly for one’s veterans. I attempted to accommodate the veterans in the design of the plan.

The decreased ability to gain the platoon advantage late in the game is to my mind, more than offset by the increased ability to gain it earlier and the advantage to the late inning pitcher in not having to warm up repeatedly, and in not being required to pitch several days in a row.

I agree that the plan is not ideal for the playoffs, due to the time off between games. You want your best pitcher to hopefully throw 7-9 innings in games 1 and 5 and your #2 to throw 7-9 in games 2 and 6. Your 4-game rotation might look something like this: Halladay, Burnett, Chacin/League, Marcum/Romero. It would be wise to lengthen out your #1 and #2 starters beginning in mid-September for adjustment purposes.


I hope so. It is not ideally suited to every club's talent, but for some, it might be just the ticket. The prospect of Davis Romero going 24-14 in 140 innings with a 3.75 ERA by throwing the 4th-6th innings of most of his 54 appearances, and leading the league in wins, might cause a review of the whole notion that “pitching wins” are a useful measure of effectiveness.

The Three Game Rotation | 13 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
ken_warren - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 10:38 AM EDT (#155139) #
5. There is some evidence that in the modern environment, injury rates increase as pitchers throw in the neighbourhood of 200 innings.

My understanding is that this only applies to pitchers up until the age of 25 or 26.  Once a pitcher reaches age 26 or 27 I don't think a heavy workload increases his chances of injury.  It also appears that a sudden increase in workload will increase the chances of injury at any age.  Anytime a reliever is converted to starting it seems like a serious injury is a high probablility.   For example a young pitcher who has his workload increased from 150-160 IP up to 200-210 IP is a serious risk for future injury or a serious velocity decrease.  Kind of like Chacin's 2005 season.

I like your idea and think in practice it would probably improve a teams overall pitching.  But I can't see Halladay, or anybody else, pitch five innings on two days rest after pitching six innings.  Additionally any team that goes to this sort of system will not be able to attract or keep any of their potential ace type starters or top set-up guys.  So I can't really see any major league team doing it in the forseeable guture.  Maybe in the minors, and if it works there...who knows.
smcs - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 11:07 AM EDT (#155144) #
I think that a system like this would be more suited for the National League.   If the key to changing pitchers isn't innings pitched or pitches thrown, but when they have to bat, some teams might buy into it.  The way it would work is that you let the starting pitcher bat for himself the first time through, but pinch hit for him the second or third time through, depending on what inning it takes place in.  If you a pull a double-switch, the next reliever can pitch pitch three innings without having to come up to bat, but more likely only two.  And then you let your last guy go until the end.
Pepper Moffatt - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 11:42 AM EDT (#155146) #
Modern pitching patterns have always seemed weird to me, where starters pitch a lot of innings but not very often (high # reps, low # sets) and relievers pitch very few innings but pitch all the time (very low # reps, high # sets).

I'm not much of a weightlifter (obviously), but I've been around enough of them to know it's generally a lot easier, given the same weight, to crank out 3 sets of 10 reps than 1 set of 25.  But managers seem to ask starters to do the latter.

I think we could get a lot more out of pitchers by asking them to throw 75 pitches every 3 days, rather than 100 every 5.  You'd get more out of your best pitchers (avg. 25 pitches a game vs. 20) and I'd bet you'd get better performance as well.

As an Expo fan I'm also a huge fan of what Alou did in 1994.  That is easily the best bullpen performance I've ever seen in my life. 

Bruce Wrigley - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 12:09 PM EDT (#155152) #

I think that a system like this would be more suited for the National League.   If the key to changing pitchers isn't innings pitched or pitches thrown, but when they have to bat, some teams might buy into it. 

Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin discuss this in The Book.  There is a massive advantage to using a system similar to this in the NL.

Mike Green - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 02:36 PM EDT (#155163) #
Thanks for the comments. 

The NL context creates additional advantages, but also difficulties for the plan.  Let's imagine that the team is in a high-run environment for a 10 game spell, and reaches the pitching spot 4 times every game and 5 times some games.  If the timing of pitching changes is dictated by pitcher at-bats rather than workload considerations, it would be easy for the manager to make too many changes and wear out the staff.

