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Turning Two - Beware the Trending Six-Man Rotation

A six-man starting rotation? "That's just not what MLB is to me," Texas Rangers pitcher Cole Hamels said recently. As someone accustomed to being at the forefront of a pitching staff and who's logged 362 starts over 12 Major League seasons, it's only logical that Hamels would expect to keep trotting out there as much as possible. That may be about to change if the recent trend of erring toward pitcher safety catches on.

Several teams have openly discussed using a six-man rotation and not just in the second half of the season. If you're in a weekly head-to-head league, this means the chances of finding a two-start SP are becoming increasingly rare.

Is this concern enough to alter your strategy on draft day? In most cases, no. There are, as always, exceptions to the rule and words of caution to be heeded here.

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Don't Start What You Can't Finish?

Protecting young arms is not a new concept, but more than ever we are seeing all starters' innings condensed. Last year, 15 pitchers tossed 200 or more innings, with a total of 56 seeing enough action to qualify for the ERA title. In 2016, it was 15 and 71. Just two years ago, there were 27 starters over 200 IP, while 77 pitchers qualified.  As the decade began in 2010, a whopping 45 pitchers were over 200 innings and 91 listed as qualifiers. The era of the workhorse starter has been coming to a close and it's unlikely to rebound unless MLB suddenly decides to move to a dead-ball era by removing cork from the ball altogether and replacing it with cotton. Not gonna happen.

The complete game is practically a dead art form. Only twice since the year 2000 has a pitcher reached double-digits in the category (CC Sabathia in 2008 and James Shields in 2011). No pitcher has more than six CG over the past six seasons. Even the potential for a no-hitter is a non-consideration these days, especially if you're wearing Dodger Blue.

Ross Stripling was pulled from a potentially historic outing when he was in the midst of a no-no in his MLB debut against the Giants in 2016. Why? He reached the magic 100-pitch threshold. Last year, Rich Hill was pulled in the eighth inning of a perfect game. Hill's DL stints are lengthier than his stat sheet, so it's no surprise that he would be treated with kid gloves; god forbid another blister should form just before the playoff stretch. The Marlins are just as guilty, believe it or not, with Dan Straily, Adam Conley and Wei-Yin Chen victimized by overprotective manager (and former Dodger) Don Mattingly. Add Sean Manaea and Trevor Bauer to the list too.

The average fantasy manager would coolly reply, "So what?" Complete games are rarely used in roto leagues and are such an insignificant advantage in points leagues these days because they are so uncommon. The issue isn't completing games, however, it's about how far some starters are allowed to go and the concern over losing starts throughout the season.

If you're in a league that rewards points per innings pitched, you already understand the importance of a pitcher simply staying on the mound. Even in 5x5 leagues, let's look at how this is tied to value. Here are the top 10 leaders in innings pitched for 2017:

With the exception of innings-eater Rick Porcello and the unlucky Jeff Samardzija (3.60 xFIP and league-best 1.4 BB/9), these are mostly the top fantasy pitchers of last season. You could argue there's a spurious correlation, since these pitchers were left on the mound longer because of their effectiveness. It goes both ways, however, as you need to show up in order to be productive. I made this same argument in stating why I don't have Clayton Kershaw as a first-round value in mixed leagues any more. Injuries, whether they're predictable or not, are part of the game and account to a player's worth. The idea of extending the traditional pitching rotation is meant to keep each man fresh and avoid wear and tear. This is good for the team, good for the player, good for efficiency. It's not so good for a fantasy team's bottom line, unfortunately.

A team that possesses several arms worthy of fantasy consideration is at the forefront of this movement. If you plan on investing an early-round pick on Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom, or perhaps want to take a flier on Matt Harvey or Steven Matz, be wary. The Mets have been back-and-forth on using a six-man rotation for the past couple of years. It's understandable, as they have struggled to keep their prized arms healthy for an extended period of time. Former manager Terry Collins chalked it up to efficiency when discussing this last June. "So far, when we've brought them back after four days, certainly on regular rest, it hasn't been quite as good, so that's why we're considering going to a six-man," Collins said.

But, that comment was made in reference to the second half of last season and Collins in no longer in charge. With new skipper Mickey Callaway in town, does that mean the Mets will stick with a traditional rotation in 2018? Not so fast.

“We may go to a six-man rotation at some point to give guys a break when we can,” Callaway said. “I pitched over in Asia, and when you start pitching every sixth day, it is a hundred times easier. It really is. I think we have enough depth to make those adjustments."

Here's the final kicker: "For any team to expect to use five starters a whole season is silly."

One team almost certain to limit its starters' innings is the Los Angeles Angels. Their projected rotation members have checkered injury pasts, to say the least. Garrett Richards has pitched just 12 games over the last two season combined after suffering a UCL tear in 2016 and a biceps injury in 2017. Andrew Heaney is coming off Tommy John surgery and has made only six starts over the last two seasons. Nick Tropeano had claimed a rotation spot in 2016 and was effective until the UCL bug bit him too. Finally, prized free agent Shohei Ohtani will be used as a DH when he isn't on the mound, so another day between starts keeps his bat active. All these players present risk to begin with, but when you consider they are very unlikely to reach 150 innings even if everything breaks right for them health-wise, it renders them nearly undraftable in mixed leagues.

As for Hamels, the Rangers don't seem to have enough depth to pull off the six-man rotation right now, unless dinosaur Bartolo Colon and freak Tim Lincecum have amazing resurgences and are forced to start. If they are out of contention mid-season, it could give them a chance to try out some young arms down the stretch without risk of overworking anybody.

 

Conclusion

The effectiveness of the six-man rotation is still up for debate. Eno Sarris advocated for this movement in Major League Baseball back in 2014 by using the Japanese professional league as a reference point. Teams in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) commonly use a six-man rotation and incidents of Tommy John surgery are far less common.

Rob Arthur of the FiveThirtyEight found,

"there is a strong link between rest and injury rates. Looking at starts on three days of rest, 1.7 percent of pitchers suffered a reported injury within the next two weeks.5 At four days of rest, the typical amount in the modern age, that number drops precipitously to 1.0 percent. (Maybe that helps explain why the five-man rotation came to be.) Then the injury risk falls even further: at five days of rest — which would be standard for a six-man rotation — just 0.8 percent of pitchers are injured in the next 14 days, for a 20 percent decrease compared with four days of rest. That is a potentially meaningful drop in injury."

This kind of research cannot be ignored, as teams have too much invested in young starters who represent the future of their franchise. It makes sense, then, that a young pitcher like Ohtani who has not yet thrown over 160 innings in a season should be used far less frequently than our concept of the traditional MLB starter. His projected effectiveness still makes him a fantasy asset, but not to the extent of a top-20 SP. Unless you're in a dynasty league or playing some sort of progressive format that counts hitting stats for pitchers, don't reach for Ohtani within the first 10 rounds.

The bottom line is that dependable aces are becoming more valuable each passing season in the fantasy baseball world. Pitchers who can reasonably be expected to reach the 200-inning plateau and keep their ratios low, such as Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber, are roto-league gold. This is already being reflected in current NFBC ADP values, where 10 SP are being selected in the top 40 overall, compared to four years ago when only six SP were drafted in that range. If you  want to secure a top-line starter, you need to do so very early on. Toward the middle and later rounds, make sure to account for adequate depth in your rotation - MLB teams are already doing just that.

 

More 2018 MLB Draft Strategy




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