With Pitching, It's a Four-Gone Conclusion

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

What if there was a readily available solution to the starting pitching shortage that afflicts nearly every team in baseball? What if it had been proven viable by roughly half a century of baseball history, and is that rarest of concepts that is espoused by both the crusty-old-baseball-lifer crowd and the sabermetric number-crunchers?

Surely it would be embraced immediately, no? Not in this case, because the concept in question is the four-man rotation -- a relic that became extinct in the 1970s and has little chance of being revived.

"Would it be effective [today]? Probably," said Hall of Fame pitcher and MASN analyst Don Sutton, who pitched in four-man rotations for the bulk of his career. "It would take a gutsy organization with a collection of talent and a willingness to implement it in their entire organization. Will it happen? Probably not."

Why not? Because starting pitchers are major investments these days, with annual salaries approaching $20 million, and because it is widely assumed that pitching more frequently (40 or 41 starts a season, as opposed to 34 or 35 in a five-man rotation) is more dangerous.

"There's big risk involved," Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "They're making an awful lot of money, and those 200-plus innings [in a five-man rotation] would turn into 250 or 300. There's not many guys today who can deal with that. If they go down [to injury], with the money they're making, they're no good to the team or themselves."

The logic behind the four-man rotation is simple. As Earl Weaver wrote in "Weaver on Strategy," "It's easier to find four good starters than five."

"One thing everyone from my generation agrees on," said Jim Palmer, a Hall of Famer who pitched in four-man rotations under Weaver, "is that you have more touch, more feel for your pitches, on three days' rest than on four."

And despite concerns over injuries, several influential statistical studies concluded pitchers in four-man rotations pitched just as effectively as, and did not suffer arm injuries any more frequently than, pitchers in five-man rotations.

"The organization that is willing to return to the four-man rotation, in conjunction with monitoring their starters' pitch-counts, will gain tangible benefits without increased risk to their pitchers," Baseball Prospectus author Rany Jazayerli wrote in 2002 in a lengthy three-part treatise.

In 1995, the Kansas City Royals organization was willing to give it a try. At the behest of then-manager Bob Boone, the Royals went with a four-man rotation with some success but ultimately scrapped it after ace Kevin Appier came down with a shoulder injury in July. Of course, pitchers in five-man rotations also get injured, and there was no evidence that Appier's was caused by pitching more frequently.

Boone gave it one more try. In 2003 with the Cincinnati Reds, along with then-general manager Jim Bowden, he tried a four-man rotation for several weeks before the all-star break. But it was a failure, and both Boone and Bowden were fired on July 28.

"It's all fine until that first guy gets hurt. And if you don't watch out, you get fired for it -- because you're 'stupid,' " Boone said last week.

So with Boone and Bowden now reunited in the front office of the Washington Nationals -- a team that ranked 25th in the majors (entering the weekend) in starters' ERA -- why not do something bold?

"We have so much pitching," Boone said, "we might go to a six-man rotation."

He sounded as if he were joking, but there was a kernel of truth in there: It seems clear that baseball is more likely to see a six-man rotation before it sees another four-man.

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