Six-Man Rotations Spreading Through Class A
When Orioles righthander Dylan Bundy got his assignment to low Class A Delmarva, prospect watchers all around the Southeast began charting out his starts.
Bundy, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft out of high school in Oklahoma, made his professional debut as the Shorebirds' Opening Day starter. He was already regarded as the Orioles' top prospect coming into the season, and when he opened the season with 21 strikeouts, one walk and no hits allowed in his first 13 innings, fans started checking their calendars to see when Bundy would be pitching in their town.
But there was one tweak for fans trying to look ahead. Instead of marking off every fifth game on their calendars, they had to work in intervals of six games.
Bundy's Shorebirds are one of several South Atlantic League teams running a six-man rotation this season.
Years after the four-man versus five-man rotation debate ended and the five-man staff became established law across baseball, more and more organizations are adopting six-man rotations for the lower levels of the minor leagues.
We have even seen a couple of brief experiments with six-man rotations at the major league level. The White Sox, Giants and Yankees all tried six-man rotations last year, though in each case those were driven by necessity. The teams didn't have a starter they wanted to send down when a rehabbing starter came off the disabled list, so until an injury or ineffectiveness made their decision for them, they simply added the new starter to the existing rotation.
At the minor league level, the situation is not altogether different. Usually the idea for a six-man rotation starts because a team has more starters ready for a level than spots for starters.
That's more common at Class A, as organizations generally like to try pitchers in the rotation first, moving them to the bullpen if their deliveries, stamina or repertoires prove poor fits for a starting role. It's always easier to move a former starter to the bullpen than vice versa.
It's also a way to manage the workload of young pitchers, which always is a concern. Considering many teams' reluctance to have a pitcher throw 30 percent more innings than he threw the year before, a full-time reliever heading to the rotation may be limited in his workload in the first year of the transition. The same rule of thumb applies to players making their professional debuts, after they were accustomed to pitching once a week as amateurs.
"It gives you a chance to find out about people we have as question marks. I may have a guy at the bottom end, and this gives him a chance (to start)," Cardinals pitching coordinator Brent Strom said "One of the biggest problems is we find a reliever who we want to put in the rotation and he threw 40 innings the year before."
The New Piggyback
In the past, one of the ways teams have attacked this problem in the lower levels of the minors is by piggybacking starters: Two pitchers work in partnership, and one pitcher starts, followed by his partner who comes on in relief for three to five innings, depending on how well the starter throws. Five games later, the two pitchers reverse roles.
That does give each pitcher more innings than he would get working exclusively as a reliever, and it gives him a chance to work through a lineup more than once, which is vital for a starting pitcher's development.
But many coaches and pitchers feel the piggyback system has too many variables that keep it from being ideal.
For example, if one pitcher is pitching well and working deep into games, his partner gets shortchanged on innings, and since he's starting the next time, there's no chance to pick up those innings in other relief appearances.
And while the player in the relief role knows he'll get to pitch on a particular night, it's a much different experience going through your pregame routine for a 7 o'clock start compared to figuring out during the game if you'll be coming in during the fourth inning or the sixth. For those who are in more traditional bullpen roles on those teams, it's not a big favorite either.
"The piggyback starter system isn't always fair to some of the pitchers because if one starter is going really good, then the guy coming on in relief can get screwed out of innings. Plus with a six-man, our relievers get regular work, too," said former big leaguer Frank Viola, who's working with a six-man rotation for the first time this year as the pitching coach at low Class A Savannah in the Mets system.
For teams looking to limit innings for younger pitchers, the six-man rotation has an added bonus. If a team is trying to limit a pitcher to 100-120 innings—a guideline many teams use for teenage pitchers—the loss of roughly five starts a year means the youngsters can work deeper in at least a couple of games. It's the difference between averaging about five innings a start and being pulled in the fourth. It also can mean more extended pitch counts from the start of the season.
"When I first heard the idea of the six-man rotation I wasn't sure about it myself, because when I played I was always in a four- or five-man rotation," Viola said. "But when (pitching coordinator) Ron Romanick came over from the A's, and when we as an organization saw how things were going to play out in Savannah (with six qualified starters), we embraced the idea . . .
