Major League Baseball’s best strength is that it is steeped in tradition. It is also the one characteristic that holds it back the most. The employment of pitching staffs around baseball is largely inefficient. Just like one hundred years ago, a starting pitcher will throw as long as he can. Once he gets into to danger or the opposition proves he can no longer get batters out, the manager will make a change. 

But, with the exception of a rare few, pitchers are not built to throw eight or nine innings per outing. Most can’t even make it into the sixth inning before unraveling. Yet, teams continue to hope that the pitchers can actually give quality and a quantity of innings. 

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That doesn’t even include the awful health record around the industry, the over one billion dollars spent over the last four seasons on injured pitchers salaries. The only phrase that has been uttered this season more than “on the transfer” is “Tommy John Surgery”.

None of this is really new or anything, but the industry could learn a thing or two from the All-Star Game and the World Baseball Classic. It’s not about the intensity or anything, but watching a game that supposedly counts and seeing pitchers coming in and out speaks volumes about the effectiveness of tournament style pitching. Yes, these are gimmick exhibitions and all, but the players and managers are trying to win.

Tournament style pitching is exactly what Jim Leyland and Bruce Bochy practiced in last year’s All-Star Game. No pitcher threw more than two innings, while most made an appearance for just one inning. Only one pitcher, Matt Harvey, threw more than 30 pitches. The result? A pitcher’s duel; the offense was suppressed all night.

With Major League Baseball struggling to keep pitchers healthy and constantly having to start the eighth, ninth, or even 10th starter in the organization start a game, pitching performances have been as inconsistent as ever. With pitch counts still strict and, more importantly, pitchers conditioned to only throw to that number, the use of the bullpen has never been so high. Relievers, especially the few above average ones, are overused, leading to a bullpen being over exposed over the course of 162 games. Additionally, think about how many times a pitcher looks good early and then gives up a bunch of runs as his pitch count goes up. Pitchers tend to have a higher batting average against as they cycle through the lineup. It isn’t because hitters learn, but more about a pitcher tiring.

The solution really lies in Biomechanics, the science that would allow teams to see their pitchers’ flaws and do preventative work to keep them healthy. Since the industry isn’t ready for that, the only real alternative is to move towards tournament pitching. Instead of having a starter work as long as he can, clubs could have a team of four pitchers work each game. No pitcher would throw more than 30 to 40 pitches and each would pitch with maximum effort.

The impact would be immediate. Pitchers would be throwing less pitches, which would allow them to stay healthier. Because fatigue wouldn’t really be an issue, a pitcher would likely be able to repeat his delivery consistently. And, batters would be facing a fresh pitcher every couple of innings.

That is the most important aspect of the plan. Batters do not like having to face a fresh pitcher because it makes them uncomfortable. Plus, a fresh pitcher is always at an advantage. This would allow a team to have a better quality of pitcher throw and allow a Manager to structure his team in any fashion he wanted. Think about it, a team doesn’t have to worry about roles in a bullpen. They can simply take the 12 best pitchers, form committees, and perform at optimum levels.

With the win statistic proven to be an unreliable statistic to gauge pitcher performance, this approach would help make sure that the win wouldn’t be used as an indicator for success. The approach would allow teams to have their better pitchers appear more than just once out of every five games, make hitters uncomfortable, and lessen the importance of matchups. With a better quality pitcher who has more rest pitching in the late innings, it wouldn’t matter if the batter was left handed or right handed. Statistics like wins, holds, and saves wouldn’t hold importance, which would advance baseball thinking. Managers wouldn’t be concerned about “getting a starter a win” or waiting to use the best reliever.

This won’t happen anytime soon because the industry is so slow to adapt.  Instead of using a science or changing the deployment of pitchers, the industry continues to fail at an alarming rate. It will take a team willing to be radical and adopt a tournament style approach with its staff. Criticism will be fierce, but once it is proven successful, it will be copied. The Astros decided to double-up with their Minor League rotations last season, essentially have a tandem of starters for each game because of their surplus of pitching. Perhaps a team will see that and see that performance can be optimized. 

Of course, an organization will have to prepare for something like this. The Colorado Rockies experimented with a four man rotation a couple of years ago and failed. The reason? Their organization wasn’t prepared, from conditioning the pitchers to having organizational depth. Teams would have to tailor its Minor League system to have enough options in case there are games when more pitchers are needed, such as extra innings or if a pitcher gets knocked out early. 

Pitchers would have to be conditioned to pitch every fourth day. The question of whether or not they can bounce back on fewer days rest needs to be answered. 

How effective could the be? Consider the 2014 Baltimore Orioles’ starting rotation holds batters to a .251/.326/.374 batting line during their first tour through the lineup. The second time? .290/.338/.456. Third time? .292/.365/.503. When they’ve gone through a fourth time, opponents have hit .357/.400/.429. Tournament pitching eliminates those third and fourth times. 

Major League Baseball may not want this approach because it will definitely suppress offense and that is something they may not want. But, it would, in theory, keep pitchers healthier. From a competition standpoint, it is the most effective way to utilize a pitching staff and win a game.

Gary Armida
Gary Armida

Orioles Analyst

First and foremost, a Father. After that, I am a writer and teacher who not only started my own company and published an i-magazine as well as a newsletter, but have been published by USA Today, Operation Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest, Gotham Baseball Magazine, and numerous other publications. As an educator, I have 20 years of classroom experience and am utilizing that experience in my current position as department coordinator. Wrote the book The Teacher And The Admin (https://theteacherandtheadmin.com/the-book/) and operate that website which is dedicated to making education better for kids.

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