The Rockies’ desperate gambit

No one can say for certain who originated the popular aphorism, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” although it goes back at least to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, referring to people who were desperately ill.

Yup, the same dude who wrote the Hippocratic Oath, the one promising to do no harm, which is perhaps an oath baseball managers should also take, not that they can help themselves.

The Hippocratic Oath, by the way, was sworn to Apollo, Greek god of the sun. Just saying.

Perhaps the most succinct form of the sentiment comes from the Latin: “extremis malis extrema remedia.” Google Translate turns this into “the evils of the remedies,” which brings us to the Rockies.

I probably don’t need to explain why these are desperate times for the Rocks. Their starting pitching is as bad as it has ever been, going all the way back to the pre-humidor days when baseball games in the thin air a mile above sea level produced football scores and Rockies fans prayed for late field goals when Dante Bichette or Vinny Castilla came to bat with a couple of men on base.

This season’s early injury to Jhoulys Chacin, last year’s winningest starter, certainly didn’t help. Neither did the unexplained regression of rookie Drew Pomeranz, prize of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. Nor the continued setbacks during rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery of Jorge De La Rosa, who has yet to pitch an inning of big-league ball this season after blowing out his elbow a year ago. That’s three starters the Rocks hoped to have in their rotation by now, and none of them is.

But by far the biggest disappointment has been Jeremy Guthrie, acquired over the winter in what right now looks like one of the worst trades in club history. The Rocks exchanged inconsistent starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom for Guthrie. In Hammel’s most recent outing for Baltimore, he threw a one-hit, complete-game shutout over the Braves to improve his record to 7-2 and his earned-run average to 2.87.

Frankly, no screams of anguish filled my inbox when general manager Dan O’Dowd traded him following a 7-13, 4.76 campaign for the Rocks last season, but in retrospect he has become Rockies fans’ all-time favorite pitcher. This is mostly because of Guthrie, who has been, in a word, horrendous.

Following his latest horror show — according to one Twitter wag, it is now the Rockies Horror Pitching Show, derived from the old camp classic, the Rocky Horror Picture Show — Guthrie was summoned to manager Jim Tracy’s office on Tuesday in Philadelphia and informed he was being dropped from the starting rotation. A record of 3-6 and an ERA of 7.02 will often have that effect.

Rather than replace Guthrie with the next in line of the usual suspects, Tracy made a startling announcement. For the time being, the Rocks will operate with a rotation of four starters, not five, and each will be limited to about 75 pitches per start, owing to the fact that each will be pitching next on three days of rest rather than four.

This, then, is the Rockies’ desperate measure.

I texted Tracy in Philly this morning to see if he’d like to talk about it and he replied with a friendly personal note that also included this:

“Not much to say about it. As you and I have discussed in the past, we play in a very unique place and we’re just trying something different and we’ll see where it goes.”

Let me say at the outset that in the abstract, I am almost always in favor of trying something different. Baseball in particular has a tendency toward Orwell’s groupthink that I find maddening. A pitcher throws an eight-inning shutout, completely dominant, and the manager pulls him in favor of his “closer” in the ninth, who promptly blows it. I mention this only because the Cubs do it about once a week, or nearly every time Ryan Dempster pitches. But I digress.

So, in the abstract, I love the idea the Rocks are doing something that makes baseball fans everywhere scratch their heads. I mean, seriously, why not? What, exactly, do they have to lose? They already have the worst pitching in the game.

Unfortunately, decisions in baseball, like decisions in pretty much every other sphere of human activity, are not made in the abstract. They are made in the particular, the practical, the concrete, not to bring up the playing surface of the Phillies stadium that preceded the current one.

So let’s examine the particulars of the Rockies’ new plan. It has two basic elements. One is the four-man rotation, as opposed to the conventional five. The other is the 75-pitch limit, as opposed to the conventional (and mostly unspoken) 100-125, depending on the pitcher and circumstances. (The Mets’ Johan Santana was permitted to throw 134 against the Cardinals on June 1, mostly because he was throwing a no-hitter, but he had to convince his manager to let him finish.)

Baseball’s transition from the four-man to the five-man starting rotation is, frankly, a bit mysterious. It happened during my lifetime. In a remarkably short space of time, every team followed, like a troop of Pavlovian dogs.

I recall as if it were yesterday the 1971 Orioles staff. Mike Cuellar started 38 games that year. Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson started 37 apiece. Dave McNally started but 30, owing, if I recall, to an injury of some kind. They comprised the last big-league pitching staff with four 20-game winners (McNally won 21).

Cuellar finished 21 of his 38 starts. Palmer was right behind him with 20 complete games. Dobson had 18; McNally, 11. Dave Leonhard, a reliever who got six spot starts, finished one of those.

The major-league leader in starts that year was the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich, with 45. Forty years later, 2011’s leaders, eight of them, started 34 games apiece.

What happened? Have pitchers grown more feeble? While football, basketball and hockey players grow ever bigger, stronger and more athletic, are baseball players shrinking into fragile flowers? Has evolution mistaken them for ballet dancers?

Or is it just that they make way more money today and the people who run ballclubs and pay the large guaranteed salaries are scared to death of destroying their massive investments through overuse?

That’s a column for another day. Suffice it to say for now that ample historical evidence demonstrates a four-man rotation is not beyond the physical capability of the human species. If one team out of thirty wants to give it a try, I say, more power to it.

(Unfortunately, the Rockies are probably the one team out of thirty for which this experiment is least advisable, owing to the additional stress on the arm of trying to make pitches break and move with less air resistance a mile above sea level, a phenomenon to which any number of hurlers has testified over the club’s twenty-year history. Again, a subject for another day.)

It is the second element of the Rocks’ desperate measure that throws me off the track into the tumbleweeds. The central problem posed by the club’s sorry starting pitching this season has been the burden on the bullpen, which already leads the National League in innings pitched.

Ineffective starters have had to come out of games early, leaving too much of the game to be pitched by relievers, which wears them out and leaves them less effective when the Rocks are actually ahead late in a game, as rare as that is these days. Rather than solve that problem, the new strategy gilds it into club policy.

If a starter must come out after 75 pitches no matter what, even when the Rocks get that rarest of all silver moonbeams, an effective start, that rare masterpiece will have to end prematurely and the bullpen will have to be called upon, even if, for a change, it isn’t really needed.

The problem here is one of simple arithmetic. When Tracy moved Guthrie to the bullpen, he designated him one of two “long” relievers — the sort that comes into a game early when the starter comes out early. The other long man in the Rocks’ bullpen is Guillermo Moscoso.

So, when Tracy pulled starter Josh Outman on Day 1 of the experiment at 72 pitches with one out in the fifth inning, he called on Moscoso, who came on to finish the fifth and pitch the sixth, acting as a bridge to the (these days) normal bullpen innings — the seventh, eighth and (if necessary) ninth. This evening, one assumes, when Tracy pulls Alex White after 75 pitches, it will be Guthrie who serves as the bridge.

And what about tomorrow? Moscoso again? Are the two long men now sentenced to pitch multiple innings every other day? Does that sound like a good idea?

Maybe the Rocks are counting on occasionally getting a really efficient start in which 75 pitches get them into the sixth and no long man is required. But in the case of such a start, why the heck would you want to remove a guy pitching so efficiently? To follow some pre-ordained plan that makes no allowance for the common-sense notion that, Hey, this dude is pitching really well! Leave him alone!

The more pitchers you use in a game, the more likely you are to use one who is ineffective that particular day. If you have a system that guarantees you’re going to use four or five every single day, the chances at least one will blow up are pretty good.

Take Tuesday, Day 1 of the experiment. Adam Ottavino has been one of the Rockies’ best relievers this season. But he happened not to have it Tuesday. The third pitcher in, he gave up three runs in one inning of work. A 4-2 deficit became a 7-2 deficit. Game over.

The last time a baseball club decided the solution to its problems lay in a committee, it was the Cubs and their college of coaches in 1961 and ’62. The manager’s job rotated among seven coaches, every one of whom had a losing record. That will be the column’s final Cubs reference. Promise.

Common sense in baseball has always suggested this: When a pitcher is going well, leave him in there. When a pitcher is going badly, take him out. All sorts of “innovations” have worked against this simple principle. Managers routinely remove pitchers now simply because they throw with the wrong arm. A left-handed batter is coming up, therefore the right-handed reliever throwing well must come out and a left-handed reliever must come on. A pitcher throwing well must come out because his turn in the lineup is coming up (National League). And so on.

In short, the fewer arbitrary rules a team has, the more likely it is to follow common sense and allow effective pitchers to keep pitching. This should be the goal.

So, what’s the alternative for the Rocks, a team in admittedly dire straits? Well, I’m sorry to say, it’s not experimental and it’s not innovative. Sometimes the simplest solution is also the right one.

Moscoso, a 28-year-old right hander from Venezuela, started 21 games for Oakland last season, finishing with a record of 8-10 and an ERA of 3.38. When the Rocks obtained him and Outman from the A’s in exchange for Seth Smith last winter, they envisioned him as a candidate for the starting rotation. Unfortunately, Moscoso was terrible in spring training and about as bad during a brief (two starts) major-league audition. A demotion back to the minor leagues followed.

Since his return in early June, he’s been getting progressively better. Including his stint in relief of Outman on Tuesday, he has now pitched 6 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in three relief appearances. He has earned another chance to start.

With youngsters Pomeranz and Tyler Chatwood trying to get their acts together in the minor leagues and Chacin, De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio working their way back from injuries, this need not be a permanent solution. But for now, it is the obvious one: Add Moscoso to the rotation as the fifth starter, replacing Guthrie. Trade Guthrie, a mental casualty of Coors Field, as soon as possible.

That leaves a starting rotation of White, Moscoso, Outman, Jeff Francis and Christian Friedrich. If, by some miracle, one of them pitches a really good game, Tracy can leave him in there to pitch as far as he can rather than remove him for no good reason because he’s hit an arbitrary pitch limit.

And if none of them ever does, well, the Rocks are right back to where they are now, ringing that bullpen phone too early.

I empathize with Tracy’s plight. And I admire his willingness to try something different in a league where groupthink often appears to be the only thinking going on. But sometimes, when you wrestle with a problem too long, you can just out-think yourself.

At times like those, it’s sometimes a good idea to take a break and pop in a DVD of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

“You just keep thinking, Butch,” says Sundance. “That’s what you’re good at.”

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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