Six-man rotation a fit for Mariners?


Last Sunday’s captivating debut by New York Mets pitching prospect Steven Matz signaled the start of the team’s plan to use Matz – along with Matt Harvey, Bartolo Colon, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese, and Jacob deGrom – as part of a six-man rotation. New York’s motivation to use an extra pitcher is based on their desire to manage the workload for both their young starters and veteran arms.

Reducing the number of innings would permit the Mets to improve the availability of their entire starting staff through the end of the season – and possibly into the postseason – while helping to prevent the shutdown of their young pitchers who are likely to reach career-highs in innings pitched (IP). As one might expect, going to a six-man rotation has caused a groundswell of debate in New York and among national baseball media.

In the Mets’ case, each of their six projected starters have experienced arm issues during their professional careers. Harvey, deGrom, and Matz have undergone surgery on their pitching elbow, while Syndergaard has experienced tightness in his forearm in each of the last two seasons. Colon has been relatively healthy since missing 2010 due to shoulder surgery, but he is 42-years-old. On top of that, the team lost Zack Wheeler who underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery on his elbow in Spring Training. On the surface, protecting a young core of such promising pitchers seems to make a lot of sense.

The Mets’ youth movement has already risen to national prominence thanks to having the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and a few budding stars who have inspired nicknames like “The Dark Knight” and “Thor.” With so much talent abound, the Mets don’t have a clearly defined ace like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, or Felix Hernandez – who are head-and-shoulders above their peers on their respective staffs. New York’s National League franchise has a committee of young guns that includes co-aces in Harvey and deGrom and several others with number-one caliber starter potential.

The discussion surrounding the Mets’ strategy made me wonder whether the Seattle Mariners would consider doing the same thing when starter Hisashi Iwakuma returns from a stint on the disabled list. Iwakuma – who made his third rehab start last night for Class-AAA Tacoma – pitched five and two-thirds innings allowing one earned run on five hits, while striking out six and walking just one hitter. Unfortunately for the 34-year-old, he had to prematurely leave the game due to a blister on his right middle finger – Iwakuma has previously experienced blisters with Seattle. Assuming that the right-handed veteran doesn’t have any lingering issues from last night, he could be available to pitch with the Mariners this weekend.

How the team plans to manage their sudden glut of starting pitching is a hot topic of discussion in the local media and with the team’s fan base. Regardless of the specific plan the Seattle employs, something will need to be done to control the workload of their young starters.

Why take action?
As I pointed out earlier this year, the top four starters on a World Series entrant have averaged 23 additional innings over the past five years. Assuming that the Mariners were to undergo an increasingly improbable turnaround and reach the postseason – and the World Series itself – pitchers not named Felix Hernandez or Hisashi Iwakuma would have to pitch more innings than they’ve ever done in the past. Based on the career-highs of their remaining starters – Roenis Elias, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, and J.A. Happ –  the team will need to reduce the burden on some or all of their pitchers in order for them to be available well into October.

Seattle Mariner Career-High Innings Pitched
 Name Career High * Season 3-Year Avg
Felix Hernandez 261.4 2010 241
Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 238.2 2013 187
 J.A. Happ 193.1 2011 157
 Mike Montgomery
159.2 2011 131
 Roenis Elias 190.4 2014 166
 Taijuan Walker 163.1 2013 139
 James Paxton (DL)
172.4 2013 132
 * Includes Spring Training and regular season (majors and minors)

When I looked at the Mariners’ 2015 numbers, I was surprised to see that Walker – thanks to his 27 innings in Spring Training  – has actually pitched more innings than anyone else on the Mariners staff. Based on his current innings and average innings-per-game, the 22-year-old is on pace to easily eclipse his career-high during the regular season. Teammates Elias, Montgomery, and Happ – based on their current average innings pitcher-per-game – are also on a trajectory to surpass previous career-highs.

Mariners 2015 Numbers
 Name Innings Pitched *
IP/Game (Regular Season -MLB & MiLB)
 Felix Hernandez 112 6.5
 Hisashi Iwakuma (DL) 39 5.4
 J.A. Happ 102 5.6
 Mike Montgomery
108 7.4
 Roenis Elias 101 6.0
 Taijuan Walker 117 5.6
 James Paxton (DL) 68 58
 * Includes Spring Training and regular season (majors and minors)

Before getting into the specifics with the Mariners, I want to cover a few points about the utilization of the six-man rotation and some of the things said about the approach.

Goods and others
Using an expanded rotation – if used over the course of a full season – reduces the number of games started by a full-time starter by approximately six starts and about 30-40 innings. Proponents praise this aspect of the six-starter strategy because it decreases workload, but it comes at the cost of reducing the appearances of a team’s ace. For example, the use a six-man rotation for a full season would mean Hernandez would start about 27 games rather his five-year average of 33.

