5-man rotation has one loser too many

On baseball B

August 02, 1991|By Jim Henneman

CHICAGO -- When does five equal less than four?

This is not a flash quiz in a modern mathematics course. Just an explanation of a fact of life with major-league baseball teams that continue to punish themselves and reward starting pitchers with a reduced workload.

The five-man starting rotation has become a fact of life in baseball -- and it has nothing to do with success. Rather it survives because teams publicly say they don't want to risk injury and privately admit that today's wages have agents overzealously guarding the career longevity of their clients.

It's a good thing workhorse types like Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer didn't surface during this era. Their careers would have to be extended an average of at least three years to make up for the number of appearances they would miss under today's work schedule.

The wear and tear factor is cited as the primary reason pitchers now work every five days, instead of every four. That works out to roughly eight lost starts every year, 20 percent of what used to be considered normal.

"The money involved today has a lot to do with it," said an American League executive. "Teams don't want to gamble their investments and agents are making sure they protect their players' careers. If a pitcher tells you he can't pitch every four days what do you do?

"These guys [players] are being told anytime they suspect they might be sent out to make sure they get on the medical report sheet," said the official. "Service time for arbitration and free-agent eligibility keeps a lot of guys on the disabled list instead of the minor leagues."

Still, there is no question the search for a fifth starter is futile. It is merely a search for a losing pitcher to round out the rotation to protect the few who can't work on a four-day basis. Only in baseball can such logic work.

In an era when incentive clauses are at a level generally attainable by middle men on a pitching staff (20 starts), the fifth starter is a luxury some might be able to afford (everybody seems to be looking), but nobody can find.

Consider these hard facts: There are 26 teams in the big leagues and only one (the Pirates) does not have at least one starter under .500. Using a modest 12 starts as a minimum, the Pirates are the only team in the NL who have four starters with winning records. Predictably they have the best record in baseball.

There is one team in the American League with four starters above .500 -- surprise, it's the Seattle Mariners. Five AL teams (Angels, Royals, Twins, A's and Blue Jays) and two NL clubs (Mets and Cardinals) have three pitchers with winning records.

By comparison there are nine teams with only one winning starter and one (Cleveland) with none. Granted, losing teams will not produce winning pitchers -- but the reverse is also true, losing pitchers will not help a team win.

And the evidence strongly suggests that there are 26 teams out there looking for a losing pitcher every year. As long as everybody's doing it the same way, of course, there is no real disadvantage.

But maybe we'll get lucky and some enterprising team will decide to find a way to send its best starter to the mound eight more times a year and go with a four-man rotation. Otherwise, the way things are going, the next stop is the once-a-week starter and the magic 200-win mark that comes complete with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

* NO-HIT SPOTLIGHT TONIGHT: When Cal Ripken hit the three-run homer that decided the All-Star Game it chilled the evening air in Nicaragua because it came off national hero Dennis Martinez.

The ex-Oriole's every move is chronicled in his native land, however, so last Sunday was a special day when Martinez became the 15th player in baseball history to pitch a perfect game. Tonight he is certain to still the streets of Nicaragua as he makes his first appearance, in Montreal, since pitching his perfecto.

What makes tonight's game special is that Tommy Greene is scheduled to pitch for the Phillies. On May 23, the righthanded Greene pitched a no-hitter against the Expos.

One sidelight to the perfect game. Nobody has ever pitched two of them, but Ron Hassey has caught two. He was on the receiving end of the gem by Martinez and caught the one by Cleveland's Len Barker 10 years ago. He wasn't even supposed to have a job this year after being released by the A's, who noted his accomplishment by sending a telegram.

* A LEFEVBRE BELEVBRE: The only thing that keeps me from thinking the Seattle Mariners can still be in the thick of the AL West race is the three lefthanded hitters stuck in the middle of the lineup.

The Mariners are the only team in the American League with the capability of trotting out five starters who can win (see above) if everybody's healthy, and they are at least capable in the bullpen. But manager Jim Lefevbre, who has done a good job, needs to find a righthanded hitter to separate Ken Griffey Jr., Pete O'Brien (a cleanup hitter by necessity) and Alvin Davis.

A lefthanded reliever spoils that party every time. If a deal isn't possible, maybe Jay Buhner, he of Ruthian clouts and Reggian strikeouts, can provide some protection.

* IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS: Are the A's mortgaging their future with these late-season deals, the most recent of which brought them Ron Darling?

If Darling is such a gem, why has he been available for two years and traded twice in the last two weeks?

In all honesty, hasn't Juan Bell played better than you thought he could? Or would?

But is he good enough to play every day?

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