2015 was a year of experiments, especially on the pitching side. But as noted last week, next year is not about personnel experiments — it’s about contention, and getting as much as possible out of the staff the team has. As of now, the D-backs haven’t added a starter through free agency or trade good enough to change our perspective on the staff as a whole. And I think it’s worth reconsidering an idea floated a couple of years ago: that the D-backs deploy their pitchers in an unconventional alignment that borrows many of the benefits enjoyed by relief pitchers for more of the staff.
Starter by Committee
In at least one of its forms, starter-by-committee starts with the idea that pitchers are less effective when an opposing team can design a lineup for him (paging Rubby De La Rosa), and when they have to face hitters three or more times in the same game. Some pitchers are more effective in part because of offering a different look (oh, hello there Brad Ziegler), something we re-learned this season after seeing Josh Collmenter shelled early in games (7.13 ERA in the first and second innings).
The idea: a rolling staff, with each pitcher expected to throw about 3 innings, and room for a situational reliever and/or closer if need be. With ten or eleven members of the 3-innings-at-a-time staff, there’s always a fourth pitcher who can throw on two games’ rest. Wash, rinse, repeat. Bump someone if they need a little side work; give a pitcher the hook more quickly if he’s struggling; let someone go four if they’ve been efficient; and play the matchups every step of the way. Depending on whether or not you employ one or two short relievers, a starter committee member might be expected to throw about 130-150 innings per season,
I’ll defer to the piece before the 2014 season for more of the nuts and bolts, so if you’re looking for more of an explanation of these, you should find it there. But here are the benefits and drawbacks of the approach, as I see them (feel free to raise something else!).
- The starting pitchers would be in a better position to succeed, by avoiding the “Times Through the Order Penalty” (TTOP) that is significant, if not enormous.
- Starting pitchers are less likely to fail when they are less frequently lifted because they’ve failed.
- Better pitching from two-pitch pitchers and pitchers with a third pitch they only work in so much because they feel obligated.
- Get more innings out of great relievers without sacrificing much of what made them excel in relief.
- Relief pitchers may benefit from pitching less frequently and at more predictable times.
- There are some pitchers who might only excel in these circumstances, good pitchers who are exposed in the rotation but who don’t play up much in short relief.
- Pitchers can be fixed more easily in side sessions; this is a chance afforded starting pitchers, but never relief pitchers.
- Smaller pitching staffs means better pitching staffs, because it’s the worst pitcher or two who will be left out.
- Smaller pitching staffs means more position players available for matchups, pinch hitting, and defensive replacement.
- Fewer plate appearances for pitchers means more plate appearances for professional hitters.
- Less money spent in arbitration raises and on free agents.
- Some pitchers could be underutilized; although every pitcher’s innings are likely to be better, sometimes a pitcher’s not-as-good innings are plainly better than the innings pitched by their replacements.
- Pitchers are not trained to pitch every three days.
- It could be tougher to recruit good pitchers in free agency.
- It becomes harder to play matchups in late innings.
And there’s another drawback that we’d not face as part of the system, but only of implementing it: getting a manager, coaches, and players to buy in. We’ve seen how difficult it’s been for some teams to commit to defensive shifting a greater amount of the time, but we’ve also see that pay off, even for the D-backs. I don’t see this as a challenge of the system itself; it makes sense to evaluate it separately, because you want the people you’re asking it of to do that calculus themselves. Say “we know this might be difficult to handle psychologically, but we’ve factored that in,” and the listener would (rightly) revolt at that. The burden of persuasion is not on the player, but on the implementer. If the other benefits and drawbacks can’t do that on their own, then there’s a problem with the analysis or the persuasion.
In addition to the fact that the team’s pitching personnel is unlikely to change in a very big way for 2016, it makes sense to look at starter by committee again because the team is oddly in need of it and oddly in a good position to do it. The staff has in-betweeners, relievers who may be underutilized in their roles, a potential top-of-the-rotation arm facing a horrendous innings limit in 2016, and a boatload of other pitchers who profile as not-very-good starters, but who might not see their stuff play up in short relief. I’m back to this point because I think it works for just about every pitcher in the mix, it works incredibly well for a handful, and even the cases on the bubble aren’t too much to worry about. I hope you’ve stuck with me so far, and you’ll stick with me farther — if you have a good reason why three innings every third or fourth day doesn’t work for a particular pitcher, I want to hear it.