One could argue that fewer starts by a team’s top starter equates to a better-rested staff ace for the postseason. On the other hand, a team that doesn’t reach the postseason because they lost games that their ace may have won will be relieved of the burden of managing pitcher workload – or anything else – in late October.

A fringe competitor like Seattle can’t afford to lose six starts from Hernandez when it’s likely that they’ll have to compete until the last day of the season – just like in 2014 – to overcome the team’s poor first-half. The Mariners will need to maximize starts from their 29-year-old ace to have any chance of turning around their disappointing 2015 season.

With that in mind, is there a way that the Mariners could use a six-man rotation – or another strategy – that could achieve the goal of controlling IP for their starters, while not significantly detracting from the value of the team’s superstar pitcher?

“What if drill”
When I served in the Navy, planning for any contingency was vital to the success of the organization for the unit and the mission. We used to refer to these planning evolutions as “what if drills” because we’d have to plan for scenarios that would likely never happen. Speculating on how a major league team will utilize their starting pitchers certainly falls into the “what if drill” category because there’s a wide variety of approaches at the Mariners’ disposal.

Since I’m more interested in illustrating the Mariners current workload pace and the impact of potential mitigation strategies, I’m only going to focus on four fairly straightforward approaches. The underlying theme for each plan is that Hernandez is the anchor of the rotation and – with the exception of the six-man plan – the perennial Cy Young award candidate’s routine experiences the least disruption.

My “plans” are predicated on a July 5 return by Iwakuma, which assumes that he doesn’t suffer a significant setback from the blister. For the sake of this exercise, I’ve arbitrarily chosen to use Montgomery as the odd man out in tables of scenarios that require only five pitchers. I could’ve chosen Elias or Happ because they’re all within six innings of each other in 2015. I’ve opted to omit the newest member of the rotation only because he’s the new guy. Based on his impressive first month in the majors, he’s not going to be the odd man out.

Five-man plan
The first strategy changes the rotation the least. Seattle would go with five pitchers for the remainder of the season – King Felix, Kuma, and three others pitch in the same order for the remainder of the season. The five-man scenario maximizes the effect of Hernandez, but places the highest load on the arms of two of the team’s three youngsters whether it’s Walker and Elias – as in my example – or another combination that includes Montgomery.

Five-man rotation
Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
Felix Hernandez 232 34
Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 118 20
J.A. Happ 196 32
Mike Montgomery
81 10
Roenis Elias 206 32
Taijuan Walker 206 32
* Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Regardless of the names selected, two of the three would exceed their career-high by the largest margin. Realistically, this is the least likely to happen due to the individual limitations of the young starters. Although improbable, this scenario demonstrates the challenge facing management in Seattle – they have to figure out a way to lessen the onus being placed on their inexperienced starters.

Six-man plan
Like the five-man plan, it’s an unchanging rotation with six pitchers – with Montgomery added back in – that isn’t altered from July 5 until the last day of the season. The obvious advantage of using a straight six-man plan is that it’ll reduce the strain on arms in the greatest fashion, although it comes at the expense of two less starts from Felix. That’s a high cost for Seattle considering the situation they’re currently facing.

Six-man rotation
Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
Felix Hernandez 219 32
Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 102 17
J.A. Happ 179 29
Mike Montgomery
179 24
Roenis Elias 29 189
Taijuan Walker 29 188
* Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Felix-flex plan (FFP)
This is an alteration to the six-man plan, which ensures that Felix pitches every fifth game – regardless of days off – and plugs in the others in and around the staff ace. The FFP gives the Mariners one less Felix start, but helps reduce the workload on the rest of the staff.

Felix-flex plan
Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
 Felix Hernandez 226 33
 Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 108 18
 J.A. Happ 173 28
 Mike Montgomery
172 23
 Roenis Elias 189 29
 Taijuan Walker 188 29
 * Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Schedule issues
Another consideration with the plans I’ve mention thus far is the Mariners’ schedule later in the season. The table below shows that the team is currently in the midst of their second-longest stretch without a day-off for the remainder of the season. The longest remaining period without a break comes immediately after the all-star break when the team plays 20 consecutive days.

Mariners Upcoming Schedule
 Time frame Consecutive days played
 Jun 26 – Jul 12 16
 Jul 17 – Aug 5 20
 Aug 7 – Aug 12   6
 Aug 14 – Aug 19
  6
 Aug 21 – Sept 2 13
 Sept 4 – Sept 16 13
 Sept 18 – Sept 20
  3
 Sept 22 – Sept 30   9
 Oct 1 – Oct 3   3

The Mariners have seven scheduled off-days in the second half, including two that are within four days of each other – September 17 and 21. Thanks to the placement of their off-days, Manager Lloyd McClendon will have opportunities to shuffle the rotation and get those who are in need of added rest an extra day off.

