Three pitchers, two rotation spots

joba_052809.jpgBEWARE THE SWINGMAN
Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes. Three pitchers for two rotation spots. Each time one pitches well, or pitches badly, or pitches at all, the argument starts up again as to how  to best dispose of each of them. The drumbeat becomes insistent, as if there had to be an answer right now, as if there’s a switch for each player, with position A “starter,” and position B, “bullpen,” and as long as the switch is hovering between the two something is not right in the universe.

In truth, there is a third setting, “neither,” which worked for baseball for years and year, in an era in which a stifling uniformity hadn’t removed the possibility for all creativity or initiative in the way teams are run and constructed, before a self-defeating overspecialization of relief pitching had caused Major League staffs with detritus that would previously never have escaped the minors. Players objected to the uncertainty and the suppression of their individual numbers, but the Yankees won approximately 14 pennants by keeping that switch in neutral.

With more quality pitchers than they had rotation spots, Yankees managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel planned a more complicated pitching staff, using certain pitchers against certain teams, skipping the lefties in Fenway Park, or going out of their way to use them in Detroit, letting them rest against the clubs that hit them well. It worked terrifically. The 1939 Yankees, on the short list for greatest team of all time, used nine starters. Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez largely stayed in rotation, but every once else swung between the rotation and the bullpen. Only Ruffing threw more than 200 innings, this in a season where the league leader in innings pitched came in just under 300. Most of those pitchers found out they were starting when they reached the clubhouse and found a ball under the cap in their locker.

In the 1950s, Casey Stengel initially had a rock-solid rotation fronted by the famous trio of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat, augmented by Tommy Byrne, and soon joined by Whitey Ford. Starts were distributed in a fairly standard manner.  As those pitchers faded, the rotation became more elaborate. In 1953, the world-champion Yankees had only one pitcher, Whitey Ford, make 30 starts. Twelve other pitchers took turns. The 1954 rotation is like a Jackson Pollock painting. In most seasons thereafter, the Dynasty staffs look a lot like that of 1939, with two pitchers — usually Whitey Ford and somebody — staying in rotation and everyone else being called upon as needed. In 1958, Ford made 29 starts, Bob Turley made 31, and no else made 20. Ford and Turley both pitched over 200 innings; no one else pitched even 140 innings.

The insight here is that some pitchers are better in 150 innings than they would be in 200, but would be wasted throwing only 80 innings out of the bullpen. Thus you have a sixth starter, or a seventh. Present-day baseball doesn’t have a place for that kind of pitcher, though Joe Torre did have one for awhile in Ramiro Mendoza. Everyone is a specialist, either a starting specialist or a relief specialist. That’s fine for some — you want to get every inning you can out of CC Sabathia — but as for almost everyone else on the planet, one-size-fits-all solutions, or even two sizes, are too limiting.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what I don’t know in presenting this argument:

1.    How changes in the schedule affect a team’s ability to play fast and loose with its pitchers.
2.    How changes in pitcher usage affect a team’s ability to swing their pitchers.
3.    The impact of swinging on pitcher health.
4.    Whether the pitchers would stage an outright rebellion over such variable usage.

Factor #2 is of particular interest. The complete game is now virtually dead. While the great Yankees managers, particularly Stengel, were willing to go to the bullpen as necessary, they were still far more likely to let a starter finish up a game than any manager would be today. Just pitching a year at random, the 1958 Yankees threw 53 complete games. This was just a bit above average for that season. Last season, the Yankees had one. This means that while McCarthy or Stengel could anticipate that roughly once or twice a week nine of their ten pitchers would get a complete rest, meaning the swingers who recently started wouldn’t be called on to relieve, thereby allowing them to rest or leaving them available for the next spot start. That is obviously impossible today.  

Assuming that these factors can be dealt with, or safely ignored, the Yankees really don’t need to be making aggressive decisions about Wang, Chamberlain, or Hughes short of just doing what seems most productive on a day-by-day basis. That any of them have a specific role on the team should be of greater interest to the pitchers themselves than a dispassionate Yankees management. That means that any of them could be a starter, a reliever, or both. Remember, just because things are presented as they way there are doesn’t mean they’re the way they have to be. Pitcher usage in baseball has always been highly mutable. We haven’t yet reached optimal usage, and in some ways may be running away from it. Those saying that the Yankees are not using their pitchers the right way need to stop being so dualistic and realize that there is no right way, only the way they’re being used right now.

Wholesome Reading continues to be wholesomely updated with new entries, and will be throughout the weekend. Warning: politics!


  1. ladytoni

    Well said! And it makes a lot of sense. BTW, is there anyone in your office that proof-reads?? ;-}


    Super article. One thing you might have added is how Casey used his SP as relievers on their throw day. Reynolds in particular relieved a bunch.

    That approach could really help in getting the pitching staff back down to 11 men.

