The Tampa Bay Rays might have come up with an idea that’s too smart for their own good. According to manager Kevin Cash, the team is going to try and employ a four-man rotation in 2018.
Cash said the team’s starters would remain on a normal schedule. When the fifth spot in the rotation comes up, the Rays will employ a bullpen day. Relievers will each pitch multiple innings throughout the game.
It’s a move that harkens back to the past. In the ’70s, teams routinely used four-man rotations. The 1971 Baltimore Orioles famously had four starting pitchers who won 20 or more games.
That alone might make some traditionalists applaud the move. But the game has changed quite a bit from 1971 to 2017. On-base percentage matters more. Strikeouts aren’t as dirty a word for hitters. There’s a much greater emphasis on making starters throw more pitches, and pitch counts are stricter than ever.
That last part is a significant concern. Starting pitchers aren’t going as deep into games anymore. Back in 2011, the team whose starters went the deepest into their starts averaging roughly 6 2/3 innings, according to Baseball-Reference. That figure has steadily declined since then. The Washington Nationals led the league in starter innings per start in 2017 with 6.0. No other team saw their starters average six innings.
That leads to relievers getting more work. Relievers are coming into games earlier, and are now expected to rack up more outs than in previous seasons. With teams no longer employing the super-relievers of old, guys rarely throw more than two innings in relief these days. That workload is spread among multiple guys.
That jump in workload can take its toll. Managers have tinkered with a that strategy during the postseason recently, and it’s led to mixed results. Andrew Miller was nearly an MVP candidate during the Cleveland Indians’ run to the World Series in 2016. By the World Series, however, he started to look mortal. Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman definitely saw a decline in his stuff after working longer outings and pitching multiple days.
Giving relievers larger workloads can work in short bursts — as it did with Miller for much of the 2016 postseason — but we don’t know what impact an increased bullpen workload will have after 20 games. And, as Chapman proved, some elite relievers might be best utilized in their current roles.
The other obvious question here is: What happens if, after a bullpen game, Chris Archer is inefficient with his pitches and gets pulled early? Or what happens if he gets knocked around and surrenders six runs in the first two innings? Cash then has to decide if it’s more beneficial to let his ace grind through more stressful innings, or further overwork his tired relievers.
A solution to the latter problem might be abusing the call-up system, but then you’re left with a scenario where the bullpen is full of guys who weren’t good enough to make the 25-man roster in the first place. They would be fresh, but they wouldn’t be good.
It’s possible that a four-man rotation could work in the future, but that won’t happen until teams start prepping their pitchers to handle increased workloads. That isn’t just something you can transition to without time and effort. It would take years to re-program pitchers who are used to their current workloads. Not only that, but that strategy has to be implemented throughout the whole organization. Guys in A ball have to adhere to it as well, or else they will falter when they are expected to do it in the majors.
The Rays are a smart team. They might even have data to back up their strategy. But, on the surface, going to a four-man rotation seems like a disastrous idea that will lead to a severely decimated pitching staff 50 games into the season.
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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik