The First Problem: This Was Never Paired Pitching, Part One


Let me first say that I do not intend to write an article about every single problem with the Rockies. That would be nothing short of a Herculean task in the world of writing. Here is what I mean when I say this is about the “first” problem: when you discuss the way that the Rockies unraveled this season, there is no decision that sums up the awful work by the front office more than their “experiment” with a four man rotation. It encompasses a number of problems and inconsistencies with what management has done and what they have said about it. So this is part one, of an unknown number, of my articles about this first problem. Get it? Excellent. Let’s proceed.

De La Rosa: never meant to be part of paired pitching. Image: Kelley L Cox – US PRESSWIRE

I would like to start with a quote from Greg Rubin’s paper entitled “Paired Pitching – How to Avoid an Arms Race,” which he presented at the 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Rubin writes:

“Obviously a team could not just flip a switch and all of a sudden have a Paired Pitching system implemented.”

Is that not exactly what the Rockies did? They switched from a traditional 5 man to a 4 man rotation on June 18th, or smack in the middle of their schedule. Granted, they did it on a day off. But it would have at least made sense to do it at the All Star Break, right? In that case it would have been more like moving one of those dimmer switches up slowly instead of just flipping a switch in the traditional sense. Still, Rubin’s point is that you cannot put such a huge change into place in the middle of your schedule: “A phased approach would be necessary.”

Dan O’Dowd claims that he and his colleagues thought seriously about making this change for a long time. In a Denver Post article by Patrick Saunders on September 20th, O’Dowd said the following: “It’s taken me all these years to wrap my arms around this, from an overall standpoint.” His conclusion after all those years? The thing he calls “Project 5183.” The 4 man rotation. I think he honestly thinks that what he did was a phased approach, just because he says he has wanted to do it for a long time.

Here’s the problem: if O’Dowd was, in fact, planning on implementing this strategy for a long time, then that renders any number of moves he made in the seasons leading up to 2012 illogical at best and nonsensical at worst. Start with this: how does he explain the Ubaldo Jimenez trade? Think about it: less than one season before paired pitching hit Denver, O’Dowd strong-armed the Cleveland Indians and insisted that they include their two top starting pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, in the trade. You do not trade for those kinds of prospects unless you have designs on them as future top-of-the-rotation guys. This goes double for Pomeranz, who is slated to be the next staff ace.

How on earth can he make that deal and then tell us he has been thinking about “Project 5183” for a long time? How about re-signing Jorge De La Rosa before the 2011 season? You paid him to split his job with Carlos Torres? You do not acquire, sign, and develop pitchers that you want to be staff aces and then stick them in a 4 man system. Here’s why: a true paired pitching system contains 8 average starting pitchers. Rubin proposes that you build a staff of 4 pairs of starting pitchers, 2 long relievers, and 2 closers. The cost-effectiveness of the system means you do not commit to guys who expect to pitch like an ace; you do this because you do not want to pay anybody “staff ace” money. Rubin argues that the ideal pitching staff for his system can be built for a total of $10.5 million. At two years and $21.5 million, that is roughly what De La Rosa makes a season.

Pomeranz, also never meant to be part of paired pitching. Image: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

If you are committed to paired pitching, you do not sign pitchers to big contracts and you do not invest time and energy into pitchers who you hope will be aces soon, such as Jhoulys Chacin or Drew Pomeranz. Rubin writes: “…the only pitchers to consider for the system would be young pitchers, middle relievers, and past-their-prime veterans.”

It is important to note a nuance about what he calls “young pitchers.” Rubin means young pitchers who are unproven and will take advantage of paired pitching to build a name for themselves. The team using paired pitching has no long-term interest in those hypothetical young pitchers: they simply let them walk when the time comes and find their next batch of cheap, unproven arms. Clearly the Rockies do not have intentions of doing that with their young pitchers, in whom they have invested significant resources and do have obvious long-term interests.

O’Dowd, Bill Geivett, and others insisted that the implementation of this system was part of their “long game.” It wasn’t. The disconnect between their 4 man “experiment” and what they did less than one year earlier is far too great for any fan to accept their claims at face value. And, if it is part of a long game and has its own cool nickname and everything, then why get rid of it so soon? Don’t they know that we all see the hypocrisy in saying this was a long-considered plan and then trashing it so soon? To tell us that you decided to get rid of it after “analyzing your data” is not persuasive, because that data comes from an “experiment” with a number of glaring flaws.

This is what we are talking about when we say this front office is so (bleeping) (bleeping) unaccountable. Just tell us paired pitching was a rash decision. Tell us it was a gut reaction to how bad your team looked, and that, as such, it was a mistake. Do not pretend it was part of a long game. The contradictions between what you did and what you said are easy to find and infuriating to consider.

Part two about the “first” problem is the fact that the Rockies focused their system on pitch counts. Spoiler: their decision to center the 4 man rotation around a 75 pitch count for starters was…er…misguided.