Friday, June 20, 2014

Should the Mets be Using a Tandem Rotation?

Photo from
The first time that I heard of a tandem rotation was when I was listening to the now dead Baseball Today podcast on ESPN, which they need to bring back immediately. Anyway, they brought up that the Rockies were beginning to employ this strategy of a tandem, or piggyback rotation. What that means is, instead of having a traditional five-man rotation, teams would have an eight-man rotation, with two pitchers scheduled to pitch on a given day, and instead of having four days in between outings, pitchers would have three days to recover.

The philosophy behind it is to lower the risk of an arm injury for a pitcher by decreasing the innings and pitch count. The Houston Astros use it in all levels of their minor league system not only to protect their young arms, but to help evaluate more pitchers that with a normal rotation. They have legitimate data on eight guys at a time rather than five pitchers with a much smaller sample size for the other three out of the bullpen.

Another important factor is that most pitchers are better the first time through the order than the second and third times through. This method saves pitchers from blowing up as a result of  going too far into a start, allowing the opposing hitters to adjust to him.

Now, how exactly does this happen? The first pitcher would be scheduled for about 4 innings and 75 pitches, at which point the second "starter" would come in to relieve him., with the same pitch and inning restrictions before handing it off to the bullpen if necessary.

Will this work in the major leagues? That's yet to be seen. When the Rockies did it, all of their pitchers were so awful to begin with, that it's hard to actually judge whether or not the method actually worked. They were using guys like Jeff Francis, Tyler Chatwood, Alex White, Adam Ottavino, and Drew Pomeranz before he finally transformed into the top prospect he once was. Anyway, that was quite the horrible crew of pitchers with their ERAs hovering at about 5, so no one should be judging the usefulness of paired pitching on how effective a well-past-his-already-mediocre-prime Jeff Francis was. Because, even with Yadier Molina calling his games, the pitching IQ of Greg Maddux, and playing at Marlins Park after pushing each wall back 100 feet, there's no way Jeff Francis would have been good.

The one fear that I have is what happens when a pitcher is pitching well and he has to be pulled from the game because he's expected to appear four days later. The one thing that I always dislike is over-managing in terms of innings and pitch counts and taking guys out even when they're dominating just because they reached some arbitrary number of pitches. Obviously it's true to a certain point that the amount of pitches thrown can have a direct effect on the injury risk for a pitcher, but it varies from day to day and from pitcher to pitcher. But then again, replacing a pitcher using the piggyback method is the same idea with a high pitch count in any situation. Most pitchers can probably get to about 120 pitches before getting tired in a particular game, but their team has to consider the fact that they must start five days from then, so they aren't pushed they limit all the time.

Another solution is that when a starter is really rolling, the team should adjust their tandem rotation according to how many pitches are thrown when he's finally removed. For example, Clayton Kershaw should not have been removed during his historic no-hitter on Wednesday night. Instead, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly would pitch the "second starter," who for the sake of argument can be Dan Haren, the next day, and continue with three days of piggybacking, then two starters (Kershaw and Haren) who will pitch as long as they can until the team's next day off, at which point they can readjust the rotation to have Haren relieving Kershaw. This is a weird case because it just so happens that Thursday was in fact a day off for the Dodgers, so they would be able to jump right into the paired pitching system without a hitch. But, let's just say for the sake of argument that the team didn't have a day off for the next seven days after Kershaw's great night. After throwing 107 pitches in that game, Kershaw won't be available to make a full start for the next four days, but it's possible to either have him and Haren continue under the traditional system until they got a day of extra rest.

They could also have Kershaw start the game four days later on short rest, and give him a very short leash as they closely monitor his pitch count and his ability to get people out before turning it over to Haren in the third or fourth inning, who should be able to push himself a bit more than usual after having the past seven days to rest since Kershaw rendered him useless on Wednesday.

Obviously, when there's an injury to one of the eight starters, the team can choose either to bring a starter up from the minor leagues, which may or may not be the right decision based on a player's development. As always, it would be Omar Minaya-level stupid to rush a top prospect up to the majors because of one injury. But if they have an already-established former major leaguer or career-AAAA guy such as Jason Marquis (who fits into the former category of course) who can come up and fill in, they can continue with their system even while one of their original eight is on the shelf. They can also choose to abandon their tandem rotation for the time being, and restart it once the injured pitcher returns from the DL, or they find a sufficient replacement. The use of a tandem rotation requires a lot of savvy on the part of a team's coaching staff and management as they have a lot of different scenarios to deal with.

I remain optimistic that this is a useful strategy, but there must be a team out there brave enough to employ this method. They're have to have eight legitimate MLB pitchers, none of whom are Jeff Francis and his career 4.96 ERA. They'd also have to be immune to public pressure, and not care so much about what the critics and fans would say about their unorthodox decision, because every time anyone tries something new at all, especially in the sport of baseball, there is always a ridiculous amount of pushback from all of the self-important baseball "traditionalists." That's another important factor; the team has to be progressive, and not be afraid to do something that they may also find weird.

