Rethinking the five-man starting rotation

For the first four months of 2011, the Detroit Tigers struggled to separate themselves from the rest of the American League Central division, and one reason was apparent every fifth game. No AL contender has gone through as many dalliances, flirtations and divorces with its fifth starter as the Tigers, and they got taken like Tiger Woods.

Before the July 31 trading deadline, Detroit tried Phil Coke(notes), Charlie Furbush(notes), Duane Below(notes) and Andy Oliver(notes) in the No. 5 slot. Their combined record: 1-11. Their ERA: 5.24. The Tigers went 4-16 in their 20 starts, and if you toss in a spot start from Jacob Turner(notes), it drops to 4-17.

The remedy, of course, came via the July 30 trade for Doug Fister(notes), who on Monday struck out 13 against the Cleveland Indians. Detroit is 23-11 since his arrival and has expanded its lead from 1½ games to 7½. In 44 1/3 innings, the control-freak Fister has walked three and put up a 2.64 ERA.

"It's made a significant difference for us," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "It was pretty easy to pinpoint that had been a problem spot for a variety of reasons. We had some inconsistencies, some young guys. To be in a position where we get a solid start on a continued basis has helped immensely."

The Fister deal recompensed for the fifth-game nausea and dread that surrounded the Tigers. They should win the Central. They could catch the AL West winner and earn home-field advantage in the first round. Fister isn't the only reason. He is a big one.

And yet the trade for him wasn't the only possible course of action.

The Tigers could've done something opening day to save at least a few of those miserable outings from even happening.

It would have been wild. Unconventional. Part of the evolution back to the proper usage of pitchers instead of the anxiety that pervades the game today.

A four-man rotation.

How very novel.

And how very rational.

"That," Dombrowski said, "is a long conversation."

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It's one, in fact, that happens annually in major league front offices. Even in the most progressive, it usually goes something like this:

Brave soul: "So what if we went to a four-ma …"
Rest of the room: "No."

Maybe it's time to let somebody finish the thought. For those who dare question rote pitcher usage – who gag at the New York Yankees' six-man rotation and twitched upon seeing its use with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, too – the four-man is begging to be implemented. Going with four regular starters who pitch on four days' rest and using a fifth starter as the schedule dictates – with him otherwise serving as a swingman in a long-relief role – doesn't only give a team the flexibility necessary to keep it from carrying up to 13 pitchers.

It actually lets their best pitchers pitch more.

Teams started switching from four-man to five-man rotations in the 1970s to keep arms healthy, and as Rany Jazayerli at Baseball Prospectus declared nearly a decade ago: "The five-man rotation is a failure." The four-and-swing is a compromise between a strict four-man rotation – which necessitates pitchers throw on three days' rest, an anachronism to this generation – and today's inefficient five-man rotation.

In a recent column, baseball writer Joe Sheehan outlined the possibility of a four-man rotation and highlighted its biggest merit – namely, it allows teams to sneak in an extra start or two for their top pitchers and takes away more than a few starts from their worst.

Much of the former, in reality, depends on the team's schedule. Tigers ace Justin Verlander(notes), for example, would have gained just one start more than his scheduled 34 by pitching on four days' rest as often as possible this season. Had the Texas Rangers gone with the four-and-swing plan, on the other hand, their No. 1, C.J. Wilson(notes), would have started 36 games instead of the planned 33. The Rangers' chief competition, the Los Angeles Angels, could have gotten 35 starts apiece from Dan Haren(notes) and Jered Weaver(notes) instead of the 34 and 33, respectively, they'll likely go this season. The Angels trail the Rangers by three games in the AL West. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who have been the National League version of the Tigers with their fifth-starter trouble this year, would have netted two extra starts apiece from their Nos. 1 and 2, Ian Kennedy(notes) and Daniel Hudson(notes).