The schedule affects all of the previously mentioned scenarios, but it makes a straight six-man plan and the FFP the least untenable options because the almost-weekly off-days after August 5 would lead to pitchers having seven or more days between starts on several occasions. That’s impractical, although the placement of off-days would help facilitate the use of a five-man scenario – if there wasn’t a concern about IP limits.

Six-men until August
A “hybrid” approach that would take advantage of an excess in starters in the near-term, but wouldn’t employ six pitchers on a regular basis after August 5 is another option. This would help extend the rest for the staff during the last long stretch of the season without causing havoc to the pitching order.

Six-men until August
 Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
 Felix Hernandez 226 33
 Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 113 19
 J.A. Happ 190 31
 Mike Montgomery
116 15
 Roenis Elias 200 31
 Taijuan Walker 200 31
 * Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Disrupting routines
As I just alluded to, a point of contention directed towards a six-man rotation is the impact of adding off-days to a starting pitcher’s routine. That’s a valid concern that has to be considered when mulling over six starters. More than likely, results would likely vary from pitcher-to-pitcher. Here’s a breakdown on how major leaguers performed, based on days of rest during the 2014 season.
With so many pitchers involved in the the above table, it’s tough to gauge the impact of the days-off on individual starters. Here’s a look at Hernandez’s career numbers followed by those of veterans Happ and Iwakuma. I didn’t include the youngsters because of their inexperience at the major league level.J.A. HappHisashi IwakumaDuring most seasons, the Mariners veteran-threesome has averaged between one and three starts with six days extra rest. The results from Hernandez and Iwakuma indicate that they’ve performed at approximately the same level with extra off time, while Happ has not been as sharp. It’s a too small of a sample size to make any concrete conclusions though.

Rotation impact
There’s another drawback to the use of six starters – the loss of either a bullpen arm or a position player. Seattle is currently carrying seven relievers and four reserve position players. Bear in mind that one of the position reserves is currently a catcher who is essentially a defensive back-up. This issue may not necessarily be a show-stopper, but it’s certainly a significant consideration and will be front-and-center in the team’s decision-making process.

Best plan
So, what’s the best option among the choices I’ve provided? It’s certainly debatable. However, I’d go with the six-man rotation until August 5. This choice provides the best of both worlds, which is a lot of Felix-innings while reducing the workload on their younger arms.

The approach selected by the Mariners will be likely be determined by an event – or events – that can’t be predicted at this time. Iwakuma could suffer a setback in the next few days or not perform well when he returns. During his brief stint with the team in 2015, “Kuma” didn’t pitch well. If he were to falter again, he could be pulled from the rotation. It’s also possible that performance could drive someone else from the rotation.

As much as Montgomery has flourished in June, Elias has struggled. Perhaps, the 26-year-old will be returned to Tacoma where he started the season with Montgomery. Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish suggested this possibility along with other possible scenarios to deal with Iwakuma’s return.

Barring injury or setback, using a six-man rotation until late July or early August would help extend the seasons of a few of their starters. By going down this road, the team could let the dust settle after Iwakuma’s return and determine who is best suited for assignment to Tacoma or – perhaps – the bullpen. Another option would be to trade one of the starters.

Recently, Prospect Insider Executive Editor – Jason A. Churchill – discussed the possibility of trading away players – including starting pitchers – if the Mariners decided to be sellers. As reported by Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune, General Manager Jack Zduriencik has already stated that Seattle won’t be adding any significant pieces for the rest of the season. That makes moving a young gun – who is inexpensive and under team control well past 2015 – less probable at the deadline. If the team were to make such a significant move, it would occur in the off-season. Making deadline deals with pitchers who are free agents at the end of the season – like Iwakuma or Happ – could be beneficial if Zduriencik were able to pick up a player – or a few players – who could help the team in 2016 or beyond

Final thought
Trading a veteran arm – like Happ or Iwakuma – has merit if they’re not in the team’s plans past 2015. Elias, Walker, Montgomery, and Happ are all performing well. But, their availability will be non-existent later in the season due to the unsustainable pace they’re maintaining.

Even if the teams completely fall out of contention, the use of the youngsters will have to be tempered. It’s possible that James Paxton will return. But, Dutton recently reported Paxton isn’t likely to return before August. Based on his slow recovery from a finger injury, the team has to view the southpaw’s possible return as icing on the cake and not a planning factor that they can count on.

The Mariners’ judicious management of their young hurlers in recent years suggests that they’ll find a way to balance competing for the postseason and mitigating any risk to the long-term health of their pitchers. The team will likely have to make their first of several rotation-related decisions once Iwakuma is cleared to return. Perhaps, they’ll choose one of the options I’ve mentioned, a combination of those options, or something completely different. Regardless of the Mariners’ decision, changes are brewing for the starting rotation.

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