Overall, everyone needs to let go of the idea that things were better before just because it was the way it had always been done. Despite pitching more often, this process would most likely decrease the amount of innings a pitcher throws in a season. That would lower their chances of getting to certain records and milestones both for a season and a career. Obviously records are run. The chasing of a record and looking through the ridiculous numbers are very interesting to look at as a fan. But, if this new idea would help my team win a World Series, I'd trade away the possibility for my team's ace to lead the league in strikeouts. Winning trumps everything. It always has and it always will. Again, I think this will in fact help teams, but I'm very curious to see it in practice. Maybe my opinion will change.

Enter: my New York Mets. I know that pitching is not a real concern for this team, as they rank 14th in the MLB in both starters ERA and starters WHIP. This is more of a hypothetical situation than a decision that I expect Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins (so long as he has a job) to make at any point this year.

But, they'd be a great test case for the merits of a piggyback rotation, so here me out. Once Dillon Gee returns from the DL, he'll give the Mets eight quality pitchers with the capability of starting a game. Under the current system, three of them are sitting around in the bullpen, and while Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carlos Torres can fill the long reliever role pretty well, while Jenrry Mejia has been great since taking over the closer role, they all have the potential for more.

Here are the combinations that I'd go with:

Jonathon Niese and Carlos Torres

Niese career (as a starter) AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS Against: 
First time through batting order: .264/.321/.365/.686
Second time through: .253/.306/.398/.704
Third time through: .295/.354/.456/.810

Niese 2014:
First time through: .235/.280/.348/.628
Second time through: .216/.279/.342/.621
Third time through: .277/.333/.386/.719

Torres career (as a starter): 
First time through: .272/.356/.500/.856
Second time through: .296/.369/.472/.841
Third time through: .263/.321/.487/.808

Torres 2014 (as a reliever):
First time through: .299/.359/.437/.796
Second time through: .100/.308/.100/.408

As we can see, Jon Niese gets worse as the game goes along, as he gets more fatigued and hitters get used to his pitches and pitch selection.

Torres was involved in this system when he was in Colorado, and continues to be one of the most important pitchers for the Mets as he isn't as good as any of the starters, but but is good enough that they trust him to make spot starts and pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen. The best example of this was this past Sunday when the Mets faced off against the Padres at home. Daisuke Matsuzaka went out to the mound a few minutes late, and looked quite uncomfortable throughout his first inning of work. It became clear that he wouldn't be able to continue past the first, and it was immediately obvious to me, the booth, and everyone who knows anything about the Mets that Carlos Torres would be the first man up in the bullpen. Sure enough, he starting the second inning and pitched four great innings of relief as it was announced that Matsuzaka was suffering from a severe upset stomach.

(Of course, that's a very valid excuse, because everyone knows that you feel like curling up into a ball and dying when your stomach is bothering you. It would be a very hard task to ask of anyone to pitch an entire game with that condition, unless of course they're Michael Jordan pulling a reverse Rick Ankiel and switching from the outfield to pitching. Then of course, he'd be able to pitch a perfect game during the rapture. But still, the severe upset stomach is one of the funniest "injuries" I've ever heard, and it feels like that of all the pitchers in the MLB, it would happen to Dice-K. )

Torres seems to get better the longer he pitches, so if Niese begins to get into some trouble somewhere around the fourth or fifth inning, instead of forcing him to work through it himself, the team can bring Torres in to go as long as possible before handing it off to the bullpen if necessary.

Zack Wheeler and Dillon Gee

Wheeler career:
First time through batting order: .221/.289/.353/.642
Second time through: .228/.316/.305/.620
Third time through: .306/.393/.439/.832

Wheeler 2014:
First time through: .254/.313/.402/.715
Second time through: .221/.321/.248/.568
Third time through: .284/.363/.395/.758

Gee career (as a starter): 
First time through: .254/.310/.399/.709
Second time through: .230/.287/.360/.648
Third time through: .275/.354/.435/.789

Gee 2014:
First time through: .221/.250/.353/.603
Second time through: .194/.250/.313/.563
Third time through: .222/.333/.333/.667

In Wheeler's one year in the majors, he's been very up and down. He's had lows such as his 4.1 inning, 5 run, 6 walk outing at Yankee Stadium on May 13, and he's had highs such as last night's complete game 3-hitter, in which he conceded only one walk and struck out 8, while facing only 28 batters. His splits are rather odd, as he's better the second time around but significantly worse when facing a batter the third time, suggesting that fatigue catches up with him earlier than most. This makes sense considering how many walks he gives up, so naturally it would take him more pitches to get to the third time through the order. Having Gee waiting in the wings allows the team to pull the plug on him earlier if things begin to go south during a game as he loses his effectiveness.

