Monty and Yu

The Cubs have another possibility that cuts against the grain of baseball thinking today. The Cubs could employ a six man rotation, and it is clear that this isn’t an entirely hypothetical proposition. The Cubs personnel lends itself to considering this approach. The Cubs have used six man rotations in the past, and it could maximize the potential of the 2018 Cubs. Mike Montgomery has been clear about his desire to be a starting pitcher, and it is certainly a role that the front office thought about when they acquired him in 2016. Now Montgomery has said all the right things about being willing to do what is best for the team, and it is clear that he is the sixth best starter in the organization. Now Montgomery’s happiness isn’t the reason to make a drastic change, but perhaps the Cubs newest pitcher is.

Yu Darvish has pitched in the big leagues for six years. He has been used as a traditional MLB starter during that time frame, but he also has spoken in the past about how starters in Japan are traditionally used as being better suited for health. Darvish specifically mentioned it during the All-Star break the year before he went down with Tommy John surgery. Darvish started fewer than 30 games every year in NPB but went over 200 innings four times in his early 20s. Japanese starters on the whole have had far fewer Tommy John surgeries despite usage patterns like that. In NPB, starters typically receive five or six days of rest between starts. The health benefits could be huge for a team with Darvish and Tyler Chatwood’s injury history not to mention an aging Jon Lester. And the Cubs have already addressed the biggest problem with moving to a six man rotation in having six capable starters.

Now this plan is certainly cutting across the grain of current baseball thinking. The en vogue thinking is to limit the amount of pitches thrown by pitchers in every start. The initial reason is the health argument, but there is at least some anecdotal evidence from Japan that more rest in between starts might be a larger factor in health. The strategic reason for limiting pitches is harder to counter. The third time through the order penalty has been one of the arguments for shorter outings from starters, and bullpening has been successful in short bursts. The problem with this approach is that it burns out your bullpen quickly. The Cubs saw this in 2017 with an effective bullpen becoming almost wholly ineffective in October after a heavy workload in the first half of the season.

Another problem with a six man rotation is the fact that not all six starters are of the same quality. The top four starters are three former All Stars and an NL ERA champion. Tyler Chatwood is an intriguing upside play and has had some success as a big league starter. Mike Montgomery is completely unproven as a full time starter. So instead of a traditional rotation, the Cubs should consider a modified rotation. The Cubs should make sure that a starter never has to start on four days rest, but they should pitch their top five starters as frequently as possible within that constraint. How this would work would be that Mike Montgomery would get his first start April 3, but with off days he wouldn’t be needed again until April 16. Montgomery could pitch out of the bullpen some in between these extended breaks, but if things work out exactly as needed Montgomery would get 18 starts. Unfortunately things are unlikely to work out exactly as planned, but having a stretched out Montgomery to handle these situations isn’t a downside.

Mike Montgomery could be given a chance to earn a spot through this unique approach. This might help him as he struggled to adjust to the random usage. He was quoted as saying in a very interesting piece from Patrick Mooney:

“From a physical standpoint, it is hard. It took a toll on my body, my arm. Making starts and coming out of the bullpen three days later – and pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen – I don’t think it’s something that I want to do long-term.”

Going through the game logs and it isn’t hard to see what he is talking about. He threw more than 50 pitches on just 2 days rest 4 times. He threw over 40 pitches on just 1 days rest twice. From May 1 to May 7, he pitched in 3 games throwing a combined 133 pitches. The postseason woes suddenly make a lot more sense. Montgomery being given a regular role might allow for him to throw more innings and still be effective come October.

Getting buy in from the established starters may be tough. Jon Lester is used to working a certain way, and has always taken pride in reaching 200 innings. Last year marked the first time in five years that he didn’t reach that mark. You know that he has a strong desire to hit that mark again. It isn’t just a matter of pride though given that his vesting option on the seventh year is tied to innings pitched (400 in 2019-2020 or 200 in 2020). Kyle Hendricks also has a financial incentive to pitch as many innings as he can as he moves through arbitration.

Another issue with this plan is the strain that it would put on the bullpen. Mike Montgomery’s ability to soak up multiple innings was a major safety valve for Joe Maddon the past year and half. It would mean carrying 13 pitchers but only 7 relievers. The limits of the 25 man roster are fixed. However, the Cubs could make that play larger if they were willing to part with Justin Grimm. This isn’t something to be considered lightly given that we have seen just how good he can be. However, if inconsistent Grimm appears early on then the Cubs could rotate various relievers in that final spot like Dillon Maples, Rob Zastryzny, Dario Alvarez, Luke Farrell, and Cory Mazzoni who all have options this year. That can make that 7 men pen play a lot bigger and avoid some of the problems caused by that 25 man limit.

The Cubs are unlikely to try my plan from the start of the season. If I had to wager I think you will see that used during that the incredibly demanding stretch from late May to early July. It will probably be used late in the year if the Cubs have a comfortable lead. A more preemptive approach has the advantages that are laid out above. 2018 is an important year. The Cubs are playing with house money in the sense that they have a title in the bank, but it is going to be hard to not feel like a slight disappointment if that is the only title earned after this window fully closes.