"The thing I love about it is that pitch counts right from day one were at 85, where in the past we'd come out of spring training with 65 pitches max early in the season."
Viola's Savannah rotation seemed to embrace the change in the early going. Of the six starters—Michael Fulmer, Rafael Montero, Alex Panteliodis, Tyler Pill, Domingo Tapia and Logan Verrett—the highest ERA was 2.77, and they had 91 strikeouts against 22 walks in 103 innings.
Five organizations—the Cardinals, Giants, Mets, Athletics and Orioles—are using the six-man rotation for a Class A club. All but the Athletics use it at low Class A, while the A's and the Cardinals are using it at high Class A.
While the chance to try out another starter is a selling point of the six-man rotation, it may not be its biggest selling point. Strom really likes the way it provides players who were used to a seven-day schedule as amateurs an adjustment to pro ball.
"I think it's a nice transition" Strom said. "It's like Little League. I'm a proponent of Pony League. When you go from (pitching at) 48 feet to 60 feet, home plate seems miles away. But when you go from 48 feet to 54 feet to 60 feet it's a nice transition. It's the same here."
Pitchers who were accustomed to starting once a week find a more subtle transition into pro ball. By the time they move to a five-man rotation, they're seen their schedule tweaked subtly twice, instead of one big jump from starting four times a month to six times a month.
"Take a college pitcher. Many of those college pitchers have only one bullpen in seven days (between starts)" Orioles pitching coordinator Rick Peterson said.
Jumping to a five-man rotation means that recent draftees can go from throwing twice every seven days to four times every 10 days. Some pitchers find they can't handle the jump in workload without losing velocity. Coaches hope that a more gradual transition to the five-day schedule may help those pitchers maintain their stuff.
More Time To Work
Yet the biggest benefit of the six-man rotation, one cited nearly universally by its proponents as the reason to try the new system, is the added time it gives for instruction.
With the average Class A pitcher, teams are more focused on getting him to understand and repeat his delivery and refine his repertoire more than anything else. Results are almost secondary.
A six-man rotation affords an extra day to work with the pitching coach between starts. If that means the pitchers aren't presented with quite as many in-game situations, teams are willing to make the trade-off, especially because the longer layoff between starts may allow them to be fresher for those side sessions.
"It gives you a teaching environment," Strom said. "On the five-man rotation you're trying to get through it and make your next start. (The six-man rotation) gives you a chance to get your quality work in."
Many of the teams that use six-man rotations make an extra bullpen or side session between starts part of the routine. Whether it's working on the mound or on the side, the extra day between starts means that pitchers have one more chance to work on trying out new grips, fixing delivery flaws or doing other essential work between starts.
The extra time also gives them a chance to spend one session on a specific point of emphasis with more of a long-term view—improving a pitcher's extension, for example—while the second session can be spent more specifically getting ready for the next start.
Although it hasn't happened yet, Royals pitching coordinator Rick Knapp suggests that six-man rotations could lead to teams going back to having pitchers throw in-season batting practice, something that is now usually the domain of the coaching staff.
"This is how I would do it," Knapp said. "You pitch, you have a day off, then you throw BP. The you have a day off, then your bullpen session, a day off and then you pitch."
To Knapp, if pitchers get the opportunity to work on giving hitters hittable pitches in batting practice, they would also learn how to throw hard-to-hit pitches in games.
"You're going to see and feel contact. Unless you can let someone hit the ball, you won't know how to make them mis-hit it," Knapp said. "Can I pitch to contact without getting the fat part of the barrel? Quite honestly, you won't command the ball until you figure out it's not that hard to do."
Unlike the move from a four-man to a five-man rotation at the big league level, no one sees these forays into six-man rotations in Class A as a sign of a future big league trend. But then again, no one originally saw the five-man rotation that way either. It began in the minor leagues as a tool for teaching.
"That was how the five-man rotation started. Coaches thought it would be good give pitchers a chance to work on the side," Knapp said.