Last week in the midst of Roy Halladay's retirement announcement, I came across a small piece in Keith Law's chat that Doc had said in one of his media hits that the Jays at one point had almost gone to a 4-man rotation, and that Law confirmed this. The only reason it was nixed is apparently because Cory Lidle wasn't amenable. I was also thinking a fair bit about the 2014 rotation, and a thought experiment occurred about whether it could be something the Jays could try. The more I thought about, the more i liked it. So I thought I'd write up the reasons why the idea intrigued me, and see what people thought.
At this point, the 2014 rotation at this point is Dickey, Buehrle, Morrow (if and when healthy), and then some combination of possibilities including Happ, Rogers, Redmond, McGowan, Jeffress, Hutchison, Drabek, Stroman, Romero, Jenkins, Nolin, McGuire (in roughly declining order of best to worst option as a 2014 SP).
Conservatively, the Dickey-Buehrle-Morrow trio can be collectively projected for 500 innings pitched at league average or better. If you're more bullish, maybe 550 above average IP. Either way, assuming 6 IP/start, that leaves over 400-450 IP to fill, and if the Jays want to be contenders those innings probably need to be around league average collectively. And well the 12 pitchers above give the Jays enviable depth, it's really tough to see getting 400+ league average IP.
So, enter the necessity of acquiring one or two good SPs (let's say league average or better), depending on who you're talking to. For me, the problem with this is that it will be too expensive to be worthwhile, since the Jays have such a deep suite of options who project at something above replacement level, but below average. In my view, the upgrade from J.A. Happ or Esmil Rogers to a Scott Feldman or Ricky Nolasco is not worth the $10 or $12-million a year they commanded. Therefore, any upgrades should be pitchers who project at league average or better.
At this point, that leaves just five possibilities in my view: trade targets in Jeff Samardzija and David Price, as well as Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Masahiro Tanaka (if he's posted). The trade targets will require dealing premium prospects, and I don't think that's a good idea at this point, so that leaves a maximum of three. With Garza and Tanaka not attached to draft pick compensation, I figure the bidding goes pretty nuts. So that leaves Jimenez. Assuming the budget space is there, if the Jays could get him for something like 4 years/$50M while forfeiting their second rounder I think that's a good option. I think a rotation of Dickey-Buerhle-Jimenez-Morrow-Happ/McGowan/Rogers/Redmond/Jeffress would give the Jays a solid rotation, with two of the other three as swingmen in the event of injury or poor performance.
The problem is, if there's no budget for Jimenez, or he becomes prohibitively costly, there's really no plan B. But that's where I think a 4-man rotation could work, in terms of using the available talent on the roster and maximizing it to try and deliver above average pitching in 2014.
HOW IT WOULD WORK:
Instead of 5 starters making 30-33 starts of about 6 innings and 100 pitches, the target would be for 40 starts of about 5 innings and 75-80 pitches. Then, you take some of the surplus backend types, and make them into 2-3 inning guys who bridge the gap to the one inning high leverage relievers. It would set up something like this (assuming they carry 12 pitchers, and no further acquisitions:
Dickey: 40 starts x 5.5 IP/start = 220 IP (last year: 34 starts, 225 IP)
Buerhle: 40 starts x 5 IP/start = 200 IP (last year: 33 starts, 203 IP)
Morrow: 25 starts x 5 IP/start = 125 IP (last 4 years: average 22 starts, 125 IP)
Happ: 30 starts x 4.5 IP/start = 135 IP
Expected injury replacement and other (double headers, etc): remaining approx. 27 starts.
Long relievers (3)
Three of: Jeffress, McGowan, Rogers, Redmond. None of them have options, so one will be exposed to waivers. But this would have to happen anyway, there's too many pitchers on the 40 man without options.
Each would make 40-50 appearances of 2-3 IP per appearances (30-50 pitches), around 100-125 IP each
One inning relievers (5)
Janssen, Santos, Cecil, Delabar, Loup
If and when (realistically when) starters get injured, the Jays would have two options. One is promote one of the long men, since they would be pretty stretched out and wouldn't be expected to go as deep as starters are in a 5-man rotation, and backfill from the minors. The second would be directly call someone up into the rotation, though this might be difficult due them coming from a 5-man system in the minors.