  3. rto3

    The goal with a pitching staff should be to get the most quality innings out of your best pitchers according to the type of work-load they can handle. Baseball has for many years been moving towards giving too many innings to ineffective pitchers. The first step is to evaluate the talent you have and the type of work each individual can handle. Normally guys fall into one of three groups. Group I: Guys that can start and get you deep into a game (Sabathia, Burnett, Pettite, and Wang, if/when he gets straightened out.). Group II: Guys who came up as starters, but you may want to restrict their innings because of their age or something (Joba, Hughes, Coke, Aceves, & even Kennedy.) Group III: Guys that are strictly short relievers (Rivera, Bruney, Marte, Veras, Melancon, Ramirez.) The second group of guys should be used in multiple innings appearances whether starting or relieving, as long as they are effective. For example, Hughes or Joba starts, reach their pitch limit or becomes ineffective, then go to one of these other guys for multiple innings. Perhaps Hughes gives you 5.1 innings, then Joba 2.2 or vice-versa, saving late innings for Mo and Bruney (if he?s healthy). The next day perhaps your starter goes 6, you have Coke or Aceves available for multiple innings. This a great way to get young guys used to pitching at the Major League Level, increasing their chances for success, building their confidence and keeping their innings down. This is how most guys use to earn their way into a starting job in the big leagues. The point is that you use guys that can give you multiple innings, as long as they are effective, instead of mixing and matching. Too many times we see 3 or 4 guys combined to get from the starter to Rivera. There are problems with this. First of all, the more guys you use the deeper down the pecking order you go as far as quality is concerned. Second, sooner or later one of them just isn?t going to be effective. Third, if you go extra innings the bullpen is often left without a quality reliever. Fourth, you can wind up depleting what you have available for the next game. Also, by giving more innings to quality pitchers from Group II you can drop some ineffective pitchers from the bottom of your bull-pen and free up a roster spot or two for position players, which gives you a deeper bench and more flexiblity.

  4. meremortal

    I agree it makes sense to think creatively about pitcher usage, but I question whether the example of the 1930s or 1950s is really very relevant to today’s game.

    When teams had 50+ complete games, I have to assume the starters in those games were often throwing +/-140 pitches per game. If so, I can only think of three factors that would have made that possible: (1) (a minor factor) the games moved much more quickly because batters couldn’t routinely step out of the box between each pitch (reducing overall fatigue); (2) (a significant factor) players were considered expendable and were allowed to suffer a lot more chronic and career-ending injuries than would be tolerated today; and (3) (a major factor) pitchers just didn’t throw nearly as hard as they do today.

    Wang, Hughes, and Chamberlain are all young, hard-throwing, elite-caliber pitchers who are extremely valuable long-term assets for the Yankees. Given this, it would be foolish for the team to start experimenting with a lot of new and exotic usage patterns for them. While using a 6-man rotation might be alright, any solution that has these guys toggling back and forth between the rotation and the pen is just too risky given the level of performance that is being demanded of them.


    could you be any more obvious? hughes is in away uniform, joba is in away uniform, but wang is in home uniform. hmmm? who could possibly be getting the job?

  6. check-swing

    thanks for the historical tidbits and i appreciate trying to draw a parallel…..but this article does not say one way or another whats going to happen or what should happen. it sounds like the front office has something they want done thats contrary to what the team needs and the fans want. are you receving pressure from the front office? David Cone’s Q&A sounded like propoganda being fed to fans to get them to calm down about this thing……. I think our rotation is nasty but our bullpen is awful. The most effective arms we have are aceves and coke. They’ve done a great job-but think of how much more valuable they would be as compliments. Veras has great stuff but he’s giving up runs. lots of runs. Joba in the 8th puts us above discussion with any other team in the majors. I mean part of the reason everyone was salivating over him in the rotation in the first place was not because he has 4 or 5 pitches but because his 100mph fastball and 93mph slider looked unhittable-no matter how many times anyone saw it. It was naive of me and anyone else to suspect he could have that kind of velocity over an entire start. HIS FUTURE IS A STARTING. But, just like Wang is doing, why not help us where he can help us the best in the mean time? Or does everyone want to be engaged in a hair pulling sprint to the finish line in the end of september like several of the past ulcer inducing seasons?

  7. burdell151

    Great article, Steve! I’m so sick of the debate of who needs to be where and doing what. The back pages seem to always have all the answers. I hope more of the NY sportswriters start to read your blog so that hopefully they will think before writing such asinine, ill-informed articles. While I understand they’re trying to sell papers, the educated fan knows, or at least should know better than to take anything those guys write with anything less than a grain of salt. Thanks for offering what always seems to prove a well-informed and refreshing point of view as we Yankee fans keep up with our beloved ball club!

  8. themickandslick

    I couldn’t agree more with several things from this post. This 1 inning per reliever syndrome, 3-4 guys in a single game is really inefficient. If the guy you bring in to start the 7th is effective, he should be back out for the 8th. The staff, past the top end starters and closer, should be filled out by the best pitchers in the organization. If the starters in AAA are better than some so called middle relief guys and the #5 starter, then maybe……… Why is it more dangerous to throw 40 pitches out of the bullpen in a game, instead of throwing a “side session” between starts. Pitchers should be ready to pitch when called on and get people out, not worry about their “roles”.

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