Toronto Blue Jays and the Six Man Rotation Option

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 14: Trent Thornton #57 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after being pulled from in the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants in their MLB game at Oracle Park on May 14, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 14: Trent Thornton #57 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after being pulled from in the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants in their MLB game at Oracle Park on May 14, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images) /
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Should the Blue Jays adopt a six-man rotation for the 2020 year, if their off-season permits?

A conventional major league rotation consists of five starters, who (ideally!) each start 30+ games and pitch 150+ innings.  But the Jays’ 2020 rotation is shaping up to be anything but conventional.  Might a six-man rotation work for both the team and the pitchers?

The projected rotation

The Jays have said that they are looking to sign at least one top-of-rotation pitcher this off-season (they were recently linked to Jake Odorizzi, before he accepted his qualifying offer, and have been speculated to be a good fit for Dallas Keuchel, for example).

In addition, the Jays FO has said they will “look to sign even more established veterans” .  But the Jays already have Chase Anderson and (probably) Matt Shoemaker in the fold, and Nate Pearson is likely to be in the bigs well before the all-star break.  So we could be looking at a rotation of TOR FA/trade – Nate – Shoemaker – Anderson – Veteran FA/trade  by the end of May.  Not bad for the team in the short term, but the Jays have the enviable “problem” of a number of younger pitchers who are arguably MLB-ready.

Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki and Jacob Waguespack already have 10+ major league starts, and Kay/Zeuch/SRF/Pannone/Hatch/Murphy/Merryweather are knocking on the door.   Arguably the Jays need one of these young guns to step up and outperform expectations – but it will be hard to judge their performance if they are not facing MLB-level competition.  Filling the rotation with veterans + Nate leaves “the kids” waiting in Buffalo for an injury.

The injury wild card 

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And speaking of injury, there are serious questions about the number of innings that the above rotation can be expected to provide.  Matt Shoemaker is coming off yet another injury in 2019, and he has only pitched 150 innings once in his career.  Ryan Borucki only pitched 23 innings in 2019, and it is likely that the Jays will be limiting his innings in 2020, at least initially.  Similar limits may apply to Nate Pearson, who missed essentially all of 2018 with a freak arm injury and only pitched just over 100 innings in 2019.  Even Chase Anderson – a relative “iron man” – has averaged less than 150 IP over the last three years.

Why a 6-man rotation?

It would be possible for the Jays to use the conventional paradigm. They would start the season with a 5-man rotation, and backfill with starters from AAA when pitchers fall off due to injury or underperformance.  But given the high injury risk, and the need (?) to manage innings, might it not make more sense to be proactive?

Working with a 6-man rotation from opening day would reduce the expectations from the starting rotation from 30-33 games started to 25-28, spreading their innings over something closer to the full year.  The extra rest between starts could reduce the risk of injury for pitchers like Shoemaker, and “ease in” Pearson and Borucki, building their strength for a jump to 150+ innings in 2021.  It would also create an additional rotation slot for someone like a Thornton or Borucki, giving them the opportunity to break out.

It is possible that a top free agent like an Ryu or Wheeler might prefer to have more starts.  If this were the case, the Jays could modify the 6-man rotation accordingly.  As long as everyone knew in advance when they were pitching, they should be able to tailor their off-day routine to fit their schedule.  It is also possible that, with an extra day of rest, starting pitchers might be able to go deeper into games, reducing the demands on the bullpen.

If the Jays really wanted to get funky, they could even give the starters a relief inning or two between starts.  Most pitchers have a standard off-day routine, which includes at least one bullpen session.  Giving them an inning of game time when (due to scheduled off-days, weather or other factors) they are going 6-7 days between starts could help to maintain focus.  But this could be dangerous, and would likely need to be implemented on a pitcher-specific basis.

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The bottom line

The Jays’ 2020 rotation will (barring off-season miracles) have question marks, particularly about durability.  The Jays will need to address this – and to consider both conventional and out-of-the-box solutions.  Being proactive by starting the season with a 6-man rotation is one such solution which should absolutely be on the table.

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