Pitching's magic number: 5

Rotations: No matter how hard major-league teams struggle to find No. 5 starting pitchers, there seems little chance of the four-man rotation coming back.

March 31, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles spent a good part of spring training sorting through their roster for a dependable pitcher to fill the fifth spot in the starting rotation, and they were not alone.

The fifth-starter search has been an industrywide rite of spring ever since the late-'60s New York Mets expanded their rotation from four arms to five to accommodate a large group of talented young pitchers.

Five-man rotations caught on in a hurry, but the talent pool that supplies Major League Baseball with pitching never really caught up with the demand for effective starters. The shortage only became more pronounced as the number of major-league franchises increased through expansion in the 1970s and twice in the 1990s.

There is no statistical mystery here. The number of major-league franchises has almost doubled since the first expansion in 1961-62 (from 16 to 30), and the rapid proliferation of other professional sports over the same period has created a demand for quality athletes that has far outstripped the pace of overall population growth.

Since pitching is the most valuable commodity in baseball - and generally accounts for about half of each team's 40-man major-league roster - it stands to reason that it would be the most effected by a shortage in the supply of elite athletes.

That's the obvious explanation, but there also are other factors that have contributed significantly to the starter shortage, and there are possible solutions for any organization bold enough to change the way it develops its young arms.

The most obvious would be the most controversial ... and most unlikely. Simply go back to four-man rotations.

"It's a lot easier to find four quality starters than five," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. "Pitching is all touch and feel. If you take the average number of innings a starter pitches, it's about six innings. You're telling me you can't pitch six innings every fourth day?"

Of course, it's not nearly that simple. The shift to five-man rotations has been institutionalized so completely over the past 30 years that every pitcher at every level of professional baseball is conditioned to a five-man system. If you wanted to change that, you'd have to start at the rookie ball level and work up gradually.

"The reality of the situation is, attitude is an important part of anything you do," Palmer said. "Unless you're going to have a positive attitude about pitching every fourth day, it isn't going to work. You have to convince the guys going out there that it's better for them and better for the team."

First-time manager Bob Boone tried to do that with the Kansas City Royals a few years ago and basically got his head handed to him. The four-man rotation worked just fine until pitching ace Kevin Appier came up with a sore arm, then Boone came under attack for putting the health of his pitchers in danger.

"It worked, but I got hammered for it," said Boone, who now is the manager of the Cincinnati Reds and is searching for a fifth starter like everyone else. "They [pitchers] break down, but they do that in five-man rotations, too. You baby your pitchers and they still break.

"Talk to any guy who has done both - someone like Don Sutton. There is no question that the command gets better [in a four-man rotation]. I believe in my heart that's the way it should be done. Then you don't have to look for a fifth guy."

What the numbers say

Do pitchers throw better on three days rest? There is some statistical information that hints in that direction. According to Stats Inc., the combined earned run average for all games started by pitchers working on three days rest last year was 4.39. The combined ERA for pitchers going on four days rest was 4.57.

"That could be a little deceptive," said Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley, "because you don't know how many of those pitchers were going on three days rest because they had a short outing the time before.

"I find that there usually aren't enough guys that can go every fourth day to do it. Whether it's psychological or what, guys are too sore to pitch on the fourth day. If you had enough guys who could pitch in a four-man rotation, believe me, there would be teams going to four-man rotations."

Orioles pitcher Pat Hentgen, who was considered one of the most durable starters in baseball during the 1990s, said that the Toronto Blue Jays used four starters at the lower levels of their minor-league system when he was coming up, without ill effect.

"I always liked it," Hentgen said. "You got more starts, which meant more chances to win games. The thought process was, more starts meant more experience on the mound. They just held down the pitch counts and you didn't throw on the side as much. I believe if you brought guys up that way, there is no reason you couldn't be in four-man rotations now."

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