Blue Jays – Doin’ The 6 (Man Rotation)


The 2016 Blue Jays might be a perfect fit for a 6-man rotation

Up to the 1970s, teams commonly used a four-man pitching rotation. Pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale regularly started 40+ games and pitched 300+ innings (and did so rather well). Starting in the 1970s, teams evolved to the five-man rotations that exist today.

The success of the five-man rotation has led to natural speculation as to whether the future holds a further evolution to a six-man rotation. After all, the Japanese league uses a six-man, and pitchers as diverse as Yu Darvish and R.A. Dickey have expressed the view that a six-man would cut down the wear and tear on pitchers and reduce the incidence of injuries.  But initial experiments with the six-man have not be successful – the White Sox in 2011 and the Rockies in 2012 both tried six-man rotation, and both finished with losing seasons.  Earl Weaver‘s Seventh Law is valid – it really *is* easier to find four starting pitchers than five, and by extension five is easier than six.

But – just maybe – the 2016 Blue Jays could be the first team to make the 6 work.

Consider the usual arguments against a six-man.

#1 – Don’t take the ball away from your ace

In a true six-man, each pitcher will start ~27 games instead of the usual ~33.  If your ace is a Koufax, the argument goes (with considerable merit) that it makes no sense to give 6 of his games to a #6 starter, without a darn good reason.

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But in 2016, the Jays might have that reason. Marcus Stroman is the ace-designate, but he only pitched 46 innings in 2015 and 130 in 2014. A jump to over 200 innings in 2016 might not be prudent. And even if it were, it might not be to the Jays’ advantage to take a tired Stroman into the playoffs.  A 160-180 inning season in 2016 might be an appropriate stepping stone to 2017.

#2 – Pitchers want more starts

Pitchers, so the argument goes, want to start as many games as possible.  In part because they want to help the team, and in part because it enhances their own value when they become free agents.  And why would you settle for 160 innings from a pitcher who could give you 180 or 190?

Again, this general rule might not be applicable to the Jays’ 2016 starting staff. Between them, Happ, Estrada, Hutchison, Chavez and Sanchez have pitched a total of two 180 inning seasons. Chavez in particular has a history of performing far better in the first half of the season than the second half, very possibly due to fatigue on his 6’2″ 160 pound frame.  And Sanchez only pitched ~100 innings in 2015, so a jump to 200 could be dangerous.  The only pitcher who would have cause to object would be R.A. Dickey, and as noted above he is on record as supporting a 6-man staff.  So it is entirely possible that the Jays’ staff would embrace a 6-man strategy.

#3 – Nobody has 6 major-league calibre pitchers

This is the most frequently expressed argument against a 6-man rotation.  The argument is that the 6th starter would not be good enough to deserve a major league rotation spot.

Again, a valid argument – but not for the 2016 Jays.  Assuming that Stroman -Dickey – Happ – Estrada hold the first four rotation spots in some order, the Jays would have Hutchison / Sanchez / Chavez to choose from for the 5th and 6th spots. Hutchison is considered by many to be a prime rebound candidate, and is projected by Steamer to have a 4.10 ERA in 2016 (which would make him a solid #3). Chavez does have a history of tiring, but he had a 3.40 ERA in the first half of 2015 (100 IP) and a 3.14 ERA in the first half of 2014 (114 IP). And Sanchez has been working his buns off to start in 2016, including adding 25 pounds of muscle. Every one of them profiles as a #5 starter or better.

And consider the advantages of an extended rotation

#1 – Does rest reduce injuries?

The biggest advantage to a six-man rotation, and the one most subject to debate, is whether giving pitchers additional rest would reduce the number of injuries.  Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight made the following comments:

"I found that there is a strong link between rest and injury rates. Looking at starts on three days of rest, 1.7 percent of pitchers suffered a reported injury within the next two weeks. At four days of rest, the typical amount in the modern age, that number drops precipitously to 1.0 percent. (Maybe that helps explain why the five-man rotation came to be.) Then the injury risk falls even further: at five days of rest — which would be standard for a six-man rotation — just 0.8 percent of pitchers are injured in the next 14 days, for a 20 percent decrease compared with four days of rest. That is a potentially meaningful drop in injury risk."

Reducing injury is important not only for 2016 but for future years, as prior injury is the single highest predictive factor for future injury. So a 2016 injury to a Stroman, Hutchison or Sanchez could have implications for years to come.

#2 – The 5-man rotation does not exist anyway

In 2015, the average MLB team used 11 starting pitchers for a total of 940 innings pitched.  On average, the five primary starters provided 755 of those innings, or 80%, meaning that the other six pitchers contributed ~185 innings.  So the idea of a five-man rotation carrying the team for a full season is, except for a few lucky teams, an unrealistic expectation.  The Jays will almost certainly need those ~185 innings from their 6th-11th starters in 2016:  would it not make more sense to build that into their thinking from the start, rather than to do so on a reactive basis?

#3 – Flexibility to manage matchups

Five days of rest between starts could give the Jays the ability to skip a start if a starter were ill, hurt or facing an unfavourable matchup.  The starter moving up would be doing so on a “full” 4 days rest.

#4 – Switching back to a 5-man

If a starting pitcher were to be hurt, or to struggle, it would be easy to switch back to a 5-man rotation.  All 6 of the starters would be fully stretched out.  It might be harder to take a pitcher who had been pitching out of the bullpen and switch him into the rotation.

#5 – Playoffs

Pitchers should be more rested, with fewer regular-season innings, going into the playoffs.  This could enhance their playoff performance.

The bottom line

Clearly, a 6-man rotation would only work if at least two of Chavez, Hutchison and Sanchez showed well enough in spring training to warrant a rotation spot. But assuming that they did, the Jays might be unusually well positioned to be the first team to succeed “in the six”.