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If There Were Ever A Time For A 6-Man Rotation...

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Minnesota Twins v Oakland Athletics
“They say I’m out of options, but here’s one...”
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Back in the early 1980s, “Billy Ball” was born partly because you’ll have Mickey Klutts steal home on the front end of a triple steal when you know your closer is Dave Beard, and you’re open to a series of suicide squeezes when you’re trotting Keith Drumright and Chicken Stanley out there for your middle infield.

One idea that was floated out there at the time was a “6-man rotation”. In this particular case, the thinking came from the realization that Oakland had incredible starting pitching and essentially no bullpen — hence Martin’s tendency to let his starters go 14 innings or, in Langford’s case, 22 consecutive complete games.

The thought was that with a 6-man rotation, one of the SPs would be available, each game, on their “bullpen day,” to serve as the team’s closer, maybe for more than 1 inning. It was a sort of “tandem pitcher” idea but the closest we saw to its realization was McCatty actually serving briefly as the team’s closer later in his career.

As you look at the 2019 A’s, there are striking differences that might make you wonder why I am reflecting back on this “Billy Ball” idea. In contrast to Billy Martin’s A’s, this team has an excellent bullpen and is currently hard pressed to find 5 starting pitchers. And yet...

One important argument against a 6-man rotation is that it takes starts away from each pitcher at the top of the rotation, giving them instead to that extra, presumably “only your 6th best starting pitcher”. In Oakland’s case, though, you are looking at a rotation absent a “top of the rotation” arm as the team attempts to assemble a group of as many “solid mid-rotation arms” as they can.

Put another way, are you worried about giving 5 of Mike Fiers’ starts to Daniel Mengden or are you worried about giving 5 of Mengden’s starts to Fiers? When you don’t even know what to worry about, there may not be a need to worry.

Then there is a key factor that surrounds the pitcher the A’s hope will be their best: Jesus Luzardo. Coming off of Tommy John surgery having built up to 109.1 IP in 2018, Luzardo’s workload will probably be limited to around 150-160 IP in 2019. Ways to accomplish this include a late start, an early shutdown, or conservative innings/pitch limits in each start, none of which is an ideal outcome. In a 6-man rotation, though, Luzardo is poised to make about 25 starts and will hit around 150 IP if he breaks camp with the team and pitches all season without any restrictions. If it weren’t ideal for anyone else, a 6-man rotation is probably the perfect backdrop for Luzardo.

And then you get to another circumstance that uniquely favors a 6-man rotation, and that is multiple starting pitchers who are not proven enough to guarantee spots in a 5-man rotation all season but who are talented — and most importantly are out of options. Here I am referring to Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt, who if not given a spot in the rotation might languish in long relief or need to be traded.

If you imagine a rotation with, say, Luzardo, Fiers, Blackburn, Montas, Bassitt, and a currently unsigned SP the A’s will add (be it Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill, a free agent or trade target), in a 6-man rotation you would leverage Luzardo’s innings as unrestricted and able to span all season, you would have room for Montas and Bassitt, you would not take 6-7 starts away from an ace, and as an added bonus you would be free to deepen your bullpen with these pitchers (maybe with the exception of Luzardo) available to give you 1-2 innings on their “bullpen day”.

Another bonus of assembling a 6-man rotation is that when a pitcher goes down you have the option of replacing them with a AAA callup or you can always decide to punt on the 6-man rotation and simply opt to use that moment to return to a traditional 5-man rotation. So your “next man up” is already up, stretched out, and in the mix when the injury hits and you are never one injury away from being suddenly stuck.

Do the presence of Luzardo, Montas, and Bassitt, combined with the lack of any clear “front of the rotation” pitchers, make 2019 a uniquely right season to trot out Billy Martin’s idea of nearly 40 years ago? Odd to think that a team struggling to find 5 worthy SPs might find the solution in identifying 6. But perhaps the bridge to a 2020 rotation anchored by 180 IP from electric arms such as Luzardo-Puk-Manaea-Kaprielian-Cotton should in fact be one plank wider than we thought.

Poll

The idea of a 6-man rotation for the A’s in 2019 is...

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Brilliant, given the "Luzardo-Montas-Bassitt factor"
    (187 votes)
  • 45%
    A good idea, but not essential
    (264 votes)
  • 14%
    A bad idea, but not ridiculous
    (85 votes)
  • 7%
    A terrible idea now, just like it’s a terrible idea always
    (45 votes)
581 votes total Vote Now