Boston not a town to try four-man rotation

11/9/2003 - Boston Red Sox

Ah, the Hot Stove League, when anything is possible and no conversation is completely pointless. Even this one ...

    The Red Sox are the perfect team to go to a four-man rotation next season. Here's why:

    1. Pedro Martinez can only go about 90 or so pitches as it is. In a five-man rotation that's low, but it'd be just right in a four-man. It's his contract year, too. I don't know if they're planning on keeping him, but if they're not, why not maximize his innings in this way? I actually don't think it's a big risk to him, as long as you keep his pitch counts low.

    2. Tim Wakefield gives them a lot of flexibility to try something like this. He may even be able to throw in between starts.

    3. Their management team is very smart and probably predisposed to trying it. Bill James advocated a return of the four-man rotation in his manager's book, of course.

    I've heard they're interested in Bartolo Colon, who's something of a workhorse, I think. That'd be a hell of a rotation: Pedro, Colon, Derek Lowe and Wakefield.

    Or am I nuts?

    -- Jas

You're not nuts, buddy, and you even missed another pretty compelling reason to try it: Lowe's best pitch is his hard sinker, and there are a lot of people who think a sinkerballer's sinker sinks more sinkily when he's a bit fatigued. That doesn't mean you let him throw 130 pitches every four days, but 100 might be well within his means. And Colon ... that guy's a horse. If there's anybody right now who can throw 100 pitches every four days, it's him.

The advantage? As Earl Weaver's Seventh Law states, "It's easier to find four good starters than five." And Weaver never had Pedro Martinez (though Jim Palmer wasn't exactly a piker).

But it's not going to happen for at least two reasons: Pedro Martinez, and Bill James.

We don't know if Pedro Martinez can pitch every four days, and we might guess that he's not willing to find out.

As for Mr. James, I haven't been able to find any passage from one of his books wherein he actually advocates the four-man rotation (though it certainly does seem like something he would advocate). But that's not really the point, is it? If the Red Sox try anything unorthodox, James will get blamed by Boston's radio hosts and newspaper scribes.

How do I know this? Look at what happened last spring.

Ill-Informed Opinion: Bill James thinks you don't need a great relief pitcher if you have a few good ones, and the Red Sox were dumb enough to listen to him.

Truth: Bill James never thought any such thing. In a long article about relief pitching in his most recent book, James raises some pointed questions about conventional bullpen tactics ... but he raises the context of figuring out the best way to use your relief ace.

Essentially, James assumes that you've got a relief ace (the implication being that a relief ace is a good thing) ... now, what do you do with him? Bill argues that you should use him whenever the game is tied in the late innings, and to protect one-run leads. He never suggested that four good relievers can do the work of one great reliever (though that's certainly a defensible position).

Nevertheless, James got the blame, from a bunch of guys who, I am fairly sure, never bothered to familiarize themselves with what Bill actually wrote.

I digress. It's not my place to defend Bill James, because he's my friend and (now) my co-author, so I don't exactly have a great deal of credibility. My point is simply that when the Red Sox tried something different with their bullpen and it didn't work, Bill got hung with the goat horns (or at least one of them; Theo Epstein didn't escape the blame).

And yet, in the end, what did Boston's bullpen cost them? Yes, the bullpen was awful during the regular season ... but the Red Sox won 95 games, at least in part because they spent their money on hitters rather than relievers. Which isn't to say they couldn't have won the other way, but you can't really argue that they didn't allocate their resources effectively, because they did win. Did the bullpen finally come back to haunt them in the postseason? Hardly. Red Sox relievers combined for a 1.31 ERA in the postseason.

Again, I digress. It comes down to this ... Even if Pedro Martinez were willing to pitch every fourth day, the Boston media would crucify management -- "Here they go again, listening to that pointy-headed James character!" -- and I suspect that management would rather wait a while for the next crucifixion. When some team finally gives the four-man rotation a real shot, it will be a team that doesn't have anything to lose. And the Red Sox have an awful lot to lose.

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 about the book, visit Rob's Web site.