Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Houston’s Farm System Pitching Strategy

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While listening to the MLB radio broadcast of the 3/31/13 season opener between Texas and Houston on ESPN radio, one of the announcers spoke about a new pitching strategy Houston is employing this year with its minor league rotations: “Tandem Starting Pitchers.”  They’re apparently so stocked at the minor league level with starters from all their prospect acquisitions that they are forced to be creative in order to get everyone the work they need.

The strategy as I understand it (and from doing a bit of Google research) goes like this: instead of having a 12-13 man pitching staff in the minor leagues with conventional MLB-like roles (starters, long-men, closers, loogies, etc) Houston will assign starters in tandem for each game.  Starter A will throw either 5 innings or 75 pitches (which ever comes first), then Starter B will throw either 4 innings or 60 pitches (which ever comes first).  And then four days later the two guys will switch places so that Starter B gets 75 pitches.

This would (theoretically) allow each team to carry 10 starters and get them each 60-75 pitches at least on normal 4 days rest.  You then carry a couple of closer-candidates and perhaps one extra rubber-armed long man and that’s your staff.  If one of the starters gets into trouble and you need extra innings, you just use some of your later starters and get them an inning or two on their normal throw day (for example; on day one of the rotation the day four guys can easily throw an inning or two in a pinch).

Personally, I think this is brilliant.  All relievers are failed starters any way, and developing home-grown starting pitching is one of the hardest things for a farm system to do.  Look at how long the Nats have been working on it, and even then we’re still dipping into the trade market and free agency to fill out 40% of our rotation for the last couple of years.   So if you can try to develop twice as many starters from the onset, why not?  What value does a middle reliever on a low-A ballclub really have?  He’s already failed to be one of the 5 starters on the team, he isn’t being groomed as a closer type … so he’s essentially chaff and just playing out the string, pitching wasted innings until the end of the season and he can be released to make room for the next failed starter next year who gets dropped to long-man status (that may be a tad harsh frankly, but it goes to the point of this article).  Why not manage that staff so that all those long men/spot starters actually get to go 3-5 innings a night to see if they’re worth cultivating?

Now, Houston seems to admit that this tandem strategy may only be for the beginning of the season, until a stronger set of starters “naturally” emerges, and then they may move back to a more conventional staff (with the “losers” then becoming middle relievers).  That’s fair; but I think it’d be pretty amazing if someone tried to pull this off with their entire system for an entire year.

Downsides?

- Do you hinder starter development by NOT allowing them to go deep into games?  If you’re always getting yanked after 75 pitches, do you lose the ability to gain the stamina to eventually go 100-110 pitches?  Possibly.  But I doubt it; if you just go throw for another 30 minutes on the side after finishing up your 75 pitches, you’ll get your work in.

- Do you hinder the development of relievers?  I’d say no frankly; looking at the set of relievers the Nats are using now in the majors: by and large they’re all failed minor league starters who converted to relief and specialized.  This certainly describes at least Clippard, Stammen, Mattheus and Rodriguez.   Duke and Stammen both had shots at being starters in the majors and couldn’t make it happen.  Soriano was great as a minor league starter; he just was even better as a closer.  Of all our relievers only Storen has always been a professional reliever (as he was in college).   So; you’re still going to be able to find relievers by doing this tandem starting … you just have to wait a while for the “losers” to shake out and start working them in relief.

- What do you do if both your tandem starters get shelled?  Good question; keep rolling out the 3-days onward guys?  Keep one mop-up guy?

- What do you do if you go extra innings?  Same thing as if someone gets knocked out early; keep rolling out the 3-days on starters and deal with it later.  You can always call someone up for starts a few days from now.

Coincidentally, looking at the usage of the Nats Hagerstown rotation, the Nats may already be doing something along this line anyway.   In their first few games we’ve seen a starter go 5 then a reliever go 3 to finish up, then two guys basically splitting a 7-inning game 4ip and 3ip, and then another 5ip/3ip situation.

What do you guys think?

Written by Todd Boss

April 12th, 2013 at 9:31 am

2 Responses to 'Houston’s Farm System Pitching Strategy'

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  1. This is not new. Oakland and Cincinnati have done it in the past. And obviously, so has St. Louis.

    I, too, am all for it — which I’d better be, since I keep having to reference Dick Radatz on “roles” but what seems not to be getting much play is the ancillary benefit of guys throwing more often, which is a principal tenet of Johnny Sain (“Arms don’t wear out, they rust out”) that incorrectly gets credited to Leo Mazzone, which is old-school but under a controlled environment of pitch counts (new school).

    What I’m not convinced of is that this is something that should be done system-wide. Short season? Absolutely. Low-A? Probably. High-A? Maybe, but might be a better Elks-Club pimp to use a six-man rotation which is also coming in vogue as developmental tool. I don’t think it’s for AA and AAA — I think by then teams ought to know who’s a starter and who’s not (Paul Demny not withstanding) not to mention the need for dipping into the high minors for injuries and doubleheaders.

    Luke Erickson

    12 Apr 13 at 4:22 pm

  2. So the change from Oak/Cin/Stl is that Houston is doing it at the upper levels, or at least say that they are? Good point though about the high minors and needing to provide cover for the majors.

    I guess this approach isn’t too much of a surprise; its basically what Colorado seemed to do last year with their starters only going 75 pitches.

    Todd Boss

    12 Apr 13 at 4:35 pm

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