Several years ago, the Colorado Rockies tried a pitching strategy I admired and endorsed.
Understanding that they had difficulty bringing in top pitchers, and also understanding that many fringe starting pitchers were solid the first two times through the order before disintegrating the third time through, the Rockies decided to go with four starting pitchers, and four “piggyback” starters. If things went according to plan, the four initial starting pitchers would throw about 75 pitches, go through the order twice, and then the corresponding piggybacker would take over for the next stretch of innings. If necessary, there would be four or so other traditional relievers available.
On paper, the plan is fantastic. You could take less expensive, less effective pitchers and, by reducing their exposure to the other team (and pairing very different styles of pitchers together), get as much production as you might from a pricey, robust five-man rotation.
In practice, it’s pretty hard to pull off, as the Rockies ultimately decided. You have to get total buy-in from the pitchers, whose schedules and usage may be very different from what they’re used to. You have to have really good health and a ton of similar depth, in case of turnover. You have to have other good, durable relievers, because it’s easy for a guy to get blown up and throw everything off kilter. And you have to have eight guys who can do this sort of thing, which, even if you’re more accepting of flawed pitchers, is still a lot.
So it should be no surprise that the four-man rotation with piggybacks has not caught on around the game.
… but what about just one starter and piggybacker?
Strictly speaking, that’s not yet officially what the Cubs have in Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery, but, after together pitching the game last night, they’ve now combined to pitch two full games in a total piggyback fashion (previously, they did the trick against the Giants).
Last night, the duo went 9.0 innings, allowed 1 ER on 6 H and 1 BB, and struck out 7. Were that a starter’s performance, we’d be talking about how magnificent it was, especially against a hot Marlins lineup.
So, then, shouldn’t we see more of Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery combining into a Middie Butgomery hybrid starter?
Joe Maddon certainly likes the setup when it looks like a fit against a particular opposing lineup, and he told Sahadev Sharma that was always the plan last night. The decision was partly based on the lineup and the bullpen needs (they were a little thin without Wade Davis, with Koji Uehara having pitched back-to-back days, and with Pedro Strop having pitched 1.2 innings the day before), but it sounds like Maddon is on board with piggybacking as a general matter.
The question, then, is: could this be a sustainable, season-long setup *IF* the Cubs wanted to have a two-headed fifth starter?
Well, in the pro column, you certainly like the idea of limiting Butler’s exposure to the opposing lineup to a couple times through (and, when he battles wildness, he’s not always efficient). You also like the opposing lineup then having to adjust from a fastball-heavy righty to a junk-heavy lefty. You also like knowing that a quality arm like Montgomery is going to get his innings in a way that meaningfully helps the team, rather than just cleaning up blowouts.
On the con side, you’re using two roster spots for what is, essentially, a single player (because you can’t *always* assume the setup will work to give you nine full innings). You also can’t count on having Montgomery’s lefty arm available in between “starts,” lest you risk his effectiveness on the day he’s due to piggyback.
On the whole, if the Cubs wanted to go to this setup, I think I’d be in favor of it.
At present, the Cubs have eight guys in the bullpen, one more than you might traditionally have anyway. Further, Montgomery getting, say, three innings per outing over 30 outings in a full season would be 90.0 innings – a very nice total for a reliever, and a good, if nontraditional, use of his innings. In other words, it’s not as if Montgomery is being “wasted” by holding him in abeyance for every fifth day.
Additionally, when the setup works, you can give the entire bullpen a day off. Nice side benefit, no?
We’ll see if this becomes an increasing tandem going forward, or if the Cubs instead opt to give Montgomery a start or two as the team heads toward July with very few off-days coming.
For last night, at least, the Middie Butgomery combo worked very well.