Jays go the unconventional route: A four-man rotation

Despite it being an unconventional approach, the Blue Jays for the time being will employ a four-man rotation.

Originally Published: June 2, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Things are getting interesting in Toronto. As if their 32-26 record weren't enough -- this, after starting the season 10-18 -- the Blue Jays have decided to implement a four-man pitching rotation for the first time since ... actually, I'm not sure since when.

Roy Halladay
Starting pitcher
Toronto Blue Jays
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
13 90 7-2 14 69 4.40

Near as I can tell, the last club to go with the four-man rotation for any appreciable length of time was the Kansas City Royals in 1995. The Royals were then managed by Bob Boone, who never met an unorthodox move he didn't like. For the first half of that season, Boone often sent Kevin Appier, Mark Gubicza, and Tom Gordon to the mound on three days rest. But Appier, their best pitcher, got hurt in July, and that was the end of that experiment. Neither the Royals nor anybody else have given the four-man rotation a real shot since.

Which isn't to say it can't work. You know who liked the four-man rotation? Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. As Weaver's Seventh Law states, "It's easier to find four good starters than five."

Weaver never quite had the perfect four-man rotation -- two guys with 41 starts, two more with 40 starts -- but of course they played more doubleheaders in the 1970s than they do now. In 1972, four Orioles racked up 35 or 36 starts, leaving only 11 to the rest of the staff (the Orioles played only 154 games in '72, thanks to a labor dispute). In 1977, four Orioles accounted for 143 (of 161) starts. And in 1978, four Orioles accounted for 148 starts.

In 1983, Joe Altobelli took over as manager of the Orioles, and everything changed. Only one Oriole (Scott McGregor) started more than 29 games, but four other Orioles started at least 20. Weaver returned in 1986 for one more full season, but didn't try to use his beloved four-man rotation: three Orioles tied for the team lead with 33 starts, and two others combined for 53 starts. And I think that '78 team was the last to employ what was essentially a four-man rotation for an entire season.

Cory Lidle
Starting pitcher
Toronto Blue Jays
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
12 81.1 8-3 16 55 4.20

Nevertheless, Richard Griffin wrote in The Toronto Star, "The last rotation to successfully go a prolonged four-man route is believed to be the 1980-81 A's."

Really? Believed by who? Because that's just flat wrong. Dead wrong. In 1980, the A's had five pitchers with at least 30 starts. In 1981, a strike-shortened season, the A's had three pitchers with 22, 23, or 24 starts, one pitcher with 19 starts, and another with 15.

Why (you might ask) would somebody get something so wrong? I mean, it's easy to make mistakes, but Griffin also bothered to note, "In '80, Rick Langford (28), Mike Norris (24) and Matt Keough (20) finished top three in the AL in complete games. By '82 they were burned out."

Do I detect a poorly-hidden agenda here? Those guys burned out because they pitched in a four-man rotation, thus it's crazy for the Blue Jays to consider something so ... well, so crazy. Except those guys didn't pitch in a four-man rotation. And there's absolutely no evidence, or at least none that I've seen, suggesting that the four-man rotation does lead to pitchers getting burned out.

Last August, my friend Rany Jazayerli wrote a compelling three-part series of articles about the four-man rotation and why it deserves to make a comeback. I urge you to search out Rany's original pieces, but let me summarize: 1) Pitching on three days' rest is not more likely to lead to injury than pitching on four days' rest, and 2) pitching on three days' rest does not result in less effectiveness than pitching on four days' rest (and in fact there are many who think it might result in greater effectiveness).

Mark Hendrickson
Starting pitcher
Toronto Blue Jays
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
12 65.1 4-4 13 28 5.79

So why get four days' rest? Because that's what everybody else does.

Griffin writes of Toronto's move, "The bottom line is that this is a number-cruncher's course of action only a statistically driven organization that worships at the altar of the hard-drive like the Jays would undertake. If it was a viable big-league option, in the long run, given the shallow water in every organization's pitching pool, someone would have utilized the strategy over the last 20 years."

Which is patently ridiculous. That's like saying that if dumping raw sewage into the river weren't really, really stupid, well then by God we'd have stopped doing it a long time ago.

Well, it's not exactly like saying that (analogies have never been my strong suit). But you get my point, I hope, which is that if innovation was a pointless exercise, everyone would simply give up on innovation.

But that's not the way to get ahead. The way to get ahead isn't to do what everybody else is doing, unless you've got the resources to do what everybody else is doing, but do them better. The Blue Jays don't have those resources. So they're trying something different.

And for their efforts, what do they get? The back of a baseball writer's hand.

It would be funny if it weren't so predictable. In Oakland, Billy Beane has created something from nothing, and yet there remain idiots who say that Beane's been lucky, or that he's put together a great regular-season team, but you can't win that way in the postseason. In Toronto, J.P. Ricciardi has radically transformed the Blue Jays, both on and off the field ... and yet there remain idiots who simply assume that he doesn't know what he's doing. That he worships at the altar of the ... what was it? Oh right, the "hard-drive." And if the evidence for this doesn't actually exist, no matter; it will simply be conjured from the ether.

Kelvim Escobar
Starting pitcher
Toronto Blue Jays
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
18 30 2-2 20 36 5.70

I suspect that Billy Beane and Theo Epstein and at least a few other GMs would like to experiment with a four-man rotation. But who's going to tell Pedro Martinez that now he's pitching every fourth day? Who's going to tell Oakland's Big Three -- who've done fine the old way -- that now they're each pitching every fourth day? What's more, once the A's get Rich Harden to the majors, they'll have five starters who could rank among the top two or three with most teams.

The Blue Jays can do it, though. They've got one star pitcher in Roy Halladay, another very good one who doesn't make much money in Cory Lidle, and two more (Mark Hendrickson and Kelvim Escobar) who aren't in a position to complain.

Ricciardi is committing to the four-man rotation for only the next month or so, and if Toronto's starters don't fare well in June, Ricciardi will be under immense pressure to add a fifth starter. But of course, one month isn't nearly long enough for an experiment like this. And every time it doesn't work, it sets the idea back a few years.

Especially if the pitchers themselves aren't on board. For example, Lidle said, "I just wanted to make sure that if ... I felt like I needed an extra day, there would be that option ... Right now I feel as strong as I ever have been. I don't want to throw on three days' rest all the time. I let them know that. As long as there's an option. Everyone's got to feel comfortable."

Exactly. And veterans like Lidle might not feel comfortable, because they're being asked to do something they've never done before. In the long term, the true comeback of the four-man rotation might require an organization that trains its starters to pitch on three days' rest from Day One in the minor leagues. Because baseball pitchers, like nearly all of us, are stubbornly conservative by nature. Once they get used to pitching on four days' rest, most of them don't want to do anything else.

Anyway, we'll see how it goes. And I think I might have a new favorite team.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.

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