Patrick Corbin: This guy is the key. Were he likely to go 200 innings this season, he’d be the D-backs’ only strong example of a Drawback #1 guy: someone you’d miss if he threw 60 fewer innings. But Corbin has shown us before that unlike some of the D-backs’ other promising arms, he can get through innings quickly: he might end up doing 4 innings for a good chunk of outings in this system while still throwing fewer than 50 pitches. But consider this: we’re playing to win in 2016, and you want Corbin not just pitching through the season, but pitching into the playoffs. Even giving him some credit for simulated games and other work, Corbin only threw about 125 innings in 2015. The kid gloves with which they handled him this year aren’t likely to come completely off, and so we’re looking at, what, 160 innings in 2016 at the very most? There’s little lost here, pitching him in a position where he might top out at 150 or so if everything goes well. Yes, you’d want him to buy in, because converting him to this system would impact his future. But, again: he’s not pitching 200 innings anyway. The point is that 125 innings is not an adequate platform for a full season. 150 innings, though? He could return to full work in 2017 if that’s what seemed called for. The quality of Corbin’s contributions are likely to go up, not down, and in addition, he’s pitching about as much as he would have. I consider this a big reason in favor of starter by committee.
Robbie Ray: This is the guy next closest to Drawback #1, because he’s the guy next-most-likely to give the team three wins as a full starter in 2016. But we’ve all seen Ray struggle and struggle and struggle to put guys away after getting ahead, and as much as I’d like to see him pitch more to his glove side with his fastballs, and as much as I think a hard slider/cutter would advance his game… Think about this. Ray’s slurge was the worst kind of garbage. What if he didn’t throw it at all? What if, even without adding a hard slider, he could work fourseam, sinker, change, knowing he’d never face anyone a third time? This is a man whose stuff would play up in a serious way in this system. Just like the system removes a team’s worst one or two MLB pitchers, it can remove a pitcher’s worst pitch. Ray is the poster child for Benefit #3. I think Ray breaks in favor of starter by committee.
Rubby De La Rosa: Another Benefit #3 guy, right? RDLR’s change and slider worked, but not as great weapons against LHP. The man doesn’t really have repeatable weapons against LHP. But in starter by committee, the opposing manager can’t really stack the lineup against RDLR with as many lefty hitters as he has on hand; RDLR’s perfect deployment would probably be as the second guy out of the gate in any game he pitched, usually too early for the opposing manager to pull his platoon guys and empty his bench (would you do that in the fourth inning?). That’s kind of a combination of some of the benefits above, but it’s definitely a good thing. Starter by committee is all about these guys, who seem underutilized in short relief (plus, as a setup man RDLR would still face the wrong kinds of hitters fairly frequently). Hell, if RDLR had pitched the same season for the Red Sox this last year, he’d be a guy you would target for this system. RDLR breaks hard in favor of starter by committee.
Chase Anderson: I’m not sure any of us would miss an extra 40 innings or so from Anderson, but it’s worth noting that he only managed just over 150 innings this year anyway, as a combination of a high rate of pitches per inning and a fatigue that may also rear its head in 2016 either way. This is a guy who could benefit from retaining access to side sessions if need be, and like RDLR he might be at the top of the list of guys likely to be pulled out of the system from time to time to get some work in with Mike Butcher. The man has a magic changeup or two, but unlike Rich Hill and his magic curveball, he really can’t throw it more than 25% of the time, maybe, and even then only on special occasions. He needs the fat meatballs offered with his fourseam and sinker to make the change work, and while the curve doesn’t get served up the way his fastballs do, they also don’t serve to set up the change. Could Anderson circle the wagons, throwing fewer fastballs overall on a rate basis in favor of the curve and the change? Not a guarantee. Anderson is not a strong bet to improve in this system. But I don’t see him pointing against the system, either; he’s no less likely to succeed in this system than he is as a full time starter.
Jeremy Hellickson: We’re out of benefits and drawbacks now: Hellickson is the one man who can credibly claim to have his career prospects impacted by the role he’d be asked to adopt. Do the D-backs owe him something other than that? They just gave him the chance to work through an entire season balancing on that fine edge between “definitely not good enough” and “maybe a real bit better than replacement player.” The team has minor leaguers and Archie Bradley ready to lay claim on a rotation spot in the near future again, and the D-backs aren’t likely to get much useful in return if they write Hellickson out of the plan and shop him to other teams. This is a hard conversation, and I’m not so sure his stuff plays up in the system. But this is really simple: the D-backs have a real challenge on their hands in figuring out whether to write off its investment in Hellickson (is he a non-tender candidate?), or whether to let him ride in the rotation. Starter by committee offers a compromise: a way for Hellickson to pitch 140 innings without blocking the road for another pitcher. He’d be one of ten, not one of five.
Those are the current “starters,” but this runs deeper. Much deeper.
