The Three Game Rotation

Monday, September 11 2006 @ 10:12 AM EDT

Contributed by: Mike Green

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.