Should the Mets be Using a Tandem Rotation?

The first time that I heard of a tandem rotation was when I was listening to the now dead Baseball Today podcast on ESPN, which they need to bring back immediately. Anyway, they brought up that the Rockies were beginning to employ this strategy of a tandem, or piggyback rotation. What that means is, instead of having a traditional five-man rotation, teams would have an eight-man rotation, with two pitchers scheduled to pitch on a given day, and instead of having four days in between outings, pitchers would have three days to recover.

The philosophy behind it is to lower the risk of an arm injury for a pitcher by decreasing the innings and pitch count. The Houston Astros use it in all levels of their minor league system not only to protect their young arms, but to help evaluate more pitchers that with a normal rotation. They have legitimate data on eight guys at a time rather than five pitchers with a much smaller sample size for the other three out of the bullpen.

Another important factor is that most pitchers are better the first time through the order than the second and third times through. This method saves pitchers from blowing up as a result of  going too far into a start, allowing the opposing hitters to adjust to him.

Now, how exactly does this happen? The first pitcher would be scheduled for about 4 innings and 75 pitches, at which point the second “starter” would come in to relieve him., with the same pitch and inning restrictions before handing it off to the bullpen if necessary.

Will this work in the major leagues? That’s yet to be seen. When the Rockies did it, all of their pitchers were so awful to begin with, that it’s hard to actually judge whether or not the method actually worked. They were using guys like Jeff Francis, Tyler Chatwood, Alex White, Adam Ottavino, and Drew Pomeranz before he finally transformed into the top prospect he once was. Anyway, that was quite the horrible crew of pitchers with their ERAs hovering at about 5, so no one should be judging the usefulness of paired pitching on how effective a well-past-his-already-mediocre-prime Jeff Francis was. Because, even with Yadier Molina calling his games, the pitching IQ of Greg Maddux, and playing at Marlins Park after pushing each wall back 100 feet, there’s no way Jeff Francis would have been good.

The one fear that I have is what happens when a pitcher is pitching well and he has to be pulled from the game because he’s expected to appear four days later. The one thing that I always dislike is over-managing in terms of innings and pitch counts and taking guys out even when they’re dominating just because they reached some arbitrary number of pitches. Obviously it’s true to a certain point that the amount of pitches thrown can have a direct effect on the injury risk for a pitcher, but it varies from day to day and from pitcher to pitcher. But then again, replacing a pitcher using the piggyback method is the same idea with a high pitch count in any situation. Most pitchers can probably get to about 120 pitches before getting tired in a particular game, but their team has to consider the fact that they must start five days from then, so they aren’t pushed they limit all the time.

Another solution is that when a starter is really rolling, the team should adjust their tandem rotation accorind to how many pitches are thrown when he’s finally removed. For example, Clayton Kershaw should not have been removed during his historic no-hitter on Wednesday night. Instead, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly would pitch the “second starter,” who for the sake of argument can be Dan Haren, the next day, and continue with three days of piggybacking, then two starters (Kershaw and Haren) who will pitch as long as they can until the team’s next day off, at which point they can readjust the rotation to have Haren relieving Kershaw. This is a weird case because it just so happens that Thursday was in fact a day off for the Dodgers, so they would be able to jump right into the paired pitching system without a hitch. But, let’s just say for the sake of argument that the team didn’t have a day off for the next seven days after Kershaw’s great night. After throwing 107 pitches in that game, Kershaw won’t be available to make a full start for the next four days, but it’s possible to either have him and Haren continue under the traditional system until they got a day of extra rest.

They could also have Kershaw start the game four days later on short rest, and give him a very short leash as they closely monitor his pitch count and his ability to get people out before turning it over to Haren in the third or fourth inning, who should be able to push himself a bit more than usual after having the past seven days to rest since Kershaw rendered him useless on Wednesday.

Obviously, when there’s an injury to one of the eight starters, the team can choose either to bring a starter up from the minor leagues, which may or may not be the right decision based on a player’s development. As always, it would be Omar Minaya-level stupid to rush a top prospect up to the majors because of one injury. But if they have an already-established former major leaguer or career-AAAA guy such as Jason Marquis (who fits into the former category of course) who can come up and fill in, they can continue with their system even while one of their original eight is on the shelf. They can also choose to abandon their tandem rotation for the time being, and restart it once the injured pitcher returns from the DL, or they find a sufficient replacement. The use of a tandem rotation requires a lot of savvy on the part of a team’s coaching staff and management as they have a lot of different scenarios to deal with.

I remain optimistic that this is a useful strategy, but there must be a team out there brave enough to employ this method. They’re have to have eight legitimate MLB pitchers, none of whom are Jeff Francis and his career 4.96 ERA. They’d also have to be immune to public pressure, and not care so much about what the critics and fans would say about their unorthodox decision, because every time anyone tries something new at all, especially in the sport of baseball, there is always a ridiculous amount of pushback from all of the self-important baseball “traditionalists.” That’s another important factor; the team has to be progressive, and not be afraid to do something that they may also find weird.

Overall, everyone needs to let go of the idea that things were better before just because it was the way it had always been done. Despite pitching more often, this process would most likely decrease the amount of innings a pitcher throws in a season. That would lower their chances of getting to certain records and milestones both for a season and a career. Obviously records are run. The chasing of a record and looking through the ridiculous numbers are very interesting to look at as a fan. But, if this new idea would help my team win a World Series, I’d trade away the possibility for my team’s ace to lead the league in strikeouts. Winning trumps everything. It always has and it always will. Again, I think this will in fact help teams, but I’m very curious to see it in practice. Maybe my opinion will change.

Enter: my New York Mets. I know that pitching is not a real concern for this team, as they rank 14th in the MLB in both starters ERA and starters WHIP. This is more of a hypothetical situation than a decision that I expect Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins (so long as he has a job) to make at any point this year.

But, they’d be a great test case for the merits of a piggyback rotation, so here me out. Once Dillon Gee returns from the DL, he’ll give the Mets eight quality pitchers with the capability of starting a game. Under the current system, three of them are sitting around in the bullpen, and while Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carlos Torres can fill the long reliever role pretty well, while Jenrry Mejia has been great since taking over the closer role, they all have the potential for more.

Here are the combinations that I’d go with:

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