That look says it all.

Let’s Talk About Six…Man Rotations, Baby

I know this six-man rotation business isn’t a new concept, either for the Cubs or baseball in general, but it was recently brought to the greater consciousness by Joel Sherman’s piece about the team’s “audacious” plans. The Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales had reported as much back in September after Joe Maddon expressed a belief that expanded rotations would become the norm as early as 2017. To be clear, the Cubs skipper was talking specifically about the second half of the season.

That got me to thinking, which got me to tweeting and conversing, which got me to thinking a little more. All of which is dangerous. What follows is sort of stream-of-consciousness-y and maybe even contradictory at times, but I wanted to present you with the “What if…” and “Well, maybe…” thoughts that were bouncing back and forth in my internal debate.

With little more than a surface-level assessment, I think adding a man to the rotation is good as a stopgap or a way to rest starters in mid-July. As we saw this past season, there’s a real toll when rain makeups devour off-days and the humid heat of summer saps one’s will to live. Later in season, you’re battling nagging injuries and trying to set things up for a playoff run.

But while it’s intended as a prophylactic measure when it comes to the guys at the top of the depth chart, employing a six-man rotation on a large scale could maybe end up hurting the team in the end. Incremental as the difference between, say, Travis Wood and Jon Lester might be over a 4-6 inning sample, the disparity grows as the sixth man accrues more and more innings.

I get the idea that this is something being done with October and November in mind and that there’s a potential to have those top three or four arms fresher and sharper come postseason play, it just feels like it could be a slippery slope. Like maybe there’s some overthinking going on and that the Cubs’ wealth of overall talent could produce confirmation bias that would lead to increased usage of a sixth man when such a tack is unnecessary.

For instance, let’s say the Cubs make it back to the playoffs and they go 11-0 behind really strong pitching performances in which none of their starters ever allows more than 2 earned runs. Sounds good, right? But let’s also say their offense puts up at least 8 runs in each of their wins, thereby blunting the outstanding pitching to some extent. Am I making any sense? Yeah, don’t answer that.

Even if we disregard the obvious hyperbole of the above examples, there’s a risk in funneling a relatively small series of individual events into another, separate series of individual events and then trying to draw conclusions. Because the Cubs won, it could be assumed that the expanded rotation was a causal factor. But did the pitchers perform so well because they got a few more days of rest during the regular season, or was it simply a function of matchups and aberrations? Impossible to know, really.

Of course, this is all assuming we’re talking about sort of a half-assed attempt at a six-man rotation that involves shuttling guys from AAA now and again and playing Johnny Wholestaff games here and there. What if we’re talking about a model more like they use in Japan, where you’ve got six legit starters? That would mean maintaining a set routine, which pitchers like, while also providing for plenty of rest, which pitchers don’t necessarily like. Maddon admitted that he had a little difficulty trying to get his starters to buy into the idea that extra rest would be beneficial, though the events of the season may have lent some credence to his ideas.

If we’re looking at bigger rotation, though, we’re faced with the necessity of eliminating a bullpen arm. Not a problem at first blush, since having a legitimate additional starter provides more value than a random middle reliever. But wait, the number games would still be the same and the bullpen is still going to used in almost all of them. That means we’re left with a roster conundrum, right? Maybe. Unless…yeah, that might work.

Given the increased rest, we can reasonably assume each member of the rotation would be able to go deeper in games. It might not be much, but an average of even one additional out per start would result in approximately 54 more innings from the rotation. There’s your extra reliever.

Thing is, you’ve got to have the right mix of starters to bring this to bear. It’s hard enough for most teams to cobble together five acceptable pitchers, let alone six. The Cubs could make it work if they are able to land Tyson Ross, I’m just not sure how well it works out if, as Sherman posits, they move forward with the plan regardless of the big righty’s decision. From the sound of it, though, they’re not going to be doing the six-man thing all season. Doing so would require a little work.

“The sixth guy is something that has to be nurtured,” Maddon opined in September.

So, like, I think you need to either go all-in on the bigger rotation or deploy a spot-starter strategically at those points in the season when your team could start dragging. And if you do go for it, your personnel has to be both amenable and up to the task. Here’s where Shohei Otani, a stud pitcher who’s already used to this setup, would come in really handy.

At this point, I’m still leaning toward mild disdain or distrust for expanded rotations, though more thought and the right roster moves could sway my opinion back in the other direction. What say you, Dear Reader, do you like the idea of a six-man rotation? Better in short stints or all season? Or not at all?

About Evan Altman

Evan Altman is the editor and lead writer for Cubs Insider and is fast becoming Central Indiana's foremost Cubs authority. He is a husband, father, homebrewer, and award-winning blogger with entirely too much pop culture knowledge. Evan's greatest accomplishments include scoring 400 points in Magic Johnson's Fast Break, naming all 10 members of the Wu-Tang Clan in under 3.5 seconds, and winning the Meese Literary Award at Hanover College. You can follow him on Twitter @DEvanAltman.

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  1. Sorry for my late response, but I am mildly skeptical, like you. Five seems plenty, with an occasional call up to fill in when circumstances require it. Good piece though. It got me thinking.

  2. First of all, Joel Sherman created this “controversy” out of thin air. He averred that the Cubs are seeking to employ a sin-man rotation, but his story contains exactly zero quotes from anyone in the Cubs organization, let alone Joe Maddon. So, in essence, he’s making the whole thing up, so please, come back in off the ledge.

    Secondly, as Maddon said last year, any use of the six-man rotation would take place only at specific times in specific situations, e.g., September after the playoffs have been clinched, or your team is facing a stretch of more games to play than days to play it in. A season-long six-man rotation, which Sherman implies the Cubs are seeking by going after Ross, would see a team take five or six starts from their best first best, second best, etc., starters and give them to their sixth best pitcher. That’s a recipe for giving up runs and losing games for no good reason.

    • I’m sure who you’re appealing to when you say to come in off the ledge. I think I was pretty clear in my piece that the Cubs have and likely will only use an expanded rotation in a stop-gap measure, and that doing so with a lesser starter over a long period would have a deleterious effect. The talk of how it could work out, while very interesting in theory, was an act of devil’s advocacy and one that I made abundantly clear would only work under the right circumstances.

      • Right, and I wasn’t speaking about you as much as I was speaking to any fan who’s taking Joel Sherman at face value, his baseless article being the truly annoying thing about the whole discussion.

        You and I appear to agree on the efficacy of a season-long six-man rotation, i.e., there ain’t none. In fact, I am a fan of an “ace option”-type rotation, provided my team had a horse as the ace of the rotation. In this case, the ace would pitch on three days rest, and everyone else on four or more, and the ace’s turn would get moved up on off days. So it would look something like: 1-2-3-4-1-5-2-3-1-4-5-2-1-3-4-5. Rinse and repeat. That way your horse might be pushing 40 starts a year, and pitch 250, maybe 275 innings a year. This might work ONLY for bona fide horses, not every ace. But if I have a guy who pitches like that and never gets hurt—I’m talking guys like Price, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Hamels, even Lester—why not take advantage of it?

        • Okay, yeah, I’m with you on that then. The tough part about the ace theory is that you’d have to really have the perfect guy to do it. I’m sure I’d get laughed at for saying that prior to the 80’s, but it’s just such a different game now.

          • I named a whole bunch of perfect guys! 😀

            Right, it’s not for every staff, but for proven ace workhorses—well, I’d like to know why nobody is trying it. Maybe it has to do with respecting pitchers’ five-day routines and managers not putting themselves in a position to take the blame when pitchers struggle and blame the disruption of routine.

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