Those extra starts at the top make up for the losses at the bottom. If the Tigers used the four-and-swing before acquiring Fister, they would have needed 17 starts from the nebulous No. 5 instead of 21. This is not to say they would have won those games, or that the extra starts picked up by Max Scherzer(notes), Rick Porcello(notes) and Brad Penny(notes) – the latter two of whom have season-long ERAs around the fifth starters' collective number – would have amounted to anything. But in theory it would give a team a greater chance at winning.

"It's going to depend on how big a difference there is between your (Nos.) 1 and 2, 2 and 3 on down to 5," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "In our environment, between July and August with the heat, our philosophy has been to give the guy an extra day when possible. C.J. might be the unique bird who doesn't need it. But we've taken the approach giving him the extra day when possible."

Daniels brings up a point that almost every executive queried about the four-and-swing plan did: unique variables. In Texas, it's the heat as well as the desire to keep the innings totals for young starters Derek Holland(notes) and Alexi Ogando(notes) at palatable levels. Dombrowski said he wouldn't want to pile too many innings on the 22-year-old Porcello's arm, an understandable sentiment that does have workarounds.

With a four-and-swing, the Tigers could have skipped one of Porcello's starts in early August, given him eight days' rest for another in September and adjusted the rotation toward the end of the season to have him skip a second. He would have finished the season with 32 starts. The Tigers expect him to start 31 games this season.

They could've also slotted him in the swing role toward the end of the first half to tamp down his innings, though one of the inherent problems with the plan is one that baseball created with specialization: the idea that a pitcher's role is inflexible, from starters to closers and everywhere in between.

"You've got to have a guy that's similarly unique in how resilient he is physically to where he may be able to bounce back and forth and serve different roles," Daniels said. "How does he handle mentally not having a true routine? How does he handle a routine where he may not have a side [session]? There are unique traits needed for both.

"You can go into all 30 camps at the beginning of the season, and they're not laying out who their five-man rotation is. They're going as deep as six, seven and eight. That's the mindset right now. It is for us. You have to prepare for the unexpected. You don't know who it's going to be or what's going to happen."

And that's the issue, of course. It doesn't make sense for young teams like Tampa Bay, which went to a six-man rotation not only because all six were pitching effectively but most were too young for the Rays to want them anywhere near 200 innings. If anything, it has worked better than a four-and-swing would. The extra rest in between starts gives Tampa Bay the leeway to allow its pitchers to throw more pitches. The Rays' best starter this season, James Shields(notes), has thrown a major league-leading 11 complete games – four more than the next best, Roy Halladay(notes) – and is on pace to throw upward of 250 innings.

For the situations in which it makes sense, the four-and-swing plan isn't easy. Weather screws with it. Injuries could wreck it. The swing may pitch his way into the rotation and the player he replaced may bomb in the swing role. Some pitchers may work better with an extra day's rest. Others may react adversely to the idea of more than five days' rest on occasion. Teams are loath to even consider the four-and-swing because pitchers' arms are so fragile. Nobody wants to be the one whose science experiment blew up the lab.

Still, enough teams with fifth-starter trouble exist to at least give it a whirl. Take the Tigers next season. Verlander, Fister, Scherzer and Porcello will have logged enough innings to take the burden. The Tigers wouldn't need to overspend for another starter in free agency. They could break Turner or Oliver into the major leagues while keeping their innings at a safe limit.

"I don't even want to talk about 2012 yet," Dombrowski said, and that makes sense, what with 2011 not being over and the Tigers girding for the playoffs. That said, "We normally don't like them to go more on their sixth day [of rest]," Dombrowski said, "and while I don't know that it's ingrained, I'm not sure that's something we'd consider."

So for now the Tigers and everyone else in baseball hew to what injury fear hath wrought: not starting pitchers every fifth day but every fifth game. It's a simple change, one that could work for those with an open mind and something to gain. Like a few extra wins that could mean the difference between an October playing games on TV instead of watching them.

Keep fighting the good fight, brave souls. Maybe someday.

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