I specifically had Roy Halladay in mind for the #1 starter because of his efficiency.  What is important is not so much innings as pitches.  Whether he could go 6 innings/75 pitches, 5 innings/65 pitches and 1 inning/13 pitches in consecutive outings on 2 days rest, I do not know.  I suspect that he could do that and more.  Pepper's weightlifing analogy is, I think, an excellent one.

Bruce Wrigley - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 03:53 PM EDT (#155165) #

I'm not much of a weightlifter (obviously), but I've been around enough of them to know it's generally a lot easier, given the same weight, to crank out 3 sets of 10 reps than 1 set of 25.  But managers seem to ask starters to do the latter.

I don't think that this analogy is helpful, actually.  A repeated, extreme-stress action like a full-speed pitching motion doesn't have an equivalent to a normal weight routine.  A typical "session" for a starting pitcher is 5-7 sets of 15-20 "reps" of the motion, followed by four full days of rest.  But there is more rest and recovery time between pitches than between reps, and between sets, and the "purpose" of the rest between sets isn't the same thing. 

Flex - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 07:24 PM EDT (#155175) #
The trouble with a system like this is it takes no account of performance. What if one of your pitchers, scheduled to go 3 innings, starts to blow up in the first of his innings? You leave him in there because it's in the schedule? Or do you take him out, and mess up the schedule? And then what's the point of the schedule?

It's not the same as weight training, because weight training is an exercise routine. It's not a competitive sport.

Mike Green - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 07:45 PM EDT (#155178) #
As I indicated in the piece, if one of the scheduled pitchers has a bad outing, you have 2 pitchers available to take their innings.
VBF - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 07:59 PM EDT (#155180) #

That was really fascinating. For all we know, baseball's innovative minds are working on this as we speak.

I think there's an assumption to be made here though that's been touched upon a little bit. The assumption is that if a pitcher pitches less innings per outing, that that pitcher will require less rest until their next appearance.

I suppose that a closer would be proof of this assumption in it's most extreme form (very small appearances, very small rest) but if a pitcher is having slightly larger appearances with slightly larger rests, is that still enough rest to justify the length of the appearances? Also, does such a chart exist in baseball that says that "x pitching = x rest", or are the variables too complex for something of that nature to be produced?

I'm sure someone like George Poulis would have a better idea of this than I, but I would be concerned with the health of the pitching staff and I think it would be a bit of a risk, health wise. I'm not entirely sure of the human body is prepared for this.

js_magloire - Monday, September 11 2006 @ 08:03 PM EDT (#155181) #
1)This kind of rotation would be interesting if there was some rule where you could put your pitcher back in a game. Let's say to do that you have to put him in the batting order or something, but then all sorts of interesting combinations could be put out, and you could risk putting out the 5 inning start, and maybe come back for one at the end.

2) It seems like a very delicate balance, it would have to be very melticulously planned because what about extra innings, then everyone would be equally tired. I like the idea of a dual start, because maybe some pitchers have a niche, like you mentioned with Escobar, who can go 3-4 innings effectively, not 1, not 7. So if he's doing well, leave him in, if not, put the other guy in, and then these guys won't get as tired out.

3) Another con is something equivalent to the sophmore slump. You know, when batters start to see pitchers a lot more and become acclimated to the pitcher and his whacky stuff. It happens all the time and is a great advantage for pitchers like Papelbon, Rivera and many rookies. When you employ this type of pitching staff, what happens is that more batters get more exposure to all your pitchers, and it eliminates secret weapons, etc. On the other hand, I always like the idea of mixing pitchers with different strategies to throw off batters. Last week, Ted Lilly pitched a game with his 90 mph fastball and looping curves, and later on you have Brandon League come in with his 97 mph whiffs and 90 mph sliders late in the game. This type of strategical thinking is easier when you can use a sampling of pitchers more so in each game.

Flex - Tuesday, September 12 2006 @ 09:40 AM EDT (#155194) #
As I indicated in the piece, if one of the scheduled pitchers has a bad outing, you have 2 pitchers available to take their innings.