HOW IT WOULD IMPROVE THE PITCHING
Let`s start with two tables from Baseball-Reference for the American League in 2013:
The first table shows how pitchers perform by each time through the line-up, and the second shows how pitchers performance by the number of pitches thrown (starters and relievers). Starting pitchers get worse each time through the line-up, going from a .715 OPS against the first time to .748 the second time and .758 the second time. And the effect is likely larger for the difference between 2nd and 3rd time through, since there's a selection bias in that poorer pitchers get taken out earlier, and better pitchers tend to be allowed to pitch through the 3rd and 4th times.
Likewise, looking at pitch counts, pitchers are most effective with their first 50 pitches, allowing an OPS around .715. Above 50 pitches, the OPS jumps to about .750 against. That's a quite significant difference: in the AL last season, on average every point of team OPS was worth about 2 runs (R^2 = 0.89, an exceptionally strong relationship), meaning 35 points would be worth about 70 runs, or roughly 0.4 runs/game.
Let's look at some Blue Jays specifically. In 2013, R.A. Dickey's achilles heel was the long ball, giving up 35 of them to rank second in the AL. However, 16 of those came on or after his 76th pitch of the game. That's about 45% of his home runs, despite those batters only being 30% of those he faced. For his career, it's not quite as drastic, but he's give up 30% of his HR to the 22% of batters he's faced after throwing 75 pitches. If Dickey's actual 2013 results were reweighted so that only 10% of his batters faced occurred after 75 pitches (everything else the same), he allows 5 less HR and 5 fewer walks. That would reduce his FIP by about 0.4, adding roughly 1 WAR.
Mark Buerhle has very typical overall splits for his career, his OPS increasing about 20 points each time through the order. Curiously, the pattern is not as evident when breaking things down by pitches, as he doesn't do much worse after his 75th pitch than immediately before. On balance, I doubt going to a 4-man rotation would have a significant impact on him.
Brandon Morrow, however, is a different story. He's primarily a two-pitch pitcher, with a big fastball and slider while his other secondaries are fringier. This tends to make him vulnerable to being exposed as batters see him multiple times. For his career, his OPS against as a starter is .669 the first time through, .676 the 2nd time, .822 the third time, and .990 the 4th time. Likewise, after his 75th pitch he yields over an .800 OPS. Morrow is basically the archetype of a pitch who stands to benefit from a 4-man rotation where he doesn't go much more than twice through the order.
J.A. Happ also would stand to benefit. For his career, the first two times through the OPS he yields an OPS of around .735, which jumps over 80 points subsequently. After his 75th pitch, he gives up an OPS of .792. Happ has also struggled with piling up pitch counts, so having more long men in the bullpen would help mitigate this weakness. Last season, he only average about 5 IP/start, so using a succession of one-inning relievers is tough.
Let's look at the long men. Last season, Todd Redmond gave up roughly a .650 OPS within his first 50 pitches. After 50 pitches, it was over .900. I think Redmond is that exact type who would be good going once through the order or occasionally a little more. On the other hand, Esmil Rogers over his career does not decline much the third time through, or show the usual trend. It may be that's he's not well suited for his career, or it may be a function of being bounced around a lot. For McGowan, it would give the Jays a chance to get more value than as a one inning reliever, without subjecting him to the full rigours of starting. It would give the Jays a chance to stretch Jeffress out some, with forcing him a make or break in the rotation. It could also be a great way to break prospects into the big leagues, letting them get experience without needing to turn a MLB line-up over three times.
Finally, it should help avoid too much stress on the back end of the bullpen. With a starter and then a long reliever in sequence, there won't be many instances of using 3 or 4 one-inning relievers in the same game. If a starter managed to get through 6 innings or more in 75-80 pitches, then you could go right to the one-inning guys.
SUMMING THINGS UP
In 2013, the Jays starting pitchers put up a total of 4.9 fWAR. The "big 5" relievers (Janssen, Delabar, Cecil, Santos, Loup) were worth 5.4 fWAR, and the whole team totalled just 12 fWAR, 19th in baseball.
Under the scenario above, I think the starting rotation could be worth 10-11 WAR: Dickey 3.5, Morrow 3.0, Buehrle 2.5, Happ 1.5. I think the 3 long men could total around 350-400 IP, and add about 4 WAR. Finally, the one inning relievers could total around 4 WAR, accounting for regression. This would get the Jays to around 18 WAR from their pitching, an improvement of 6 wins without costing spending a dime in additional salary. In fairness, some of this is expecting regression, though offset by negative regression as well. But I'd guess about 4 WAR of that comes from going to a 4-man rotation - though this is mostly back of the envelope math. I might try to quantify it more precisely in the future.
And feedback or discussion is welcomed.