Josh Collmenter: Dominant long reliever, mediocre starting pitcher. We’ve been over this. What if you could get 140 innings out of the reliever version of Collmenter? Sign me the hell up. This could scrape against greatness. And he’s already cost controlled through the contention window.
Daniel Hudson: It’s unbelievable that we have another pitcher who on his own might justify changing up the staff alignment in some way. You just can’t move Huddy to the rotation for the full season next year; and as with the Corbin situation, you have to plan as if there will be playoff games for which you want him available. Sign me the hell up, again. Also, don’t you think Huddy would be all systems go on this thing? He wants to be a starter again, his main liability as a reliever is pitching at unpredictable times and not being a great option on back to back days. At least as far as 2016, there is no possibility better for Hudson than starter by committee. Good to go.
Andrew Chafin: Not an obvious reason to make a change of alignment, but this is a man who prepared his whole career to start, and hit the ground with Olympic speed in the bullpen. All other things being equal, you don’t even flirt with the idea of moving him to the rotation and seeing if he can keep performing near his 2015 level. I don’t see Chafin as a reason to change the alignment, but I don’t see him as a reason to vote it down, either. It could work. He might not be as good in longer stints, but he might still be good.
Randall Delgado: Possibly, the definition of a “back of the starter by committee rotation” pitcher. Teams keep wanting to try to coax more out of the guy, and none of his pitches are high enough on the scouting scale to justify a starting spot or to make him more successful with a narrowed repertoire in short relief. I’m pretty satisfied with Delgado as a starter by committee man.
Zack Godley: Surprisingly good as a starting pitcher in his cameos this season, there are reasons why he was moved to relief in the first place. Could you leave some value on the table if you put him in a spot where, realistically, he’s going to top out at 140 innings? Yeah, that’s possible. He pitched fewer than 140 innings in 2015, though, and I love the idea of Godley as a change-of-look guy. The way Godley has relentlessly attacked the bottom of the zone, how would you like to face Collmenter after dealing with Godley in your first plate appearance? Don’t lie.
Archie Bradley: Health issues break in favor of starter by committee. His one-trick-pony status, at least in terms of what we saw at the beginning of the 2015 season, also point in that direction. This could be a very very good thing, and if you don’t believe that, I’m going to guess that you may be too sure that he can actually contribute more than 140 innings in 2016 anyway.
Jhoulys Chacin: Run into three problems at once on the staff, and need to move one of these guys up a day? Chacin may be your man. He’s Randall Delgado at a slightly higher price. Chacin probably isn’t a reason to implement this system, but he’s a reason you can more confidently say it could work. Great insurance, and the team wouldn’t carry three long relievers otherwise.
That’s eleven pitchers, and that’s a pretty damned good starter by committee staff. That makes no mention at all of Aaron Blair, who the D-backs have already seemed content to “waste” — and if the goal is ten pitchers in the system, chances are that more than one of the above eleven pitchers will not be able to break camp with the team. David Hernandez is likely gone, and as things stand, the D-backs organization is very short on classic one-inning types like Oliver Perez and Addison Reed. There’s no one that gets forgotten by this system. There’s no setup man who gets played out.
Why? Because the only exception in the way this system would get implemented is the exceptional Brad Ziegler. He’s still a fireman, if a fire develops in the sixth inning (or seventh if one of the first two guys out of the gate goes four). He’s still a closer, whenever you need a closer. Ziegler is the loveliest kind of baseball unicorn, and this system would not attempt to keep him from being who he is and doing what he does best.
And that’s just the pitching staff. Use your imagination. The team is committed to resting Paul Goldschmidt a bit more. It’s likely to have a complicated 4-man, 3-position outfield system again. It’s likely to have a hideously complicated time share in the infield again, with Nick Ahmed, Chris Owings, Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury all playing less than a full time starter but much more than a part time player. Playing time for Nick Gosselin and/or Aaron Hill would also be in the cards, and sometimes accomplished with a double switch in the bottom of the sixth inning. And with an extra roster spot or two for position players, the team could flirt with the idea of making Jarrod Saltalamacchia a near-full-time pinch hitter (sometimes deploying him in the first inning; sometimes in the third inning) with the luxury of carrying him, Welington Castillo and Tuffy Gosewisch.
Yes, I have an axe to grind on starter by committee. I think it could be a beautiful thing, and that it doing violence to the status quo is not a definite reason to reject it (the game already uses relievers so much more and differently than in the past). But let’s start the conversation back up, because this is not just theory anymore: we happen to have a team that fits this system well, in a contention window where results matter now, all in an organization without big time extra assets to sign or trade for extra needed pieces. Just think about it.
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