The Colorado Rockies defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks by a final score of 4-2 on July 25th. Jeff Francis pitched brilliantly in the game, stretching his 75 pitch limit (ish…he actually threw 97) into the 7th inning. Officially he pitched 6 innings, as the only batter he faced in that 7th inning (Miguel Montero) hit a solo home run. Jim Tracy then handed the ball to Adam Ottavino and the bullpen, who finished the victory.
A good win, right? Within their recently implemented paired pitching system, they made an exception and let Francis keep going. That seemed like a victory at the time, but it also represented one of the problems with the Rockies’ pitching “experiment.” Let’s return to Greg Rubin’s paper on Paired Pitching. Put simply, here is the point of the system:
“Regardless of the cause, the ability of the batter to improve against a pitcher the more he faces that pitcher in a game has been shown to exist statistically. In particular…facing a batter more than twice significantly decreases a pitcher’s ability to prevent runs. Therefore, if a team were to reduce the number of times a pitcher faces the opposing batters to less than 2.8, runs would be prevented.”
That is the primary argument for the implementation of paired pitching. You increase the efficiency of your staff by never exposing any pitcher to the opposing lineup more than twice in a single game. That is followed by payroll benefits, and then the added bonus that your pitchers throw less and stay healthier. Rubin writes:
“Saving over 25% of the pitches thrown would in theory lengthen the careers of a vast number of pitchers and reduce the incidence of throwing related injuries. This reduction would therefore reduce medical costs for the team and create an attractive selling point with which to sign pitchers.”
The Colorado Rockies’ front office clearly had those benefits in mind when they tried their rotation; this is arguably the only part of their decision that actually has any merit. Here’s the problem: they did it backwards. Look at this article that ran on MLB.com on July 30th, five days after Francis’s start against Arizona. Beat reporter Thomas Harding writes:
“In June, the Rockies hatched what O’Dowd calls the ‘paired pitching plan,’ with a rotation of four starters under a stricter pitch limit, plus three other pitchers who take turns as a “piggy-back” to the starter. The starter’s pitch limit started at 75, with the companion pitcher throwing up to 50, but there is flexibility in the starter’s allotment.”
Paired pitching makes sense if you have 8 pitchers and you use the system to maximize the efficiency of their otherwise mediocre talent. You use it to build a cheap, average pitching staff that is protected by the fact that they never see a lineup three times in a single game. Reduced pitch counts and better health are benefits, to be certain, but they are not the reason for the system.
By making health the reason for the system, therefore only having three “piggyback” pitchers, allowing flexibility, and therefore centering it around pitch counts, it was never paired pitching. What happened in the aforementioned Diamondbacks game? Francis pitched against the lineup a third time. Even in a successful outing, Miguel Montero showed the Rockies what was wrong with their plan by mashing a home run when he got a third crack at Francis.
A true paired pitching program would have to be rigid and strictly enforced. Even if it took a pitcher 55 pitches to spin through the lineup twice and complete 4 innings, he still would have to come out in favor of the pitcher paired with him. As Rubin writes and even the Rockies were aware, that strict a system is not possible in an era with inflated player contracts (and very public negotiations).
The Rockies are correct that they need to find a creative way to keep their pitchers healthy. Paired pitching, or their failed attempt at a version of it, was never the answer. Can’t they just skip starts throughout the course of the season to increase their chances of keeping guys healthy? Take advantage of days off? Slight tweaks should be enough in this regard.
The Rockies are also correct that they need to find a way to pitch better at home. They are incorrect that the answer lies in “innovation” or “experiments.” It lies in getting better talent on the mound. That puts pressure on this set of young pitchers to develop and grow into big league pitchers sooner rather than later.
Unfortunately the Rockies’ theory that they needed innovation, which resulted in a few months of something that was never paired pitching, might have set those young pitchers back in their development.