Okay, I admit I was so quick to respond to the basic idea that I didn't register this detail. I do think, though, that the unpredictable nature of competition makes it virtually impossible to keep so many pitching pieces in their place over the course of a season.
Wildrose - Tuesday, September 12 2006 @ 12:51 PM EDT (#155206) #
I wonder if the first step to such a notion would be to try a 4 man rotation, which does have some historical precedence. I recall a study in B.P(?) that examined this issue and was somewhat positive about utilizing such a set-up, finding actually less injury under such a rotational alignment.

Unfortunately baseball is driven by such hidebound traditional values, change is very difficult to initiate. In this day and age, management is transitional, media scrutiny immense ( imagine the trouble a goof like Griffin would cause if Halladay was hurt in such an alignment), and player agents wield  immense influence, all leading to a state of relative inertia.

actionjackson - Tuesday, September 12 2006 @ 03:39 PM EDT (#155226) #

I'd like to see bullpen pitchers scheduled, so you don't wind up with a situation where League has pitched 3 straight days and Romero, Tallet, and Rosario (maybe I'm missing more) haven't pitched in almost a week. I hate to use a hockey analogy, but I saw Dave Keon give a talk at St. Mike's last night and one of the things he harped on was that individuals don't win games, teams win games. He said the Red Wings would use 2 lines most of the season and then turn to players that hadn't been used much in the playoffs and they would show predictable results. The teams that "rolled" four lines throughout the season were generally fresher and more game ready come playoff time. It goes without saying that you have to have "4 lines" to roll, but team depth is JP's job and it was pretty good at the start of the year.

Obviously, Ryan needs to have his role stay the same as he's the kingpin until proven otherwise. League is becoming the guy you'd like to use in the "game on the line" situations that don't occur in the 9th inning. Obviously, there should be a pecking order, but everyone needs to get their work in to keep the rust off. Jason Frasor (though Gibby somehow hasn't seen it yet) has become the #3 guy out there.

When there's a string of offdays and your 5th starter has had 4 days off and should get 4 more until his next start, get him in there to keep him fresh, and keep your better starters on their regular rest. If a pitcher or player struggles move him to lower leverage situations, until he gets his confidence back, but don't quit on him. A few times this year pitchers were "banished to the minor leagues" i.e. not used for an extended period before being sent down or maybe used again. They have to be kept in the flow. This is the toughest and most important job a manager has: cycling players and pitchers in and out of the lineup. Gibby's pretty good at this. He doesn't run the same 9 into the ground (like the Red Wings), but he could stand to vary the mix a bit more. To be fair, he was doing it more when there was more overall depth, but I think he still has room to improve. Johnny Mac is looking pretty worn out lately. Maybe he needs a bit of a break. Adams, Roberts, or a kid shortstop might help lighten his load. Then, get him back out there after a couple of days.

What a delicate balancing act it is. The vets think they should start every game, and if you follow that logic over the course of 162 you'll burn them all out. The fans want to see the best every day and they want to see Roy stay on the mound even when his pitch count suggests it might not be such a good idea. Then, you have the 3 stooges: Baker, Elliot, and Griffin analyzing every move to death with the wonderful benefits of 20/20 hindsight (hello ken warren, high priest of 20/20 hindsight ;). I know the 3 stooges are currently down to 2, but remember my friends nature abhors a vaccuum. Another stooge will be along shortly. There's the fantasy players, who don't particularly enjoy seeing their guy get the day off. Being a big league manager is one tough job (without getting into the occasional spoiled brat who's paid so much more than you and loves to stick it in your face). But I digress...

Back to the original point which contained some wonderful outside Da Box thinking Mr. Green. I still like my starters to be my starters, but alongside the starting rotation, I would probably try to follow a bullpen rotation with the 6 guys besides Ryan and Ryan probably gets inserted automatically if he's had 3 days off. Just like there's a #1 starter, there's a #1 reliever. I would try to make sure nobody was out of action for more than 4 days. That is how bullpens are supposed to be managed in my mind, but favouritism and riding the hot hand always seem to get in the way. Riding one guys hot arm puts strain on it possibly and puts rust on other arms.


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