Potomac Cannons right-hander Thomas Pauly was pitching the best game of his professional career on April 28: Over six innings, he had not given up a hit, striking out seven Myrtle Beach batters.
But Pauly never got the chance to find out if he could finish the no-hitter. Manager Edgar Caceres pulled him before he threw a pitch in the seventh. Relieving a pitcher that hot might have surprised fans, but it surprised no one in the Cannons' dugout. When Pauly got yanked, it was just part of the system.
"I knew it was my time to come out, and it was time for Jim [Paduch] to come in," Pauly said. "It was a little tough to come out . . . but I was out of pitches."
From the rookie leagues through Class A Potomac, the Cincinnati Reds organization uses a tandem or eight-man pitching rotation to develop young starting pitchers. Implemented by new Reds general manager Dan O'Brien before the start of this season, the tandem rotation pairs up eight starting pitchers. One of the two starts each game, is limited to a strict 75-pitch count, and is relieved by his partner. Three games later their roles are reversed.
Proponents of the system say it helps to keep young arms healthy while giving organizations more of an opportunity to see their pitching prospects in action. It is a relatively new idea, implemented by the Athletics in the mid-1990s as a response to the abundance of quality pitchers Oakland had in the low minors at the time. Rangers assistant GM Grady Fuson brought the system to Texas from Oakland. And O'Brien, who was an assistant general manager in Texas the past seven seasons, brought it to the Reds. They are the only three major league organizations to use the system in any form.
Fuson said that before he instituted the system with the Rangers, it was not unusual for a dozen minor league pitchers to have arm surgery. Today, the Rangers average about half that number.
"Personally, I believe the 18- to 22-year-old arm is not prepared to pitch the way people traditionally think. Their arms are not fully grown and mature," Fuson said. "They're not prepared to take the torque that major league guys can. This system eases them into it."
Keeping pitchers healthy in Cincinnati's system stems from limiting each pitcher to 75 pitches while simultaneously strengthening his arm with work every four days.
And the strict count has other benefits. The only way to earn a win is to finish five innings. So each of the starters must use his pitches wisely to last through the fifth.
The mantra repeated in the front offices of Cincinnati, Texas and Oakland is "pitching to contact." Instead of nibbling at corners, pitchers are encouraged to make batters put the ball in play and let the fielders do the work. Above Class A and especially in the majors, pitchers must learn to use their defense, O'Brien said.
"It forces pitchers to learn how to pitch earlier in their careers than they might have otherwise had to," O'Brien said. "The object [in our system] is to get the batter out in four pitches or less. That's easy to talk about it, but hard to master and execute."
Oakland director of player development Keith Lieppman helped implement the tandem rotation with the A's in the mid-'90s.
"We had such a glut of really good arms in our system, and we wanted to get them all more innings," Lieppman said. "A lot of people looked at it, and they make fun of it, and they didn't quite understand it. But it's a great system if you have the right personnel."
Today, Oakland uses the system only for its rookie league teams, and Lieppman admitted there are some problems with it. Without eight quality starters at each level, it's hard to pull off; pitchers don't learn to work out of trouble in late innings when they're tired; and pitchers have a tendency to compete less, knowing they're getting their allotted pitches no matter what.
Doc Rodgers, the Orioles' director of minor league operations, says the team uses some aspects of the tandem system, tailoring pitch counts based on whether a pitcher was a starter or reliever or was injured in the past. But he sees a downside to embracing the whole idea.
"To some extent, if you have a college pitcher who is used to pitching seven, eight or nine innings in college, then plug him in a situation where he's only pitching four, in some ways you're unconditioning him to pitch deep into games," Rodgers said. "If you're drafting a lot of arms, and if you want to make sure they're not overused in the first one or two years, I think [tandem pitching] is a pretty valid philosophy. But I think a more individualized approach -- because every kid is different -- makes more sense."
O'Brien says adopting the whole system gives the organization a chance to see more pitchers in a starting role and more players an opportunity to get to the major leagues.
"One of the most difficult commodities to come by and develop is starting pitching," O'Brien said. "Instead of having five chances at each level, you have eight. You increase your chances of potential individuals that could end up starting some day."
And while eight pitchers are groomed to be starters, they're also learning to be relievers. The odds of a pitcher in the minor leagues cracking a five-man rotation in the majors is slim, and the tandem rotation addresses that reality.
"Reversing the roles gets pitchers more experience," O'Brien said. "Hopefully, putting them in different situations facilitates their path to the major leagues."
While upper management in Cincinnati, Texas and Oakland sees only the big picture and results of the tandem system, the Cannons deal with it every day.
Potomac pitching coach Ed Hodge said he likes the system. He said it emphasizes competition and camaraderie between tandem pitchers and it ensures pitchers aren't overused.
"Some of these guys aren't that far removed from their abusive high school and college coaches," said Hodge, a former college coach. "I know how coaches ride these guys and make them throw more than they should. Hopefully, some of this can reverse the damage that's been done."
It's too early to tell how well the system is working in Potomac -- the Cannons have played just 39 games this season -- but it's functioning as intended. There have been no significant problems with any of the eight starters' arms. And the players are pitching to contact -- they've yielded 327 hits through Saturday's games, second most in the Carolina League, while walking just 102 batters, second best in the league.
Pauly and tandem partner Jim Paduch haven't put up great numbers, but they demonstrate how the system is supposed to work. They've been the only pitchers in five of their nine games together. Eddy Valdez and Jan Granado have done about as well, combining to complete four of their nine games. So, the two tandems together have finished nine games with about 150 pitches.
"We're trying to get these guys to use their 75 pitches wisely," Hodge said. "There's no excuse, if you're aggressive and jump ahead of hitters, that you can't go five innings as a starter."
Right-hander Rich Gardner, playing his first year of pro ball, is flourishing under the tandem system. He said his arm feels better than it ever has. Paired with Jeff Bruksch, they have finished five of eight games when they pitched together, won six decisions, and have a combined ERA of 2.01.
"Every time out, we're like 'Let's go win a game,' " Gardner said. "It's almost like we're one pitcher, but there's two of us."
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report from Seattle.