Leave a comment
  • Very provocative piece Mike. I like the premise of a flexible 6 man rotation with Mike Montgomery getting 12-22 starts over the season depending on injuries to the fab five. In the real world it may be difficult to get all the starters to buy in because of inning incentive clauses in their contracts, but the theory makes sense and other than Jose Quintana and Montgomery all of the starters have had major arm issues. The Japan experience may point in that direction, particularly the arm woes that Japanese stars have had after arriving in the United States.

    I also wonder if Joe Madden is wedded to the 9th inning closer specialist with Cubs current collection of relievers. Brandon Morrow is relatively untested as a pure 9th inning guy. With Carl Edwards, Justin Wilson, Steve Cishek and possibly Montgomery the Cubs have multiple closer options. Dillon Maples also could be the sleeper closer of 2018.

    And is Giminez, Caratini or Schwarber the backup or backup,backup catcher?

  • In reply to Swarf:

    Has Lester ever had a major arm issue? I don't believe so.

  • In reply to Swarf:

    Theo said they have had conversations with Joe & the plan is to have Morrow be in the traditional closer role. Jed said essentially the same thing. That doesn’t mean things couldn’t change... They do seem to have a pretty decent pen this year w/basically just 1 opening for the last spot barring injury.

  • In 2017, pitchers who started 28-34 games:
    Averaged 5.84 innings/game with a 4.12 ERA

    In 2017, pitchers who started 22-27 games:
    Averaged 5.76 innings/game with a 4.22 ERA

    The recent traditionalists don't want to rock the 5-man rotation. It may be time to see if a 6-man rotation may work.

    In 2017, the pitchers who started 27 games their average innings per game (5.97) and ERA (3.66) was close to those who started 31 games who had average innings per game (5.98) and ERA (3.89). Those who started 32 or more games pitched fewer innings per game and had a higher ERA than these 2 groups.

    27 starts X 6 pitchers = 162 games if everyone stays healthy (and effective).

  • I have two worries about a 6 man rotation. 1st when the playoff come around will the pitchers be able to readjust to pitching on less rest when the team shortens the playoff rotation. 2nd a lot of pitchers are used to a routine and I worry about what will happen if that routine is massed with.

    But I did have an idea on how to get around both of these problems. What if instead of doing a standard rotation of 1 2 3 4 5 6 what if the did something like this:
    first time through 1 2 3 4 5 skipping number 6
    second time through 1 2 3 4 6 skipping number five
    third time through 1 2 3 5 6 skipping number four
    and so on until the sixth time through it is 2 3 4 5 6 then we start over.
    This will allow the pitchers to remain on a start every fifth day but still give everyone extra time off. And with the 10 day disable list it may be possible to put a pitcher on it when we skip a turn. Though this may be a little shady.
    Wondering what anyone thinks of this idea.

  • In reply to Wmp1990:

    Interesting idea. That is one of the biggest issues of the whole concept: getting everyone to buy in. Darvish seems totally aboard, older-school guys like Lester who is used to a routine and cherish milestones like the 200 IP marker may not be.

    I have read all of Montgomery's statements. Some may call it whining, but the points, both personally and collectively, seem valid to me. He has his pride and confidence, for sure, but also doesn't want to break himself. I can respect that. I'm sure management does as well.

    Based on the initial comments that we've heard, the plan for Montgomery is much as it has been, with a touch of physical moderation. No plans of a full-blown 6-man rotation. But keep in mind, Maddon is our skipper. Our FO just put forth a Herculean effort in manpower and brainpower to entice Otani, and a major portion of that sales pitch was how to incorporate him into a rotation with flexible terms. Whether the staff needs or wants it, or whether the number-crunching bears it out, have no doubt: a plan already exists to make it work, in as many variations as can possibly exist, because of the Otani pursuit.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I just wanted to add a couple notes to that comment...

    I realized I spelled his name "Otani". I think that is some sort of subconscious denial. I always spelled it Otani, until the negotiations got serious with us as finalists, and I succumbed to the mainstream "Ohtani". Since we lost out, I guess it's back to Otani for the bum. :)

    As a lyrical ode to Montgomery and the very real struggles his is dealing with, physically and professionally:

    "You think you're so clever,
    But now you must sever.
    You're breaking the girl."

  • In reply to Wmp1990:

    While I agree w/your 2nd point, I disagree w/your 1st point. Post season is all hands on deck. It’s a team game & everyone has to do what it takes to win. Now I don’t like bringing a normal starter into the game in the middle of an inning. But they should be able to start an inning or 2 whether it’s 4th, 5th or 6th inning or close the game if the traditional closer had to come in earlier than expected in tough situation. Playoffs are win or go home.

  • Wmp, that is creative and probably brilliant. Will pitchers and their agents buy in?

  • I have a pair of tickets for spring training games for sale Twelve rows behind the Cubs dugout in the shade. Tickets include parking and are available for the following games: 2/24 Texas, 2/26, Seattle, 2/27, White Sox, 2/28, A's. 3/1, Rockies.

