Blue Jays and the 18-Batter T-T-Tango


Could the 2016 Blue Jays be the first to implement the 18-batter sabermetiric “times through the order” pitching system?

In 2007, Tom Tango and two others published The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.   Since then, “The Book” has encouraged baseball minds at all levels to  revisit conventional wisdom about topics likebatting and pitching matchups, platooning, the benefits and risks of intentional walks and sacrifices, the legitimacy of alleged “clutch” hitters, and many of baseball’s other theories on hitting, fielding, pitching, and even baserunning“.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

In a recent interview, Tango was asked if there was one idea from his book that had not yet been tried at the major league level.  He responded that, in his opinion, the Times Through The Order concept, with the attendant change in how relievers would be managed, was a strategic/tactical shift whose time might be coming soon.

Might the time be 2016, and the innovators be the Jays?

Times Through The Order

The TTTO concept is based on the observation that starting pitchers generally do significantly better the first and second times through the opponents’ batting order than the third or fourth time.  For the 2008-2013 years, MLB starting pitchers had an opponents’ wOBA of .315 the first time through, followed by .329 and .343 for the second and third.  For an idea of what that means, in 2015 only 42 batters had a wOBA of .343 or better – and even players like Ben Zobrist, Curtis Granderson and Jason Heyward did not achieve this level.

It is not completely clear why this TTTO pattern exists.  Some people say that once the opposing batters have seen the pitcher twice, they are better able to adjust.  Some say that a good pitcher makes a point of showing batters different looks:  so for example a pitcher might rely more heavily on fastballs the first time they face the batter, and then shift to breaking balls the second time.  But few pitchers have enough different pitches to show batters three different looks – so the third time through, the pitchers are out of surprises.  Finally, there is an argument that after ~75 pitches a pitcher begins to tire, just enough to give hitters the advantage.  But regardless of the “why”, the “what” appears clear.

Based on this observation, Tango made a radical suggestion.  What if teams limited their starting pitcher to 18 batters – only two times through the order – before bringing in a relief pitcher?  For most pitchers, this would mean just under five innings and about 70-75 pitches.  The reliever would then face another ~18 batters, leaving the bullpen to get the final few outs (in an average game, roughly 38 batters come to the plate).

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There are several advantages to this system.  Both pitchers would only face each batter twice, so the opposing team would be denied the “third time through” advantage.  Knowing precisely how long they will be pitching would allow each pitcher to pace themselves – to go all-out on their last few batters (much like relief pitchers do).  Knowing precisely when they will be coming into the game will allow the second pitcher to optimize his warmup routine.  And only pitching 4-5 innings in a game would allow a pitchers with a ~150 inning fatigue limit to still start 30+ games.

There are also disadvantages to this system.  First, the starting pitchers might not enjoy being pulled when they still feel strong, particularly if it is before the end of 5 innings (costing them a “win” in their personal stats).  This would be particularly problematic for pitchers such as David Price or R.A. Dickey, who pride themselves on pitching into the late innings.  And – perhaps the biggest issue – this new paradigm requires that the team have effectively two starters for each game.

Why the Blue Jays?

The Jays recently traded for Jesse Chavez.  Jesse is unusual in many ways for a MLB starter.  First, he is 6’2″ but weighs only 160 pounds – six inches taller but 20 pounds lighter than Marcus Stroman.   Possibly because of his slight build, Jesse has unusual splits.  He pitched as a starter for Oakland in 2014 and 2015, and has a 3.64 ERA in the first halves of those two seasons.  But in the second halves, his ERA increased to 5.59, and the 157 innings he pitched in 2015 was the highest total of his career.  In both seasons (but particularly in 2015) his velocity showed a noticable drop at the end of the season.  It seems clear that the way for the Jays to maximize the value they get from Chavez in 2016 is to manage his workload to try to minimize this fatigue factor.

The Jays also have Aaron Sanchez, and the question of how best to use him.  Sanchez is projected to eventually be a starter, but his 4.64 xFIP in that role in 2015 (along with a 5.05 BB/9, giving him a K-BB% of 1.8%) clearly indicates that more work needs to be done.  Also, he had only just over 100 IP in 2015, so expecting more than 130-150 innings from him in 2015 might be optimistic.  And finally, even if Osuna remains in the bullpen the Jays may not have the luxury of making Sanchez a full-time starter.

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Could this be a TTTO match made in heaven?

Suppose the Jays tell Chavez that he will only be pitching to 18 batters a game – call it 5 innings.  If you assume that Jesse can pitch the 159 innings projected by Steamer, that is 32 starts.  And hopefully, by spreading the workload more evenly through the season, the result will be a 2016 ERA closer to Jesse’s first half 3.64 than his second half 5.59.

The Jays then tell Sanchez that, on the days of the Chavez starts, he will be asked to pitch roughly 3-4 innings.  It would be like a start, in that he would know in advance which games he would pitch and roughly when he would come in to the game.  In between these 3-4 inning games, Sanchez would (subject to his usual throwing program and rest) be available for regular relief work.  Thirty Chavez games @ 3.5 innings each would total about 105 innings, leaving perhaps another 20-40 innings for conventional bullpen work.

Chavez and Sanchez should make a good one-two, as Chavez has a multi-pitch arsenal of which only his four-seam (24% of his 2015 pitches) is more than 93 mph.  So just when opponents were beginning to key on his 86 mph change-up and 76 mph curve, in would come Sanchez and his 96 mph four-seam and sinker.

There are issues with this idea, but they should not (?) be insurmountable.  This paradigm will be new to Chavez, but hopefully he would see the advantage of enhancing his stats in a free agent year.  It would not be new to Sanchez, as it is very similar to what the Jays did with him in the minors.  The Jays would likely need to keep Osuna in the closer role and move Cecil into the 8th-inning, and find another reliever for the 7th, but that should be feasible.  There will be weeks where Sanchez is needed in other roles, and is unavailable for the three-inning Chavez partnership – but in those cases, a more conventional bullpen might be called upon or another bullpen pitcher might take the Sanchez role.  And, as the year goes on and Sanchez gains confidence, perhaps he and Chavez could switch roles for a few games, having Sanchez start and Chavez finish?  Or Sanchez could even move to the rotation full-time, if needed by injury or under-performance.

Next: Analyzing Drew Hutchison's Release Point & Possible Role

And finally, if you like the idea but don’t agree that using Sanchez in this manner is good for his development, reread the above substituting “Hutchison” for “Sanchez” and see if it appeals to you more!

The bottom line?  The idea of easing a starting pitcher from the bullpen to the starting rotation through long relief has worked for the Jays before.   The strategy I describe above is clearly unorthodox.  But enough of Tom Tango’s ideas have been proven valuable to make this idea – however counter-intuitive – at least worthy of a hard look.  And Tom may be right: given the TTTO effect, and the difficulty in finding 200+ inning studs (there were only 28 200+ IP pitchers in 2015), a paradigm that maximizes the value of good 150-180 IP pitchers might well be the future of the game.