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Rockies Try Four-Man Rotation

by Tracy Ringolsby
May 17, 2004

DENVER--In their continuing quest to find enough pitching to field a winning team, the Rockies decided to try a four-man rotation for at least a couple of weeks.

The team decided it had to do something after the first month of the season, when they led the majors in runs and got strong, unexpected contributions from lefthanders Shawn Estes and Joe Kennedy yet remained below .500.

A key part of the decision for the Rockies to go with a four-man rotation was instituting an 85-pitch limit, which means the team's front office is willing to accept five- or six-inning efforts from the starters as a matter of course.

The bottom line, however, is that's not going to dramatically change things. Only once previously in their 11-year history have the Rockies' starting pitchers averaged six innings a game.

In 1998, the rotation went 52-69 while averaging 6.07 innings a start. Original manager Don Baylor was fired after the season. The only season when the Rockies rotation had a winning record (51-48) was 1995, when they claimed the National League wild card and made their only postseason appearance.

So far this season, the rotation had averaged 5.36 innings a start, the lowest in franchise history.

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle also said when the Rockies have an extended stretch without an off day, he could drop someone in to give the four primary starters a rest.

"We could do anything we want," he said. "Nothing is written in stone. Adjustments are going to have to be made."

Not Without Precedent

The Braves went with what could be called a modified four-man rotation for most of the 1990s. It really was an every-fifth-day rotation. Every time there was an off day, Atlanta would skip the fifth starter to keep the others on normal rest.

And if a situation arose where the schedule could have forced several of the main four to work with an extra day of rest, they were brought back on three days' rest and the fifth pitcher was pushed aside.

Teams have experimented with four-man arrangements in the past two decades, but there hasn't been a team that went with a so-called four-man rotation from start to finish since the 1984 Blue Jays.

But even the Blue Jays monitored pitchers' workloads. Jim Clancy started 36 games and Doyle Alexander, Luis Leal and Dave Stieb each made 35 starts. Four others combined for 22 starts.

And even in the days when the four-man rotation was considered common, there were modifications.

In the 1960s and before, Mondays almost always were off days. So even in a four-man rotation, a pitcher would work on three days' rest about once every two weeks.

While most teams would have one or two pitchers who took the ball every fourth game, none truly had four-man rotations. The White Sox had three pitchers who made 40 or more starts in 1972, led by knuckleballer Wilbur Wood with 49, but no other pitcher started more than 18.

While Don Drysdale made 40 starts for the 1964 Dodgers, no other pitcher started as many as 29. In fact, 12 other pitchers combined to start the Dodgers' other 124 games.

Worth A Shot

Let's face it, the Rockies don't have a lot to lose by trying something different. Their starters had a 7.82 ERA, last in the major leagues. The Royals ranked 29th at 6.29.

The starters were 8-11, but that's a credit to Estes and Kennedy, who were a combined 7-1. The four other pitchers who had started games had gone 1-10 with an 11.47 ERA, and the Rockies were 2-11 in the games they started. The other two members of the four-man staff, Scott Elarton (9.88 ERA) and Jason Jennings (10.52), have been putrid.

So it's not like there were a lot of alternatives to fill in the blanks in a five-man rotation. Going to a four-man rotation for now buys time. Check back in a couple of weeks.

The decision will not only be a factor of how the four-man rotation performs, but also who the people are who could be available for the rotation. And help could be on the way.

The Rockies were hoping to sign righthander Kevin Jarvis after he cleared waivers with the Mariners and send him to Triple-A Colorado Springs to get in shape to start.

Righthander Denny Stark, sent out after two horrid starts in the big leagues, struggled in his first start at Colorado Springs, but in his second start he worked six innings, giving up one run and walking one.

Righthander Adam Bernero was about to start a minor league rehabilitation assignment. The Rockies also were watching closely for the consistency of righthander Aaron Cook, who was 2-1, 2.90 after five starts for the Sky Sox, and the durability of righthander Brian Tollberg, who had Tommy John surgery in 2002.

And they're still waiting to find out about righthander Chin-Hui Tsao, the organization's top prospect who still hadn't pitched this year because of a sore shoulder.

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