Let’s Talk About Six…Man Rotations, Baby

I know this six-man rotation business isn’t a new concept, either for the Cubs or baseball in general, but it was recently brought to the greater consciousness by Joel Sherman’s piece about the team’s “audacious” plans. The Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales had reported as much back in September after Joe Maddon expressed a belief that expanded rotations would become the norm as early as 2017. To be clear, the Cubs skipper was talking specifically about the second half of the season.

That got me to thinking, which got me to tweeting and conversing, which got me to thinking a little more. All of which is dangerous. What follows is sort of stream-of-consciousness-y and maybe even contradictory at times, but I wanted to present you with the “What if…” and “Well, maybe…” thoughts that were bouncing back and forth in my internal debate.

With little more than a surface-level assessment, I think adding a man to the rotation is good as a stopgap or a way to rest starters in mid-July. As we saw this past season, there’s a real toll when rain makeups devour off-days and the humid heat of summer saps one’s will to live. Later in season, you’re battling nagging injuries and trying to set things up for a playoff run.

But while it’s intended as a prophylactic measure when it comes to the guys at the top of the depth chart, employing a six-man rotation on a large scale could maybe end up hurting the team in the end. Incremental as the difference between, say, Travis Wood and Jon Lester might be over a 4-6 inning sample, the disparity grows as the sixth man accrues more and more innings.

I get the idea that this is something being done with October and November in mind and that there’s a potential to have those top three or four arms fresher and sharper come postseason play, it just feels like it could be a slippery slope. Like maybe there’s some overthinking going on and that the Cubs’ wealth of overall talent could produce confirmation bias that would lead to increased usage of a sixth man when such a tack is unnecessary.

For instance, let’s say the Cubs make it back to the playoffs and they go 11-0 behind really strong pitching performances in which none of their starters ever allows more than 2 earned runs. Sounds good, right? But let’s also say their offense puts up at least 8 runs in each of their wins, thereby blunting the outstanding pitching to some extent. Am I making any sense? Yeah, don’t answer that.

Even if we disregard the obvious hyperbole of the above examples, there’s a risk in funneling a relatively small series of individual events into another, separate series of individual events and then trying to draw conclusions. Because the Cubs won, it could be assumed that the expanded rotation was a causal factor. But did the pitchers perform so well because they got a few more days of rest during the regular season, or was it simply a function of matchups and aberrations? Impossible to know, really.

Of course, this is all assuming we’re talking about sort of a half-assed attempt at a six-man rotation that involves shuttling guys from AAA now and again and playing Johnny Wholestaff games here and there. What if we’re talking about a model more like they use in Japan, where you’ve got six legit starters? That would mean maintaining a set routine, which pitchers like, while also providing for plenty of rest, which pitchers don’t necessarily like. Maddon admitted that he had a little difficulty trying to get his starters to buy into the idea that extra rest would be beneficial, though the events of the season may have lent some credence to his ideas.

If we’re looking at bigger rotation, though, we’re faced with the necessity of eliminating a bullpen arm. Not a problem at first blush, since having a legitimate additional starter provides more value than a random middle reliever. But wait, the number games would still be the same and the bullpen is still going to used in almost all of them. That means we’re left with a roster conundrum, right? Maybe. Unless…yeah, that might work.

Given the increased rest, we can reasonably assume each member of the rotation would be able to go deeper in games. It might not be much, but an average of even one additional out per start would result in approximately 54 more innings from the rotation. There’s your extra reliever.

Thing is, you’ve got to have the right mix of starters to bring this to bear. It’s hard enough for most teams to cobble together five acceptable pitchers, let alone six. The Cubs could make it work if they are able to land Tyson Ross, I’m just not sure how well it works out if, as Sherman posits, they move forward with the plan regardless of the big righty’s decision. From the sound of it, though, they’re not going to be doing the six-man thing all season. Doing so would require a little work.

“The sixth guy is something that has to be nurtured,” Maddon opined in September.

So, like, I think you need to either go all-in on the bigger rotation or deploy a spot-starter strategically at those points in the season when your team could start dragging. And if you do go for it, your personnel has to be both amenable and up to the task. Here’s where Shohei Otani, a stud pitcher who’s already used to this setup, would come in really handy.

At this point, I’m still leaning toward mild disdain or distrust for expanded rotations, though more thought and the right roster moves could sway my opinion back in the other direction. What say you, Dear Reader, do you like the idea of a six-man rotation? Better in short stints or all season? Or not at all?

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