  • Interesting, but I don't know if I'm sold - yet. If there's a payoff in terms of higher velocity or fewer health issues, it would be weighed against 5 fewer starts for each of your best pitchers. I definitely understand Montgomery's concerns. I'd rather see him used as a long reliever and bring up an AAA pitcher for the occasional spot start. Monty can go to the rotation if someone goes down for 3-4 starts or more.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Cliff1969:

    This is how I feel. I don't think they should be yo-yoing him back n forth unless there is no other choice, because now its public knowledge how he feels about it.

    This team is so deep, there is no need unless like you said a big injury comes.

  • I think Monty will be traded by the end of Spring Training if the five starters ahead of him are healthy.

  • fb_avatar

    Nice article, Mike. To your credit you did a good job of spelling out the advantages and disadvantages of a 6-man rotation.

    I am not outright opposed to the idea, but I am hesitant to buy-in to it. I like having the option of a 6-man rotation for a stretch of the season giving everyone a little more time off. Usually Joe seems to like to do this in July and August when not only are there few days off but "make-up games" from ones postponed earlier in the year start taking place. But simply trotting out there 1x/week is the opposite of what I want. I want a larger bullpen (which are usually cheaper than a starter) and take advantage of the flexibility of the team as far as RH and LH bats and defense to allow us to carry more specialists (TLS, an additional LIR guy in the 'pen that roster size wouldn't normally permit) rather than simply carrying a guy who would prevent Hendricks, Lester, Darvish and Quintana from pitching.

    I have toyed with the idea of going with what I call a 4 + 1 rotation similar to what you describe and using that 5th guy to permit a 4-day rest but if there are days off pitchers wouldn't have a 5 day rest.

    But if anyone could make a 6-man rotation work for a full season it would be Joe Maddon.

  • Not dismissing 6 man out of hand but I don’t like it as much as I like having the swing man option for matchups or pushing a pitcher or 2 back a game here or there. Cliff brought up good points about the best pitchers pitching less games. In the Cubs case times that by 4 i.e; Hendricks, Darvish, Lester & Quintana.

    It’s not like the 5th & 6th starters are Arrieta & Cobb. If it were, I’d be on board.

  • You have to look at the schedule to address the options. Barring rescheduling, the Cubs do not play more than ten straight days until a June 15-July 1 stretch. There is one other 11 game stretch the entire season before rosters expand in September. So it is rare that anyone is going to go three consecutive outings on traditional four day rest. Also need to look at match-ups to decide whether to keep normal order or skip someone on their scheduled day, especially if they threw 120 pitches the preceding outing. Too many factors. I'd be surprised if anyone gets a full 32-33 starts.

  • Off Topic What thoughts do you guys have on the catching batteries this year? Does Darvish get the Lester/Ross personal catcher treatment with Gimenez?

  • Saw Darvish (#11) in a Cub uni for the first time at this morning's Mesa workout. He was throwing mostly soft-toss, with a few harder throws from the stretch. His form looked good, but he was surprisingly smaller than he looks on TV. I know that published stats often inflate, but I would judge him to be about 3 ft. tall and approx. 30-40#. And for some reason he brought his mother along....

  • This is a macro view of the potential 6-man rotation.

    In 2017 the Cubs played 1447.1 regular season innings. For the last 5 post-seasons, the WS champion has had an average record of 11.1W / 5.6L over 153 innings. So in toto, the WS champ, in round numbers, is going to play 1600 innings over 7 months, or about 220 days.

    The Cubs have typically used a staff of 12 pitchers, 5 starters (2017 seasonal total of 9) and 7 relievers (2017 seasonal total of 23). In regular season 2017, the “5” starters (+4 of lesser quality) pitched 888.1 innings, or 5.48 innings/game and averaging 177.2 innings/starter. The “7” relievers pitched 559 innings, or 3.45 innings/game.

    If a 6 man staff (arguably each better than the “lesser 4” above) would average 5.48 innings/game, they would cover the same 888.1 innings as above. However, if by eliminating the “lesser 4” starters above and remaining healthier, they could raise their innings per game to 6.00, they would cover 972 innings, leaving 84 less innings for the relief corps. Again in 2017, CE,Jr pitched the most relief innings at 66.1, only “7” typical relievers would average 79.9 (although in reality the innings were spread across 23 different relievers). The point is that having a 6th starter would allow the team to carry only 6 relievers at a time, rather than 7.

    How realistic is 6.00 inn/start? Again, in 2017, Cub starters averaged 5.48 inn/start. Considering 2017, Lester(age 34), Hendricks(28), Q(29), Monty(28), Yu(31) & Chatwood (28) (road only) made 128 starts for a total of 738 innings, or 5.76 inn/start. Given their ages and likely improve/decline, I would expect some overall group improvement due to age. With greater health from a 6-man staff, I would also expect improvement. Enough to reach 6.00—I don’t know.

    But even more important, I would expect a much more rested pitching staff for the 150+ high leverage postseason innings.

    As they say, it's an empirical question.

Leave a comment