Last week, Ariel Miranda was sent down to Triple A in a move that would have baffled us at the beginning of spring training, but which made some small amount of sense in the waning days of the offseason. When the news first broke, many assumed it was to keep him stretched out as insurance, since Yovani Gallardo has struggled this spring, and Dipoto confirmed these suspicions shortly thereafter. Just a few days later we’ve learned that Drew Smyly was scratched from his start with reports of a “soggy arm,” and an as-of-yet undetermined recovery timeline. If keeping Miranda as a starter in Triple A seemed smart a few days ago, it seems like an especially savvy move now. If Smyly is truly out for a certain amount of time to start the season, it’s an easier blow to stomach knowing that Miranda can fill in as a viable starter in the meantime. But will that simple solution be enough? For a rotation as wobbly as this one is, I don’t believe so. In fact, for the Mariners’ starting rotation to succeed this season, and to take advantage of the pitching depth Dipoto built up this offseason, I believe the Mariners would benefit from a rather non-traditional starting rotation strategy.
The first, and most traditional of these non-traditional ideas, is to have a six-man rotation. A number of teams have toyed with this concept, and some have even put it into practice, albeit to minimal success. There has even been talk of the Mets considering adding an additional pitcher to their rotation, simply because they have so many good, MLB-ready starters. The Mariners do not have this problem. The Mariners’ starting rotation is the scary funhouse mirror reflection of the Mets’ rotation. If the Mets added another spot to their rotation they could hypothetically capitalize on all their good pitchers and give each starter an extra day of rest, which could be beneficial to their Tommy John-ridden dinner party. The Mariners lack the electric fringe arms of the Mets, so if they were to add another spot to the rotation it would be exclusively to spread out the number of starts each pitcher has, and ensure they each get another rest day. According to research done by Rob Arthur in 2015, there is a strong link between injury rates and rest; with three days of rest 1.7% of pitchers reported an injury within the next two weeks; with four days of rest that number drops down to 1%; five days of rest led to a 0.8% chance of injury. However, it’s worth noting that, save for the drop in injury risk, the severity of the injury was not greater for a pitcher operating on four days of rest, versus a pitcher operating on five.
A six-man rotation potentially makes some sense also, because it would decrease the number of innings a pitcher would be expected to throw by approximately 30-50 innings. This becomes particularly compelling when you consider the number of innings pitched by the 2017 starting rotation, and the number of innings by the Triple A starters.
You’ll notice that the one thing these eleven players have in common is the fact that none of them threw over 200 innings last season. By these numbers, the most durable starter was Iwakuma, whose prior seasons were riddled with DL stints and minor league rehab work.
Another, more unusual idea, is to drop down to a four man starting rotation, and carry an 8 or 9 man bullpen. This was a common strategy for years, but went out of fashion in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Rockies most recently attempted this in 2012, in one of their many efforts to combat the brutal effect Coors Field has on pitchers, and experienced some small amount of success. The real problem with it, particularly when it comes to considering how it would play out with the Mariners, is that the current bullpen is not capable of carrying this team through five plus innings; if Dipoto had wanted to try this method, he would have had to have made entirely different acquisitions this offseason.
So here’s my proposal, which is one part Russell Carleton’s six-man tandem rotation idea, one part WBC pitcher pool inspiration, and borne out of the fact that the Mariners worked to add solid pitching depth this offseason, and should take advantage of those arms, should the starting five falter. In essence, I believe the Mariners should treat their starters like long distance relievers; each start functions similarly to a relief appearance and, if they struggle, they are temporarily pulled from the rotation, and another starter comes to take his place for the next start. The displaced pitcher would either be sent down briefly to Triple A, or shifted over to the bullpen. Now, the bullpen isn’t exactly a place to stash extra players (though that seemed like the strategy with Vidal Nuño last season) but, assuming everything went according to plan, the starters could more regularly get deeper into games because they could exert more effort with each start based on fewer expected starts. Therefore, only one or two, maybe three, relievers would be needed for each game. If things go off the rails, the displaced starter in the pen could feasibly be called upon in a mid-game situation, much like what we saw with the Indians’, Cubs’, and Dodgers’ postseason use of starters as high leverage relievers. There would be one pitcher initially brought in as the replacement starter, in the Mariners’ case this would be Ariel Miranda, but a similar strategy could be employed additionally with players like Chris Heston or Max Povse. A rotation like this could also hypothetically encourage better appearances from these back end starters, because they would be more fresh, similar to how Team USA benefitted greatly from their pitching pool in the WBC.
Carleton has done a lot of interesting work with nontraditional starting rotation proposals, and this one most closely aligns with a tandem six-man rotation idea. This model keeps the first three starters in regular rotation, and uses three other starters essentially as swingmen to cover the other two starts. My proposal is fundamentally similar, but looser and slightly more flexible for two reasons. The first is because, though the Mariners now have solid starting depth in numbers, they do not have solid starting depth in terms of talent. Save for Miranda, I would be hesitant to slot any of the other Triple A starters into a rotation for any extended period of time. Secondly and, perhaps overly optimistically, the Mariners’ current starting rotation has the potential to be good enough, assuming all five pitchers are healthy. The trick is that many have worrisome injury histories, so the likelihood of continued health is slim. Rather than wait for one of the starters to injure themselves, this new style of rotation could function as preventative care for the five regular starters.
I realize there are a number of tangible, and intangible, factors that could make this new style of rotation difficult to execute, and if you have alternate solutions I’d love to hear them. However, though there are a number of challenges, there are also a number of benefits this kind of rotation could have. The biggest benefit is that we would no longer need to anticipate thirty starts from Yovani Gallardo. Spring training stats don’t matter, etc. etc. but he’s given up 17 hits and 13 earned runs in four starts this spring, not to mention the four runs on five hits that he allowed in his four innings of work for Mexico in the WBC. If those numbers somehow don’t worry you, look at his pitch counts, which have prevented him from throwing more than 4.1 innings in a start thus far. The Mariners rotation, if somehow, miraculously firing on all cylinders, has the potential to be quite good, but they have yet to really show us that this spring. Purposefully introducing more pitchers into the rotation, as opposed to waiting to replace injured starters, works to mitigate some of the mediocrity of the back end starters/pitching depth by limiting the number of starts they make. Fewer innings pitched, and fewer starts made, could also lead to better performances from more well-rested starters, as seen with the performances of players like Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly, who were pulled from Team USA’s pitcher pool in the WBC.
This is all deeply unusual and, perhaps, a bit delusional as well. Has the prolonged and constantly professed meaninglessness of spring training gotten to me? Has the eternal winter rain soaked my brain to mush like discarded copies of The Stranger along the sidewalk? Perhaps, but thirty to forty years ago the five man rotation similarly seemed like an absurdity. In the playoffs last season we saw nontraditional bullpen usage play out to spectacular effect, so why not attempt a nontraditional usage of the starting rotation? Change is good. Heck, for a team like the Mariners, change may be exactly what they need.
If all else fails, Doug Fister is still a free agent.