Should Astros abandon traditional pitching staff strategy?


On Friday’s edition of MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential, host Brian Kenny asked an intriguing question. Why do all major league clubs continue to employ an antiquated strategy when it comes to the pitching staff? Kenny referenced stats that support the theory that starting pitchers are less successful than relievers.

Pitchers who pitch one, two, or even three innings at a time don’t have to pace themselves and are able to go “all out” on just about every pitch. Consequently, they get more strikeouts and allow fewer runs than starting pitchers. Kenny used the analogy of a sprinter versus a long-distance runner. And it makes perfect sense.

Kenny’s panel that included contributor David Cameron, baseball historian John Thorn, and sabermetrics guru Bill James all agreed. The modern pitching staff is being misused.

Stats show that starting pitchers, in general, become less effective the second and third time through the batting order. Sure, there are exceptions. But every team doesn’t have a Justin Verlander, a Matt Cain, or a C.C. Sabathia. The experts agree that teams would improve their chances of winning by abandoning the five-man starting rotation and better utilizing their staff.  A team like the Astros would seem to be the perfect candidate to benefit from such a strategy.

Last season the Colorado Rockies tried a four-man rotation, keeping their starters on a pitch limit of 75 or 80. Of course, they were ridiculed throughout the league. Their idea was on the cutting edge, but not quite radical enough. With the exception of the closer, starting pitchers are usually the best pitchers on the team. Using starting pitchers for even shorter stints would allow them to pitch more often.

Jordan Lyles (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Houston’s Jordan Lyles is a prime example of a starter who has struggled the second and third time through the order. Last season, Lyles routinely shut teams down for three or four innings before running into big trouble in the fourth or fifth inning. If the Astros were to limit Lyles to three or four innings per outing he could make as many as 50 appearances.

With a completely re-tooled pitching staff managers could bring former starters into the game at key situations, thus maximizing their chances of victory. One of Kenny’s panelists even suggested the closer be used in the first inning to match up against the opponent’s top hitters. If the Astros decided to make such a radical move, perhaps they could utilize Bud Norris late in games.

Not likely. Even a team with a Decision Sciences Dept. has its limits. Although such a move could be rewarding, baseball simply isn’t ready for it. Unlike football, where teams are quick to adapt to whatever strategy works, baseball remains steeped in tradition. Such a radical change in the way pitchers are used would create animosity within the game and probably won’t happen any time soon in the big leagues.

But similar strategies have and will be used in other leagues and tournaments. In fact, Tony LaRussa got more innings out of his bullpen than his starting rotation in the 2011 NLCS. Winter League teams have done the same and we can expect to see it happen in this year’s World Baseball Classic.

This strategy has already proven to be effective in a short series. Can it work over the long haul of an entire major league season? It will probably be quite  a while before that question is answered.