Gee also seems to get fatigued earlier than most, as seen by his fluctuating stats. Because both of these starters tend to throw a lot of pitches, the 75 pitch limit for each should get the team to about the eighth inning before the bullpen takes over.

Jenrry Mejia and Bartolo Colon

Mejia career (as a starter):
First time through: .247/.313/.342/.655
Second time through: .277/.347/.431/.777
Third time through: .364/.432/.494/.925

Mejia 2014 (as a starter):
First time through: .193/.258/.246/.504
Second time through: .245/.365/.415/.780
Third time through: .405/.500/.595/.1.095

Colon career (as a starter): 
First time through: .245/.307/.387/.684
Second time through: .273/.325/.448/.773
Third time through: .269/.322/.421/.743

Colon 2014:
First time through: .292/.315/.492/.806
Second time through: .233/.286/.405/.691
Third time through: .252/.268/.345/.613

Along with Torres, Jenrry Mejia is one of the main reasons why I began to brainstorm ideas for how the Mets can utilize a tandem rotiation. As evidenced by his rather wild splits, Mejia gets progressively worse the more he pitches, which is why he was ejected from the starting rotation and moved to the bullpen. He's effective, but he can't throw too many innings. At the same time, he has the capability of throwing more than one or two innings out of the pen, so he'd be good in this role.

Bartolo Colon is 41 years old and still very effective. He maintains the ability to go deep into games without throwing too many pitches, and as Kevin Burkhardt and Ron Darling agreed during Wednesday afternoon's game, doesn't exert any effort whatsoever other than pitching. He seems to have a rubber arm and can be stretched out to about 85 pitches in relief of Mejia, who may take a turn for the worse earlier in the game than expected.

Jacob deGrom and Daisuke Matsuzaka

deGrom 2014:
First time through batting order: .268/.333/.411/.744
Second time through: .232/.306/.321/.628
Third time through: .318/.388/.659/.1.047

Matsuzaka career (as a starter): 
First time through: .237/.339/.369/.708
Second time through: .238/.329/.386/.716
Third time through: .257/.339/.430/.769

Matsuzaka 2014 (as a starter) :
First time through: .220/.333/.320/.653
Second time through: .174/.296/.304/.601
Third time through: .100/.357/.100/.457

Jacob deGrom hasn't been a major leaguer for very long, as his first start was on May 15, a mere 36 days ago. So, his stats represent a rather small sample, but after a great start to his career, he's been struggling recently. He's a lot worse the third time through the order, so maybe the best way to ensure he's at his peak is to limit him a bit to shorter outings with this system.

Looking at his career stats, Dice-K gets worse as the game continues, but his numbers from this year suggest the exact opposite, which is interesting. I'd put more stock in his career trends, as the sample is larger, but look out to see if his 2014 ability to get better during a game continues. Anyway, much like Colon, he has the ability to be stretched out and pitch even a little bit past that 75 pitch limit, especially since he's been relieving for most of this season. And hey, pitching in shorter stint means that fans don't have to suffer as much through Matsuzaka's windup that feels like it takes four years. That would knock significant  minutes off of each game in which he appears.

So, those are my pair suggestions for the Mets should they decide at some point this year too risk criticism and try something new heading into next year, when they expect to be a real contender. At the very least, I hope that some team in the near future uses eight pitchers that are capable of being better than Jeff Francis (which is quite easy) in tandems so that we can have a true evaluation of its effectiveness in comparison to a standard five-man rotation. But now that I've written this, the possibility of the Mets adopting this tactic increased significantly, because I have a very credible source that has informed me that Mets General Manger Sandy Alderson is a huge fan of my writing.

(Much like B.J. Upton's talent, that source doesn't exist.)

All statistics courtesy of


  1. Contrary to what you said, this actually only benefits when you don't have any dominant starters on your squad. If I have a superstar like Kershaw or Harvey, why would i want to decrease their innings pitched so some scrub like Dice-K can pitch more innings?

    And on the practical side, you wouldn't be able to attract any good SP free agents if you went this route as well and unless a good majority of other teams adopt it right away (within 1 year), you would be teaching your SP a skill that no other team would pay or trade for.

    1. First of all, thanks for commenting.

      Well, we'll see. I certainly don't think it's fool proof.

      As to your first point, it's about maximizing efficiency so that when your star begins to scuffle a little bit earlier than usual, they can be taken out of the game. At the same time, there are ways to bypass the tandem and use them to pitch a full game if they are pitching lights out.

      And, they'd still be stretched out enough that other teams would still have the confidence to acquire them and run them out to the mound for 6+ innings.

      I understand your concerns of course. You may be right.