CD's Connect.The.Dots: Four Aces Beat A Full House

The news out of Toronto lately has been somewhat distressing and very unfortunate for a wonderful Canadian city. However, some recent baseball news that filtered out may cause all baseball fans, who yearn for the days of the complete game, to watch closely the grand experiment that is about to take place with the Blue Jays in June.

It never made any headlines, a few reporters have changed their cover stories to talk about it, and it could still change at the last minute. But General Manager J.P. Ricciardi, one of the most innovative and well respected GM's in baseball, announced that for the month of June the Blue Jays would employ a four man rotation of starting pitchers, in effect doing away with the fifth starter. This means aces Roy Halladay and Cory Lidle would be out on the mound every fifth day. For baseball purists like myself, who remember the days when staff aces Jim Bunning would hook up in an 11 inning 1-0 duel with Juan Marichal, this is astounding news and has major ramifications for our Phillies if it is successful.

Gone will be the days of the frustrating 5th starter, who is closer to a Triple A pitcher than an ace. Gone forever will be the need for a Full House of 12 pitchers - where when you enter a clubhouse - nearly 1/2 of the players you see are pitchers, almost literally a Full House. Possibly back to stay is a staff once again led by pitchers who will start between 36-40 games and regularly pitch over 240 innings? Possibly back to stay is the rotation of four aces, pitchers who will take the mound on a regular basis and give your team a reasonable chance of not only winning, but of not burning out the bullpen. Think it's impossible? Not a chance of being successful? Not if people like Ricciardi and Oakland GM Billy Beane have their way.

One of my baseball mantras is that you often have to look back to be able to look forward. The look back on pitchers of the past was a remarkable one, given today's statistics. Pitchers like Bunning, Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Chris Short were not only congratulated when they went nine innings, but were expected to. They were all a part of a four-man rotation of Aces, or at least very talented hurlers. They started a game, rested for a day, threw batting practice and on the sidelines the following two days, then started again. This was routine behavior for them and teams would easily get by with a ten man staff. The staff consisted of four starters, one or two swingmen for double-headers or if a starter was injured, and four relievers, generally, two right-handed and two left-handed. This worked for years. In fact, the 1977 Phillies, still considered by some fans the best team the Phillies ever had, went most of the year, and into the playoffs with a remarkable nine man staff!

Ricciardi is of the notion that it is pitch counts, not days between starts that matters, and will carefully monitor the pitch counts, probably with 100 or so being the limit. Most physicians believe that wear and tear on the arm develops when the arm becomes fatigued, as when the pitch count rises above 120 pitches, and that no special wear and tear on the arm will take place by starting every fifth day. Ricciardi will begin revamping his entire minor league organizational pitchers routine so that the four-man rotation will eventually be the norm in the organization, thereby insuring that when a pitcher gets to the big leagues, he is properly prepared for this routine.

Let us hope that this experiment is successful because there are few things in baseball more mysterious than the disappearance of the four-man rotation, and by correlation, the complete game. How this occurred is subject to conjecture and theory.....let me add mine.

It is my strongly held belief that there is almost nothing more absurd in baseball than the suddenly common term called the "quality start". It says that a pitcher will be deemed as having thrown a quality start if he pitches six innings and allows no more than three earned runs. This is not only absurd but also a patent lie. What team would want to trot out on a daily basis a starting staff of pitchers with ERAs of 4.50, which is precisely what three earned runs in six innings constitutes. However, pitchers have willingly bought into this notion and have even used this in bargaining negotiations. But I believe there is more to it than meets the eye.

Any follower of my column knows that I place a large premium to the mental aspect of the game. I believe that if the talent is similar, it is the player with the stronger mental makeup that will be more successful. Baseball is so much a physical game, but mental toughness is often under valued. It's that mental toughness that allows you to play well long after the body is tired, or the flesh is weak. And herein lies the problem with today's pitchers. Somewhere in the not so distant past, pitchers began to believe that if they went six innings they were doing their job well. This has become the norm, and they even freely speak about it.

Need further proof? Pick up your local sports page on any given day when almost all the teams are playing and see how many pitchers get to the sixth and suddenly lose it, or are simply replaced after six innings. It is astounding. Here is where I believe the mind has taken over the pitcher's body. The mind has convinced itself that the body will tire after six innings and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy - any long distance runner will concur.

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay, left, and pitching coach Gil Patterson, center, yell at Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa, (10) and infielder Dave Hollins, right, as Bowa goes after Toronto Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca,(not shown) Wednesday, March 26, during their game at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium in Clearwater, Fla. The argument started in the third inning when Phillies batter Jim Thome was struck by a pitch thrown by pitcher Roy Halladay as retribution for a pitch that hit Blue Jays Reed Johnson. Bowa was ejected in the fourth inning of the game after yelling at Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay, causing both benches to empty in a brawl. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

However, if the Four Aces return to the forefront of baseball normalcy, pitchers will have to develop a different mindset, a mindset of pitching a bit longer, a bit more often, and overcome difficulties on the mound instead of turning the ball over to the bullpen specialist at the first sign of trouble. Think of the possible positive ramifications for the Phils. A rotation of Millwood-Wolf-Padilla-Myers is a very solid rotation, indeed, and without having the need for a fifth starter every one of these pitchers would start probably five more games. Oh, the need for a Duckworth would still be there on special occasions but having a Duckworth as a swingman enhances the entire staff. This would be true for almost all teams, not just the Phillies. Baseball would be the benefactor and a return to pitchers winning twenty-plus games and pitching 240 innings could only constitute a positive for the game.

In an era when home runs are being hit with more regularity, players are in better condition, field conditions have never been better, and coaching techniques have been modernized and perfected, it is almost a baseball anomaly that pitching has fallen by the wayside. A Ricciardi should be commended for trying to look back to move forward.

Can it be done? Ah, here is the $64,000 question. It will take time to recondition pitchers minds as well as their bodies. It will take diligence to monitor pitch counts, differentiate between real arm injuries and imagined arm injuries, and understand the normal wear and tear that takes place when the arm performs such an unnatural act as tossing an object over handed, and at lightening speeds. But, if it's successful, the ramifications are wonderful.

Pitching duels will be relished and anticipated, much as Tuesday night's match up between the Phils Kevin Millwood and the Mariners Jamie Moyer. Gone will be the steady stream of failed fifth starters, who clutter up a staff and damage a bullpen. Talent, which should always be at the forefront of any professional sporting endeavor, will take center stage again instead of forced mediocrity. It's a bold experiment, and one fraught with dangers.

Halladay and Lidle are outstanding pitchers and if they are injured, Ricciardi may pay the ultimate price, with his job. But if he succeeds in this gamble, he will have been the best kind of poker player, the kind that knows that four Aces always beats a Full House.

Columnist's Note: Mail, I get mail, and it is always appreciated. If you have a comment, question or suggestion for a topic, kindly e-mail me at and I will respond!

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