Why The Tigers Should Try A Radical Approach With Their Pitching Staff In 2020

July 8th, 2020 in Tigers By Dan Holmes

We live in uncertain times. Chaos seems to be the norm. Up is down, and down is up. The baseball season will start later this month and play out for only 60 games.

So, what better time to try something unusual?

A shortened season is the perfect environment to employ a radical pitching strategy. This petri dish season is calling for experimentation. The pitching staff is the best place to try something, and the circumstances are perfect for the Detroit Tigers to do something different.

Rotation And Shuffle

Manager Ron Gardenhire should devise an extended pitching rotation and shuffle pitchers through set roles, creating a system that just might work. It can’t hurt.     

The Detroit Tigers have nothing to lose. Over the last three seasons, they’ve lost so much that losing no longer feels that bad. A new pitching rotation can’t lessen their chances at winning some games.

Here’s how it would work:

GAME #1: Middle reliever (2 IP), Starting Pitcher (4 IP), Setup man (1 IP), Setup man (1 IP), and Closer (1 IP)

GAME #2: Middle reliever (2 IP), Starting Pitcher (4 IP), Setup man (1 IP), Setup man (1 IP), and Closer (1 IP)

GAME #3: Middle reliever (2 IP), Starting Pitcher (3 IP), Starting Pitcher (3 IP), Reliever or Closer (1 IP)

GAME #4: Setup man (1 IP), Middle reliever (2 IP), Starting Pitcher (2 IP), Starting Pitcher (2 IP), Reliever (1 IP), Closer (1 IP)

GAME #5: Starting Pitcher (2 IP), Starting Pitcher (2 IP), Middle reliever (2 IP), Middle reliever (2 IP), Closer or Reliever (1 IP)

And so on.

A Four-Man Starting Rotation

Under this plan, you can expect about 22 innings every five games from your starters, which is just under five innings per game. That’s less stress on a starting rotation. But most importantly, under the plan above, you could use only four starting pitchers. That’s right, you could employ a four-man “starting rotation” and move them through the system as they pitch in games in-between starts.

Currently, a starting pitcher will toss 4-6 innings per start on average, and then two days later throw a bullpen session. In this modified plan, a starter takes those innings to the mound. They may only throw 25-30 pitches in their second appearance in the rotation, but two or three days later they are back tossing three or four innings.

With this method, starters are never asked to push beyond say 65-70 pitches, keeping their arms fresh. Some might say their arms would be stronger.

“I threw between my starts and might throw 75 pitches,” former Tiger Mickey Lolich said. “I never had a sore arm, and I was always strong.”

The 2020 Tigers don’t have a Lolich, but they might get more effective starting pitching if they used a system where starters were not expected to go too deep into games.

Radical Pitching System In Reality

Here’s the same schedule again, using names of the “starting pitchers” and how many innings they would pitch:

GAME #1: Matthew Boyd (4 IP)

GAME #2: Spencer Turnbull (4 IP)

GAME #3: Daniel Norris (3 IP), Ivan Nova (3 IP)

GAME #4: Boyd (2 IP), Turnbull (2 IP)

GAME #5: Norris (2 IP), Nova (2 IP)

Under this plan, Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull throw six innings every five days, and Daniel Norris and Michael Fullmer pitch five innings each. Other pitchers traditionally used as starters could be used as “openers” or middle relievers. This includes Michael Fulmer, who is coming off arm surgery and needs to be brought back in slowly. This system would allow the former Rookie of the Year to gradually ramp up his innings as an opener or middle relief pitcher. 

Bullpen Utilization

The second advantage of this system is the utilization of the bullpen, which was a team strength in 2019. Buck Farmer and Nick Ramirez both showed stretches of effectiveness last season, and both are back. Joe Jimenez will apparently be used as a game closer. Expect newcomers Dario Agrazal and Shao-Ching Chiang to get reps on the mound too. Lefty Gregory Soto is almost certain to be in the mix. 

With clear roles and less taxing schedules, the pitching staff might perform better and give the undermanned Tigers a better chance to compete. 

This approach is not entirely new: in recent years the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers (most notably) have used opening pitchers and shuttled relievers in and out of starting and bullpen roles. But this plan calls for the starting pitchers to still pitch in a rotation, on a five-game “wheel” that limits their innings and pitches.

What are the chances the Tigers will try a four-man rotation in such a fashion? Let’s just say “slim and none.” But would it be interesting? I think so. Tell me what you think in the Motown Sports Detroit Tigers Forum.