Back in December of this year I made the mistake of posting on Christmas Day. Predictably, my post about managing MLB pitching received scant attention. In a nutshell, I suggested that since MLB hasn't changed the basic five-man rotation supported by a cast of relievers since the mid-eighties, it is perhaps time to reconsider this default approach. Indeed, I predicted, some enterprising franchise is eventually going to come up with their own Moneyball moment, and the rest will lag behind for a few years. I ended my post with a fanciful dream of how a radical new approach might look. I'll not go into detail, but I envisioned managers and pitching coaches with powerful handheld computers (iphones) stocked with probability software to help them make in-game decisions, and so on. My ideas were met with skepticism. My own thought at the time was that the Angels wouldn't be innovators because they were too good. Desperate teams call for desperate measures, and in December of last year I figured the Angels would be far from desperate. Well, I was wrong.
I happen to live in the boonies of the midwest, and our local single A team happens to be affiliated with the Houston Astros. I attend a lot of games. The park is nice, the tickets cheap, and they sell local craft beer. I also try to pay attention to the prospects coming through, of which the Astros have many. More interesting than prospects, and germane to my topic, however, is what the Astros are doing with pitching. All through their farm system, they've come up with a fairly radical new approach that's worth our attention. Instead of a five-man, five-game rotation, they have eight starter-types on each team. (I say "types" because the franchise seems to want to get away from the distinctions between starters and relievers. These are all pitchers who can go out and potentially throw several innings.) They call the system "piggybacking," and the way it works is on a four-game rotation, with each game slotted for a pair of "starters." Example, every fourth game, a pair of starters know they're going to pitch. The "starter" is expected to get through five innings if everything goes right; the second guy pitches the last four. The next time they're up, they swap positions. The first pitcher is kept to 75 pitches, the second 60. With eight "starters" on each team, that leaves room only for three or four traditional "relievers." These guys are basically relegated to mop up duty, as the best pitchers on each team are the eight pseudo starters. As far as I can tell, this system doesn't make use of a "closer."
So far the results, according to the Astros, is good--but of course they'd say that publicaly. Really, it's far too early to tell. A couple of the benefits touted is that this system is easier on arms, and it reduces the amount of times a batter will see a single pitcher on any given day. One reason the Astros are doing this is that they're so bad, they might as well. Another reason is that their farm organization is so full of starting pitchers, that this is a way to include more guys in more games. The pitchers, at least when talking in public, have apparently bought into the system. The Astros have no immediate plans to bring this system to their MLB club, but if it proves a big enough success in the minors, I don't know why they wouldn't.
Of course, the Angels have such a thin farm system now, especially in terms of starting pitching, that such a system wouldn't work at all. But going forward, I wonder if the Angels should begin to think creatively about pitching. It certainly couldn't hurt at this point. It's nice to think our current troubles may eventually lead to better things.