Originally written on The Platoon Advantage  |  Last updated 11/17/14

In June, the Colorado Rockies decided to take an unconventional approach to improving their 25-40 record: A modified four-man rotation that outlined new expectations for starters and bullpen arms alike. With nothing to lose except more games, the experiment, which was thought to be a short-term solution to mitigate poor performance and injuries, has general manager Dan O’Dowd’s nod of approval to continue in the 2013 season, much to the surprise of…well, just about everyone.

When the Rockies began the experiment, it made a lot of sense to shake things up a bit. Their starters were already the worst in the league, and the bullpen had a much heavier workload because of it. They suffered injuries, fatigue, and poor performance throughout the first half of the season when the unbalanced workload became too big to ignore. Since adopting the four-man rotation on June 20th, the Rockies are 28-36, which isn’t a great record, but a slight improvement. The starters are pitching better (6.28 ERA down to 5.61) and the relievers are getting worse (4.00 ERA up to 4.52), but even though the experiment has yielded marginal success, O’Dowd and manager Jim Tracy are convinced that the unconventional approach is worth pursuing—if for no other reason than no one else is doing it. "I felt like we had to do something non-conventional,” Tracy has said.

Until the 1970s, the four-man rotation was the norm, when experimentation by the Dodgers and Mets proved fruitful, eventually rendering the four-man extinct. But the Rockies’ four-man rotation isn’t your father’s four-man rotation. In the modified version, there are four-starters with their own piggyback relievers and a couple of bullpen arms. In other words, the Rockies’ four-man rotation is really an eight-man rotation, though the identity of the piggy varies from game to game.

The blueprint for the Rockies pitching staff is simple. Starters work every four days and are capped at 75 pitches. Even if the starter is getting results, Tracy is adamant that they exit the game before 75 pitches, since they will work four days later. The Rockies intended for their starters to be able to make it through five innings while staying within the limit. Actual practice has been more complicated. On a good day, the starter will actually go five, but there haven’t been very many good days for Colorado, with some starters going as few as 2.1 innings. When a starter is removed, the piggyback reliever enters the game and is capped at 50 pitches. From there, Tracy manages the remainder of the bullpen in a more traditional method, paying attention to match-ups, high leverage situations, and of course, using a closer. Since the adoption of the four-man piggyback rotation in mid-June, Tracy has strayed only a few times, staying the course as outlined.

While it seems unlikely the four-man rotation makes a big difference for the Rockies this season given they are now 17 games behind the wild card leaders, entering 2013 with the four-man piggyback rotation as the plan from the outset is an intriguing prospect:  Given an offseason in which to prepare, can the Rockies build a staff which can exploit this design?

The biggest advantage of the four-man rotation next season will be in the pairing of starters and piggyback relievers, which he has not yet been able to do this year. Tracy can create righty-left combinations of pitching pairs, which will make lineup strategies much more difficult for opposing teams. Having the paired pitchers should also help by limiting starters’ exposure to facing the batting order a maximum of three times. There could also hypothetically be better run prevention and higher strike-out percentages by transferring some innings to relievers from starters.

But the reason the Rockies adopted the four-man rotation, to reduce fatigue and injury, seems less likely to be beneficial. The exposure of the four starters, when applied over the full season, isn’t much different from the five-man rotation. In a five-man rotation (assuming no injuries), each starter averages 32 starts. The league average for pitches per start is 95, so that’s 3078 pitches per season. In a four-man rotation, each pitcher averages 40 starts. For the Rockies, those starters are on a 75-pitch limit, so that’s 3037 pitches per season—just 41 less pitches per season. The Rockies have championed the idea of the four-man as a way to preserve arms, but given that starters are throwing more often on less rest, the fatigue for starters argument seems like six of one, a half dozen of the other—it’s an innings-shuffle shell game that might have a placebo effect, but isn’t much different when doing the math.

In a four or five man rotation, the workload of the bullpen also seems about the same. The Rockies relievers have picked up more innings throughout the experiment. If the plan holds in 2013, the piggyback relievers will average 40 appearances and roughly 2025 pitches, which is a high workload for a reliever, especially in the age of specialized bullpen arms. 

Parenthetically, though it should be no concern to the Rockies, a by-product of their plan will be that pitcher-wins will be even more meaningless than usual for their staff. The Rockies plan is silently hell-bent on destroying baseball conventions, an inside job, and if their exercise serves as dialogue about how unrepresentative Win-Loss records are, that would certainly be a victory for sabermetricans. If making pitchers more convoluted than ever makes it harder for the Man to vote for the Cy Young Award, the Rockies are saying, "Damn the man." 

The Rockies four-man rotation doesn’t address the root of the problem: Mediocrity in the pitching staff. Just as the six-man rotation takes innings from the best starters to give them to weaker performers, the four-man rotation does the same: No longer does a team need five starters, they need eight near-starter caliber pitchers for the plan to work effectively. The projected rotation entering next season, assuming no off-season moves would be Jorge De La RosaJhoulys ChacinJeff Francis and Drew Pomeranz as the starters, followed by Tyler ChatwoodAlex WhiteJuan Nicasio and Christian Friedrich as the piggybacks. Health has been an issue for Chacin and De La Rosa, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and of the four piggyback relievers, their success has been limited this year, especially with recent struggles for Alex White. It's not to say that the Rockies need to focus on making investments in the big free agent pitchers of the off-season, but there should be a focus on looking for arms, especially middle relief pitchers that have a track record of pitching a lot of innings. Given the Rockies’ history of weak pitchers, this projected lineup, as well as the Denver altitude, it seems unlikely the four-man rotation will drastically improve performance.  Changing the roles of under-performing pitchers is no more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic—unless they can find a way to plug holes in the rotation and bullpen this off-season, they will continue to sink in the standings in 2013.

In short, if the four-man rotation solves problems for the Rockies next year, it will be because of a coincidental improvement in pitching execution, not because of any inherent advantages built into the unconventional plan. One thing is for certain: A team willing to try a different approach while the rest of the league clings to convention as gospel is worthy of respect, even if the plan fails.  Besides, if the four-man rotation doesn’t pan out, they can always employ an even more unconventional approach…like using their closer in the first inning.

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