Even before the lockout, rumours and wish lists spotlighted the need for the Blue Jays to add a fifth starting pitcher. But what would a six-man rotation do for the team’s pennant chances in 2022?
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Being fan of a contending team like the 2022 Blue Jays is a blessing and a curse. Even with the dark cloud of a work stoppage hanging over the preparations for Spring Training, Jays fans are at no loss for things to talk and debate about. But as a possible World Series grows into focus, so do the possible hurdles that need to be cleared en route. As the Blue Jays fanbase looks ahead to the 2022 playoffs, it is important to reflect upon what kept them out of the post-season in 2021.
EXHIBIT A- Starting Pitching
While bullpen woes struck the most crippling blows to Toronto playoff chances, inconsistent starting pitching proved to be the pebble in the shoe that caused the Jays to limp through the first 3 months of the season. True, the 2021 rotation consisted of a Cy Young Award Winner (Robby Ray), a big name free agent signing (Hyung-jin Ryu), and a rookie pitcher who pitched with the poise of a veteran (Alek Manoah). But the likes of Tanner Roark, Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay and T.J Zeuch started games off on the wrong foot. Steven Matz had his moments, but too often turned back into Steven Matz. Ace-of-the-future Nate Pearson was hurt the majority of the year, making only one start and ending the season in the bullpen. Yes, the Jays utilized an opener on occasion, but that ultimately put pressure on a bullpen that was already struggling for breath and health in April, May and June.
No doubt 2022 promises better performances, even with the departure of Ray and Matz via free agency. Kevin Gausman was brought in to fill Ray’s tight pants and deadline acquisition Jose Berrios returns with a 7-year extension in his pocket. Ross Stripling is on hand to fill the 5th rotation spot, but all indications point to Ross Atkins adding a veteran starter to the mix once the transaction freeze is lifted. Even with the addition of a veteran arm, the rotation might still be the biggest question mark going into the 2022 season.
Could the answer to these questions be the implementation of a six man rotation, at least for the first months of the season?
SOME BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON SIX MAN ROTATIONS
With pitching injuries mounting and pitching philosophies depending more on analytical strategies the past 10 years, baseball fans will often come across articles or analysts singing the praises of a six man rotation. Quite often the talk is inspired by the young ages of a team’s potential starters (San Diego, Tampa Bay and last year Seattle). The COVID abbreviated 2020 season, combined with the absence of a minor league season that year, also forced front offices to consider managing workloads at the onset of last season.
It should be noted that analytics has not been able to prove or disavow the benefits of the six-man rotation. Fangraphs has published several articles about this issue, in which they could not find significant improvements or decreases in performance. Fangraphs research did find a pitchers xFIP improved by approximately 0.06% with each extra day of rest and a boost of 0.3% strikeout rate. A 2021 study showed teams would give up between 2.9 and 15.1 more runs and that there was not a significant increase in strikeout rates or decrease in BB rates.
Baseball Prospectus presented the case for extra days of rest reducing the injury risks for starters. With 3 days rest, a starting pitcher would report a significant injury within 14 days 1.7% of the time. With 4 days rest/5 man rotation, they reported injuries 1% of the time; with the 5th day of rest provided by a 6 man rotation, the injury reporting rate dropped to 0.8% after 14 days of a start. The takeaway here is that a six-man rotation does not solve the arm injury problem, but does seem to delay the inevitable. The average number of starts would drop from 32 to 27 in a six-man rotation, with starters logging 30-50 fewer innings.
In Japan, the six man rotation has been the standard rather than the experimental since 2000. Team studies determined that starting only once per week does seem to reduce the number and severity of arm and shoulder surgeries (particularly for Tommy John surgeries). But Nippon Professional Baseball franchises implemented this strategy primarily as an attempt to offset the crazy overuse of star pitchers at the scholastic and amateur club levels.
