The Six Man Rotation


Whenever asked this season whether the Nationals will use a six man pitching rotation when Chien-Ming Wang is ready to come off the DL, Davey Johnson has put that particular idea to rest with a resounding no. Nats fans call sports talk radio shows and ask the same question, usually to be shot down by the show’s hosts with the “You can’t mess with the starting rotation like that. They are used to pitching every five days.”

I live in Virginia, which is a state that doesn’t like change. We have a joke here: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is four—one person to change the light bulb and three to stand around and talk about how good the old one was.

Major league baseball thinking can be a lot like that. I realize that anything done for more than a week in major league baseball becomes a tradition that can’t be changed without massive amounts of debate, doubts, negative comments and second-guessing. But the Nationals are in a unique situation to think outside the box in regard to their starting rotation.

It wasn’t that long ago that major league baseball teams went to a five man rotation. The four man rotation was the standard in the 50’s and 60’s. In the early 70’s the Dodgers started using a five man rotation, and other teams quickly followed suit. Six man rotations have been used in recent years with good effect for short periods of time by teams, most notably the White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Some teams have used four man rotations during the season due to injury or ineffectiveness of a starter that was so dire that rather than take a loss every fifth start, the manager shortened the rotation to give the team a chance to win more games.

The argument that you can’t mess with the starting rotation because they are used to pitching every fifth day makes no sense if you think about it critically. Since the team usually gets an off day once a week, starting pitchers are pitching every sixth day, not every fifth. If the team goes through a two week stretch where the team doesn’t get an off day, then the starters are pitching every fifth day. Starting pitching in the major leagues in a five man rotation sometimes pitches every fifth day, sometimes every sixth. They adjust to this without too much problem. A rain out pushes every starter back a day, and that happens to every team several times during the season. The starters adjust. To hear the radio jocks and others who argue that you can’t change the every fifth day schedule for the pitchers because it will mess the pitchers up is ignoring the reality of what goes on as the season progresses, with off days and rain outs causing constant adjustments to days that a pitcher is going to start. The All-Star break causes readjustments to the starting rotation every year. I don’t hear anyone saying that the All-Star break needs to go because it pushes the starting pitching rotation back three days, and for some pitchers pushes starts back ten days depending upon how the manager decides to set the rotation coming off the break.

The Nationals are uniquely situated when Wang comes off the DL to consider using a six man rotation. The team truly has six quality starting pitchers. Starting Stephen Strasburg every sixth start instead of every fifth start will extend the amount of time Strasburg will be able to pitch for the Nationals this year, possibly extending his availability through August and into a portion of September. Using a six man rotation until Strasburg is through his innings limit means that when he’s done for the year, the Nats could go right back to a five man rotation and not miss a step. Using six starters will also keep the rest of the starters fresher for the push through September and hopefully October when the Nats make the postseason because the starters will not have pitched as many innings. We all saw how dead arms destroyed the Braves last year in September.

Johnson was recently asked what he’d do once Wang returns:

"Detwiler has pitched himself into a role as one of the main guys, for not only this year, but for the future here. Everybody says it’s a good problem to have, but probably not for the questions I’m going to get asked [by the media], because there is no easy choice."

As a result, Wang will go to the bullpen by default. But that certainly doesn’t appear to be the organization’s long term plan:

"When [Wang] comes up, I’ll probably start him in the bullpen. It’s probably the easiest no-decision, But I don’t look at him as a reliever. I look at him as a quality Major League starter."

Wait, what? That gibberish makes no sense. Wang is going to the bullpen, but that’s not the long term plan? What is the plan? Wang is probably unsuited to bullpen work, given his own stated need for a long warm up period prior to starts. He can’t be used in an emergency situation when a starter suddenly tires. If the plan is to trade Edwin Jackson in June and shed his salary, then perhaps you could keep Wang fresh for a couple of weeks by using him every fifth start for three innings after Strasburg goes six. Otherwise, the Nationals have a problem. Wang can’t be parked in the bullpen getting very little work until Strasburg is done and expect him to come right out and be an effective starter.

A six man rotation usually means a short bench, but if the Nationals plan is to put Wang in the bullpen someone is going to have to come off the roster. Unless its Ryan Perry, putting Wang in the bullpen is going to shorten the bench anyway.

There has been some discussion in the Nats camp about using Wang as a starter every fifth day, which is almost having a six man rotation without calling it that. The Nationals need to bite the bullet and throw tradition to the winds, at least until Strasburg hits his innings limit. Then the Nats can go back to a five man rotation and breathe a sigh of relief that they didn’t flout tradition for the entire season. Then we can sit around and talk about how good the six man rotation was.