Will Sox Feel The Joy Of A Six-Man Rotation?

With Curt Schilling diving into free agency for the first time ever, the general consensus is that the Red Sox will fill out their 2008 rotation by either re-signing him or picking up their perpetual option on Schilling's fellow 40-something Tim Wakefield—but not both. (FREE PREVIEW OF PREMIUM CONTENT!)

But given the increased fragility of starting pitchers, why does it have to be an either/or proposition? Why can't the Sox re-sign both players—or let Schilling walk and sign a free agent—and enter next season with a six-man rotation?

The six-man rotation is a taboo topic for traditionalists who pine for the days of the four-man rotation and are disgusted with a game in which teams are content to get six innings out of a starter.

But let's face it: The game is headed towards the six-man rotation. And the Sox aren't going to arrive in Ft. Myers with just five major league-ready starters anyway. If Schilling departs for greener pastures, it makes sense to buy some insurance by signing a free agent—injury risks such as Matt Clement, Kerry Wood, Jason Jennings, Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf are the best of a meager lot—to an incentive-laden deal that rewards him for making more than 15 starts.

Why not slot that pitcher right into the rotation? Why shouldn't the Sox front office—which prides itself on remaining ahead of the curve—beat its rivals to the punch?

Only one pitcher—the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis—made 35 starts in 2007, the first time in a non-strike season that multiple pitchers did not make at least 35 starts. C.C. Sabathia led the majors with 241 innings.

A generation ago, such milestones were routine. Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven exceeded 35 starts in a season nine times and threw more than 241 innings 11 times—yet led the league in innings just twice and in starts only once.

"Kids in the minor leagues need to throw more complete games," Blyleven said during the Twins' visit to Fenway Park during the final weekend of the regular season. "They need to know what it feels like to walk off the field with your teammates, rather than just having to pitch five or six innings every five or six days in the minor leagues. They need to be stretched out more."

It's a recipe for disaster to expect a pitcher groomed on five- and six-inning stints to turn into a Blyleven-esque horse right away. So considering the makeup of the Sox' projected rotation, it makes sense to give the six-man rotation a shot.

Of the four pitchers already locked into a 2008 spot, the Sox can only plan on potential Cy Young Award winner Josh Beckett pitching effectively every fifth day. Daisuke Matsuzaka exceeded 200 innings in his rookie year, but Matsuzaka, who pitched once a week in Japan, wore down in the second half (3.84 ERA before the All-Star Break, 5.19 after it).

Jon Lester and rookie Clay Buchholz, meanwhile, are projected to spend their first full season in the majors next season. Neither pitcher has yet to throw 160 innings in a season.

And Father Time certainly seems to be gaining on Wakefield, who has been hobbled in the second half of the last two seasons, and Schilling, who missed seven weeks this season with a sore shoulder and has lost several mph off his fastball.

So why not unveil a six-man rotation in which the only pitcher who throws every fifth day is Beckett? Everyone else can be skipped multiple times throughout the season in order to remain fresh. In addition, there would be a number of times when the six pitchers would pitch on consecutive days, which allows Beckett to pitch on five or more days of rest more than he would on four days of rest.

The Sox' 2008 schedule has yet to be released, so we used the 2007 schedule as a basis for the theory. The results are as follows:

  • Beckett 32 starts (skipped zero times)
  • Matsuzaka 29 starts (skipped three times)
  • Lester 27 starts (skipped four times)
  • Schilling 25 starts (skipped five times)
  • Wakefield 25 starts (skipped five times)
  • Buchholz 24 starts (skipped six times)

    The Sox would make just 28 starts on four days rest. The back three starters in the rotation would pitch on four days rest just four times. For a further breakdown of the workload—including how many days rest each pitcher would get for each start under our plan—please see the premium sidebar.

    The plan isn't perfect by any stretch. For instance, we've probably allotted too few starts for Lester and Buchholz, who could emerge as no. 1 or no. 2 type starters as soon as next year. There's a general belief that teams can safely increase a pitcher's workload by 25 innings per season. Presuming each hurler averages six innings per start, Lester would throw 162 innings and Buchholz 144 innings under our plan—only slight increases over their 2007 totals (153 2/3 innings for Lester, 148 innings for Buchholz).

    Nor is there any way to predict where the Sox will be in September and how they'll set up their starters over the final month. Will they be in first place again and aligning the rotation for the postseason? Or will they be in a frantic race for a playoff spot and pulling out all the stops?

    Nor, too, do we account for how the Sox will keep sharp those who are skipped frequently. Can anyone beyond Wakefield throw out of the bullpen? Could Lester, Schilling or Buchholz occasionally pitch the seventh inning during their rotation sabbaticals?

    On the other hand, 150 innings is a reasonable expectation out of Schilling, who threw 151 innings this year at age 40, and Wakefield, who has averaged 165 innings the last two seasons. Beckett threw 200 2/3 innings in just 30 starts, so 32 starts could mean 215 innings out of one of the best pitchers on the planet. And maybe Matsuzaka, who threw 204 2/3 innings over 32 starts this year, could approach or reach that figure next year if he was on a more familiar schedule.

    The best-case scenario is everyone stays healthy and Terry Francona has to figure out a way to keep six starters active and happy. The reality is someone will almost certainly get hurt—the Sox have had multiple pitches make 32 or more starts just five times since 1996—and it's safer to expect at least 24 starts out of six pitchers.

    Who knows? It may not work out. But next year provides the Sox a neat opportunity to experiment. If it fails, chalk it up to a rare misfire by an organization unafraid to shake things up. But perhaps Lester and Buchholz prove ready for a bigger workload in 2009, when the Sox can work a new starter into the rotation—Justin Masterson or Michael Bowden—in similarly regimented fashion.

    And maybe other teams are following suit, too.

    Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE

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