Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jon Gray.
TEMPE, Ariz — Fans flocked to Diablo Stadium through the first few weeks of spring training looking for a glimpse of the major leagues’ newest international star. Even if they found his face only on souvenir shop trinkets, Shohei Otani already is leaving his mark on the game.
In his first season with the Angels, Ohtani, a trumpeted Japanese star and a phenomenon of pitching and hitting, will lead an experimental six-man pitching rotation, an idea that incubated in baseball for years but never was adopted in full.
As a thought exercise, the idea of a six-man staff could alleviate issues that long plagued teams looking for a sweet spot of effective pitching and arm health — especially the Rockies. But it would be a radical change. And not everyone likes the idea.
“I want to throw 200 innings,” said Rockies right-hander Jon Gray. “I want to be out there every five days. I really want to. I know I can handle the workload.”
Last year, the Rockies used four rookie pitchers who could not quite survive their first full seasons. The only pitcher among them who was effectively available for the playoffs was German Marquez, but he started the season in the bullpen.
Shohei Ohtani (17) of the <a href="http://stats.denverpost.com/baseball/mlb-teams.aspx?page=/data/mlb/teams/team2979.html">Los Angeles Angels</a> of Anaheim talks with teammates in the dugout prior to the start of the first inning against the <a href="http://stats.denverpost.com/baseball/mlb-teams.aspx?page=/data/mlb/teams/team2956.html">Colorado Rockies</a> during a Spring Training game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Feb. 27, 2018 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Would a six-man rotation have made them fresh and strong through an entire season? Would a less burdensome assignment take away the ever-present danger of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery? Would the Rockies consider a move to six?
“Not right now,” manager Bud Black said. “Because I still think where our starters are at, mentally and physically, I don’t think they need an extra day’s rest.”
The reasons behind Black’s reluctance, though, may reveal more about the unique circumstances of pitching in Colorado than a shyness about chasing trends.
Ohtani is a unique case. He moved to the U.S. and signed with the Angels in December after they paid $20 million to his former team just for the right to talk to him. They have quickly tried to maximize his potential. The Angels’ six-man rotation will allow Ohtani to pitch once a week and play as a designated hitter in the other games.
“With a six-man (rotation), it will take a little bit of the burden off guys to have to bounce back,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times. “It will not only pay dividends for Shohei, but for the rest of our staff, to hopefully keep them effective and strong through the whole season.”
The Rockies’ reasons for using five starters runs deeper than those in Anaheim. They have become dependent on an eight-man bullpen to help negate the demanding offensive environment at Coors Field. A sixth starter would mean a three-man bench. And in the National League, where pinch hitters and double switches come into play, three is not enough. Ohtani’s versatility gives the Angels a sixth starter and a four-man bench.
Rockies history shows that the team hasn’t been shy about experimenting with pitching rotations. In 2012, the Rockies attempted an unconventional four-man “piggyback” rotation that limited the starters to 75 pitches and relied on an extra reliever. Four-man rotations were common as recently as the early 1970s. But in Colorado, it was a flaming disaster and the Rockies finished last in the NL West.
A six-man rotation, on the other hand, is more well-known in Japan, where Ohtani excelled for the Nippon-Ham Fighters. And in Japan, the rate of Tommy John surgery is less than half that in America.
In each of the past two seasons, only 15 pitchers threw 200 or more innings, the fewest in baseball’s history in a nonstrike-shortened season. And among professional pitchers in America over the past five seasons, there have been more than 100 Tommy John surgeries per season on average.
For pitchers accustomed to their workload, though, the risk is worth remaining on routine.
“It would be a big change,” Gray said. “Everyone’s schedule would need to change. We’d probably feel fresh, which is a good thing. But then again, I’m a guy who likes to be on the mound as much as I can.”
Ohtani’s boon for the Angels, they hope, is extending their rotation’s effectiveness into October, where pitching becomes predominant. The Rockies hope they get that far too, but with a young staff that may have to gut it out.
“The continued look at how to deploy your pitching staff is what everybody is talking about,” Black said. “But for us, right now, we’re comfortable. These guys are conditioned for that; that’s what they’re used to.”