It should also be noted that from a strategic standpoint, a six man rotation could add to the risk factors. Managers may alter their pitcher usage approach and allow their better starters to pitch deeper into games to maximize their abilities. Conversely, pitchers may use the extra day of rest to justify a bolder approach to their outings. They may feel “stronger” and may give in to the temptation to throw harder longer. Since a starter does not always pitch the same number of innings each start, nor make the same number of starts from season to season, any benefits from extra rest may not be significant enough in the aggregate to sacrifice innings from top-of-the-rotation starters.
SO WHY SHOULD THE BLUE JAYS SWITCH TO A SIX MAN ROTATION?
Fair question to ask, Blue Jays fans. Allow us to create 3 scenarios in which a six-man rotation could bolster the chances for a Blue Jays division championship and/or pennant:
SCENARIO 1- Manage innings for Ryu and Manoah
To have Ryu and Manoah strong and ready for high stakes post-season starts, significantly reducing their innings through the first 2 or 3 months of the season might just be the logical solution. Ryu is a crafty veteran who historically performs better with an extra days rest. Ryu himself asks for an extra day of rest from time to time if he feels his arm is fatigued. Under the current 5-man scheme, Ryu managed 5.1 innings per start in 2021, which means the bullpen will be utilized earlier in each of his starts. Should an early season regimen of once-a-week starts by implemented, Ryu should be able to regularly complete six or seven innings while saving gas in his tank for the stretch run and playoffs.
Manoah is an interesting case. A big body starter with a bulldog mentality, it is hard to imagine him accepting a decision to have him skip a start to manage innings during his second season in the rotation. No doubt this is precisely the approach the front office and pitching coach prefer to take with a younger pitcher-even one as gifted as Manoah. Conserving his innings early in the season under the guise of a six-man rotation, the Jays can then gradually loosen the reigns from July forward and groom him to be the third starter in a playoff rotation led by Berrios and Gausman.
SCENARIO 2- The Nate Pearson Factor
Many Blue Jays fans envisioned Nate Pearson as the ace of a playoff contender by this stage of his career (yours truly among them). A combination of health, confidence and consistency has forced the team to adjust their expectation of Big Nate in 2022. At his end-of-season news conference, GM Ross Atkins stated that the early season plans for Pearson would place him in the bullpen in a role he labelled as “closer to a starter”. If this is the case, a six-man rotation would allow Pearson to pitch the first 3 or 4 innings once a week, while still being available for shorter relief stints later in the week. While Pearson’s electric stuff would play better as a leverage reliever late in games, this approach would allow the Jays to see if Pearson could bloom in short appearances to start games, evolving into a taking regular turns as a full-blown starter if successful. Assuming Pearson is not used as a trade chip to obtain a third baseman, his limited role in April could provide huge dividends in August and in a pennant race.
SCENARIO 3- The Kikuchi Factor
This is more hypothetical than practical. But if pre-lockout reports are accurate, Toronto is the leader in the clubhouse to sign Yusei Kikuchi. While Kikuchi has been inconsistent since coming over from Japan to sign with the Mariners, he was a star pitcher for the Seibu Lions and has the stuff to be a successful starter on a contending team. Kikuchi put up the best numbers of his MLB career during the first half of 2021-a stretch when Seattle often utilized a 6 man rotation. He faded badly after the All Star Break, posting a 6.78 ERA and finding himself in a mop up role in September. But Kikuchi is a product of the aforementioned once a week start approach utilized in the NPL. Should the Jays sign Kikuchi, the best way to maximize his abilities would be to place him in a scenario where he has had sustained success.
On paper, the 2022 Toronto Blue Jays will have the depth to post a 5 man rotation in pursuit of a pennant. But it shall be an intriguing strategy to consider (at least for the first few months of the season) utilizing a six-man unit to move the team closer to the playoffs.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Jersey born, Pittsburgh resident, baseball lifer. Staff Writer jaysfromthecouch.com. Host THE ON FEK CIRCLE on JFtC YouTube Channel. Regular guest on Jays From the couch Radio Podcast. Established WPPJ Rock-a-thon benefit, which has been broadcast annually since 1981 and has raised for than $500,000 for the Early Learning Institute of Pittsburgh. IBWAA member.