Some MLB Teams Are Reportedly Considering Four-Man Starting Rotations Next Season

A variety of rules changes in baseball are designed to reinforce the importance of the traditional starting pitcher. You could argue that the three-batter minimum rule for relievers, the DH coming to the National League, the coming pitch clock, and especially the limit of 13 total pitchers all, in at least some small way, have made it slightly more valuable to have on your roster the kinds of starting pitchers who can go 6+ innings every time out.

And yet, as Ken Rosenthal reports, we might actually see some teams going in the opposite direction in the years ahead: four-man rotations with shorter outings. From Rosenthal:

Several other teams, however, believe it might make more sense to go in the opposite direction, and are internally debating whether a four-man rotation is potentially a better response to the way the game is evolving. As pitchers throw harder and harder, clubs are exploring new ways to manage their workloads. The numbers already suggest that most starters are not capable of succeeding a third time through the order ….

But what if starters threw 70 to 75 pitches every fourth day instead of trying to exceed those totals every fifth? A team could use its best pitchers more often. And those pitchers still could reach 200 innings, albeit in a different way – say, by making 40 starts of five innings as opposed to 30 starts of seven ….

The perfect guinea pig would be a rebuilding team with developing starters and/or relievers who could take on larger workloads. Perhaps the idea is too far beyond the status quo to ever come to fruition. But teams are always thinking. And eventually, one of them might take the leap.

Before you even talk about the viability here on pitcher health and game production, you know the main issue: player buy-in. Rosenthal mentions the guinea pig team because he knows, rightly, that clubs with long-time established starting pitchers are going to balk at the idea of being limited to 70 pitches in an outing, and then having to completely alter their between start schedule to accommodate three off-days instead of four.

You also have the statistical problem, as bothersome as it is. In a four-man rotation with strict pitch limits, a starting pitcher would very rarely qualify for a “Pitcher Win,” a terrible terrible statistic that has nevertheless long engrained itself in the baseball psyche.

If you could get past those issues, you would then have to deal with those health questions, and also whether the setup – which optimizes to not have to face batters a third time through – is actually effective for your roster construction. You’re not necessarily asking for more total volume innings from your four starting pitchers, which means your other nine relievers would have to pick up a disproportionate volume of innings compared to a typical bullpen. Do you have the pitcher quality to make it work?

We’ve talked for a long time about the importance of quality multi-inning relievers in the new 13-pitcher-maximum world, so in THAT way, it’s really not all that crazy to suggest that some teams might take that principle a step further.

To make it work, I think you’d have to have a WHOLLLLE lot of MLB-quality depth that can be optioned up and down from Triple-A, as well as four very clearly high-quality starting pitchers with good track records for health and maybe particularly exceptional performance the first and/or second time through the order.

You *could* set up true piggybacks – four starting pitchers, each followed by a dedicated reliever whose style plays well off the starter – but then you’d have to have eight pitchers on your roster capable of going 4+ successful innings virtually every time they take the ball. That’s a tall ask. And from there, you have just five traditional relievers to work with, which could grind them down quickly.

Just for fun, consider what the setup might look like for the currently-constructed Cubs, assuming the primary guys were healthy.

Game one: Marcus Stroman starts, Mark Leiter Jr. relieves.

Game two: Justin Steele starts, Adrian Sampson relieves.

Game three: Wade Miley starts, Hayden Wesneski relieves.

Game four: Drew Smyly starts, Javier Assad or Keegan Thompson relieves.

You would then have to pick five of the following as your traditional relievers at any given time: Brandon Hughes, Rowan Wick, Manny Rodriguez, Michael Rucker, Erich Uelmen, Jeremiah Estrada, Adbert Alzolay.

You still would want more impact pitching on a roster like that, but the question is whether THAT setup would generate better full-season results than going with five of those top eight as your “starting” pitchers.

Thing is, the Cubs are already limiting their starters pretty aggressively to just two times through the order, and using whoever is available to cover the remaining innings. I’m not so sure a gimmick setup would work better.

It’s fun to mull this stuff, though. And it would be very fun if at least one team took the jump next year. We’ve really only seen this attempted once, back when the Rockies tried a four-man rotation a decade ago. It lasted only a couple months before injury issues caused them to go back to a traditional setup.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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