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Can 6-man rotation work in Major League Baseball?

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USA Today Sports

Is the six-man rotation coming to Major League Baseball?

I’d say coming back to MLB, but while the five-man rotation that currently dominates the sport has not always been the gold standard for the league, previous theories of rotation management tended toward fewer pitchers, not more of them.

The planned four-man rotation was common enough in the pre-integration days, especially in the dead-ball era — when frontline starters throwing 250 innings was a regular occurrence — but six-man rotations usually happen in retrospect: Six guys on a team will get 17 starts or more, for instance, but two of those guys are pitching half-seasons because one of them got hurt in July. Tampa Bay has toyed with the idea of returning to a four-man rotation this year.

There is one place where the six-man rotation is common in professional baseball: the Japanese professional league, the NPB. The NPB is notable for having pitchers with a much lower incidence than MLB pitchers of the UCL injuries that require Tommy John surgery. It’s hard to credit this as innate resilience on the part of their individual players — Yu Darvish had Tommy John surgery a few years after coming to America from Japan, and Masahiro Tanaka was lucky to avoid it by only partially tearing the UCL in his throwing elbow and managing it with rehab and rest.

It’s similarly difficult to point to this as a silver bullet for reducing arm injury — especially since the Japanese program for training young pitchers is so abusive in other respects, such as pitch count. Simply reducing the rate of Tommy John surgery is one facet of improving player health, but it seems both convincing and intuitive that fewer instances of work over the course of the season will be less stressful on a pitcher’s arm, no matter how stressful those instances might be in and of themselves.

That said, there are reasons teams try to stick to a plan involving as few starting pitchers as they can reasonably field: Despite the refusal of a number of teams to spend money on free agents Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, or Alex Cobb this offseason, there are still far fewer reliable starting pitchers than rotation spots on the 30 teams in Major League Baseball — and that’s with five-man rotations.

Adding a sixth man to the mix not only means rostering a starter who — by the very fact of his late admission — wouldn’t previously have been good enough to make a club in that same role, but it means if teams divide starts evenly, as is currently done with five-man rotations, they take innings from their best starters and give them to a starter worse than the guy who was previously the worst starter.

This understandably has Ranger ace Cole Hamels upset, given that Texas is one of the two MLB teams musing out loud about using a six-man rotation this year. Hamels’ critiques of the concept are more personal and less structural than the ones levied above:

He associates the six-man rotation with amateurism and “lesser” professional leagues like NPB, which is both an insult and very reductive, but he is on to something with the bit about front offices being staffed by analytics people — though not for the reasons he thinks.

Analytics people would love to have six-man rotations, or perhaps even seven-man rotations — or, in a dream world, get rid of the concept of starting pitchers at all, and have everyone pitch as interchangeable cogs in a team effort to win games. This isn’t because front offices are merely addicted to doing different things for the sake of doing different things (though there’s an element of that). It’s certainly not because of any high-minded ideals about everyone pulling an equal share of the weight.

Minimizing the impact any one player has on the team minimizes that player’s ability to demand top-level wages and contract length when he hits free agency; star relievers, after all, still make far less money for fewer years than ace starting pitchers. When, as happened during last year’s postseason, an analyst fantasizes about moving to an “all-reliever” staff — even if, to be perfectly clear, that is nothing more than a fantasy — what they’re really pining for is a way to get the same production teams get now for a lower cost.

The Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels, the other club contemplating this change, both have legitimate baseball reasons to want a six-man rotation: Texas is attempting to slot both Matt Bush and Mike Minor into the rotation from the bullpen, and doesn’t want to go from a reliever’s workload to a full-season starter’s workload immediately. The Angels are still trying to figure out the proper balance of pitching and hitting for Shohei Ohtani’s two-way talents. At some point, one figures that both clubs will have enough of their uncertainty clarified.

They could, should they please, return to a five-man rotation — but even if they don’t, Texas could still honor Hamels’ clear preference to pitch every five days by staggering starts rather than going through a straight 1-2-3-4-5-6 pattern. Something like 1-2-3-4-5-1-6-2-3-4-1 and so on (with resets on off days) would surely muck with every other pitcher’s routine, but to be brutally fair to the rest of the Rangers’ rotation, none of them have proven valuable enough not to have their routines mucked with. This is a rotation that might feature both Bartolo Colon and Doug Fister. Everyone but Hamels should, by now, be used to adapting to odd schedules.

On the whole, however, it is unlikely the six-man rotation will make any wider comeback; it certainly won’t be a feature on any competing clubs. Unless and until the labor pool of excellent pitchers is good enough to justify not pitching the best arms as much as possible — and there’s no reason to believe that day is anywhere near the horizon — the dream of making aces as interchangeable as middle relievers will remain just that: a dream.

Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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