Weird Ideas: the Designated Starter

With the dismissal of Jason Marquis and subsequent promotion of Cole DeVries, the Twins’ rotation is down to one member of the original group projected to come out of Spring Training. Only Carl Pavano remains (and his balky shoulder makes you wonder how much longer he’ll last). And we haven’t reached Memorial Day yet.

So, with the rotation situation as it is, I’m going to put myself in Ron Gardenhire’s and Rick Anderson’s shoes for a moment, today.

The season is off to an absolutely abysmal start, to the point where your team has pretty much been eliminated from any shot at contending with only about 25% of the schedule behind you. The pitching… in particular the starting pitching… has been a disaster. And our grips on our jobs… manager and pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins… is growing just a bit tenuous.

So what do we do?

If ever there was a situation that called for trying unconventional pitching strategies, this is it. After all, what is there to lose? If the weird approaches work, we’re geniuses. If they don’t work, well, at least we get credit for recognizing the status quo had failed and we were willing to try something… anything… to get things turned around.

But what to do? What kind of changes could we make that would be so unheard of among our peers that we’d get credit for trying something totally new AND at least have some remote chance of not blowing up in our faces and costing us whatever little bit of credibility we might otherwise retain at the end of this season?

Ron… Andy… please allow me to introduce you to Joe Posnanski.

This week, Poz wrote one of his “Curiously Long Posts” about one of those off-the-cuff sort of truisms that broadcasters and other baseball “experts” tend to spout off without really checking to see if they’re the least bit true. There are a lot of those, of course, but in this instance it was the cliché that, “the last three outs are the toughest outs to get in baseball.”

Of course, for a variety of reasons, that’s not the least bit true. Statistically, in fact, ninth inning outs turn out to be the easiest three outs to get in baseball. The actual toughest three outs are the first three outs. Yes, hitters have the best stat lines in the first inning and pitchers have their worst stat lines in the first inning. More runs are scored in the first inning than any other single inning. Posnanski hypothesizes that this may be because it’s the one inning when the opposing manager can actually set his batting order the way he wants it. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but it sounds as good as anything, I guess.

He credits, “a couple of radical thinkers inside the game,” with proposing that teams might be better off to have official game “starters” rather than “closers”… guys who start games every other night or so and go just one or two innings, before turning the game over to another pitcher geared up to pitch several innings. The idea, of course, is to use a hard throwing pitcher with, perhaps, a limited arsenal of pitches to get through that dangerous first inning or so when, statistically, more runs are historically scored than any other single inning.

Think about that in terms of the current Twins for a moment.

Francisco Liriano, "designated starter"?

What if Francisco Liriano and, say, Jared Burton, were designated the team’s two “starters”? One lefty and one righty, they would start every other game and pitch just the first inning… maybe two if the first inning turned out to be easy enough. How many starts this year did Liriano breeze through the first inning, only to cough up runs in the second?

Wouldn’t it have been great to let him get through that first inning, then immediately turn the game over to Carl Pavano or another “starting pitcher,” who could then face the bottom of the opposing team’s order in his first inning of work? Wouldn’t  it have been much more likely that the “starting pitcher” in that situation would be able to get through the 7th inning before hitting the magic 100-pitch mark, allowing Glen Perkins and Matt Capps to close things out?

Why not give it a whirl, guys?

What are you afraid of? Is it that the national baseball media would howl? Would it just be too weird to see the same two guys listed the starting pitcher for the Twins on the schedule every other day?

Or are you afraid that the managers and players on the other teams will laugh at you?

Let’s hope that isn’t what stops you, guys. If it is, I’ve got news for you… they’re already laughing at you, because doing things the way they’ve always been done sure isn’t working.

You might as well try something really new.

– JC

One thought on “Weird Ideas: the Designated Starter

  1. Interesting idea, but some possible drawbacks…

    I think the strategy would probably require extra pitchers, as making 3-4 appearances a week for 26 weeks would be a heavy workload on the two guys tasked with the 1st inning role (some arms are bound to break down), and you can’t really count on the “designated starters” to pitch a full inning or two each time out. There will be days when, say, Liriano or Burton can’t get out of the 1st inning, and then either Gardy will have to burn another reliever to finish their job or else rush in the “rotation starter” like Pavano to get out of the mess, which is outside that guy’s comfort zone. Then, on many days the “rotation starter” is still going to need relief well before the 7th or 8th, too, and Gardy will have to turn to his bullpen having already used one or two (or three!) of his “relievers”–plus one guy is always unavailable because he’s supposed to start the next day.

    Also, Gardy will have to make a choice between using one of his lesser relievers to face the top of the lineup at the start of each game or tasking one or two of his good relievers with that role, in which case he has or one or two fewer good options in high-leverage spots in the late innings. Either way, he’s at a disadvantage.