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Phillies Should Experiment with New Rotation Construction

The Phillies aren't going to be competing for a playoff spot in 2015. They take advantage of no-stakes nature of non-competitiveness to experiment with, and hopefully discover, a competitive advantage.

We found a rotation spot for you, Kevin
We found a rotation spot for you, Kevin
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the announcement of Cliff Lee's elbow injury earlier this week, the Phillies find themselves with only one reliable and proven starter: Cole Hamels. All of the remaining candidates come with questions about their viability as major league starters. Chad Billingsley (elbow) and Jonathan Pettibone (shoulder) are both coming off of major injuries to important pitching-related body parts. Jerome Williams, Aaron Harang, Kevin Slowey, and Paul Clemens have all recently had extended stretches that suggested they may not have a place in a major league rotation. David Buchanan is still young and lacks an inspiring prospect pedigree. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez might not actually be a starter. It's not exactly the most confidence-inspiring situation.

What the Phillies may lack in top-end quality in their rotation, however, they make up for with depth. After Hamels, the Phillies have 8 wild card type starters, each arguably deserving a look for one of the Phillies' rotation spots. The names of those wild cards aren't impressive, but most teams do not have this amount of potential depth at starting pitcher. The Phillies would be well-served leveraging that depth to potentially gain a competitive advantage.

There is one problem that plagues all starting pitchers: the times through the order penalty. In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Tom Tango, et al. noticed that a pitcher tends to do worse each time through the order, presumably due to some combination of fatigue and the batter becoming better acquainted with the pitcher's offerings. The result is the following:

Time Through the Order

Total Batters Faced














* Data from The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball taken from 1999 - 2002.

The first three times through the order, the pitcher gets progressively worse to the order of 8-10 points of wOBA each cycle. What appears odd initially is that pitchers seem to reverse the trend the 4th time through the order. This phenomenon is usually, and convincingly, written off as survivorship bias: the few pitchers who live to see a fourth go-around through the order are the Clayton Kershaws and Cole Hamelses of the world. If all the Kyle Kendricks in baseball got to routinely pitch complete games, we would likely see the continuation of the times through the order penalty.

Unfortunately for the Phillies--or fortunately if you appreciate the opportunity it provides for experimentation--they only have one pitcher in Cole Hamels who is good enough to endure the 3rd time through the order penalty and remain effective enough to keep on the mound. But, to the Phillies credit, they have compensated for the lack of front-line (or middle-line, even) talent by having a deep cast of potentially Major League quality starting pitchers. Given that situation, here is my proposal:

  • Cole Hamels stays on a regular schedule, pitching every 5th day for as long as he normally would (6-8 innings, 100 or so pitches). Bullpen use during these starts remains traditional.

  • On non-Hamels days, the nominal starter sees the opposing order two times through. This limit will be strictly enforced no matter how will the pitcher is performing. Exceptions will only be made if the pitcher is struggling and needs to be removed earlier.

  • On those days, a "second starter" will face the opposing order as it passes through the third time. Typically this role will be filled by one of the other starters on his bullpen day. As with the nominal starter, the one time through the order rule will be a hard cap with shorter outings possible if the pitcher struggles.

  • Between the two long-outing pitchers, the Phillies will have gone three times through the opponent's lineup, putting them somewhere in the 6th or 7th inning. From there, the manager can deploy the bullpen as he would traditionally.

Under this proposal, here is what the 2015 Phillies rotation might look like:

First 18 Batters

Batters 19-27

Day 1

Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels

Day 2

David Buchanan

Jerome Williams

Day 3

Aaron Harang

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez

Day 4

Kevin Slowey

David Buchanan

Day 5

Jerome Williams

Aaron Harang

To make this work with off days, we need a 6th "starter," which is why Kevin Slowey, the worst of the six in this hypothetical rotation, occupies the 4th spot. He would be available to take over for Cole Hamels if things go awry during his start. If a pitcher needs extra rest for whatever reason as the season goes on, the Phillies have a recently-failed starter in Andy Oliver who could pick up third time through the order duties.

While the primary purpose of this rotational adjustment is to limit a weak rotation's exposure to times through the order penalties, it comes with a couple other fun benefits:

  • Aside from Hamels and Buchanan, every Phillies starter is getting older and could presumably benefit from lower pitch counts to stay healthy.

  • The pitcher would bat fewer times as the earlier hook will allow Ryne Sandberg to potentially use a pinch hitter earlier in the game. Even if it's just Cord Phelps or Jordan Danks or whoever else makes the team out of camp, it would be an improvement over whatever the pitcher would produce in that role. It's a small advantage and one the Phillies might only be able to exploit once or twice each week, but baseball is a game built on the effect of compounding small advantages.

  • Pitchers' arsenals almost always plays up in relief because they can get closer to 100% on every pitch knowing they only have to last 20 pitches instead of 100. That effect would be mitigated a bit in this scenario as we would ask our pitchers to throw 60-75 pitches to go twice through the order (3.8 pitches/PA was league average in 2014) and 30-40 to go once, but the effect will likely be there to some extent.

  • With the potential that Aaron Nola and Jesse Biddle pitch well enough to demand a mid- or late-season call-up, this modified rotation could put them in a better position to succeed and gain confidence as they adjust to pitching in the majors.

The obvious disadvantage of this strategy, and one that is often cited in discussions of this sort, is the effect it might have on player morale. Starters know they are paid based on innings pitched and wins, at least to some extent. In this model, many starters won't make it through 5 innings so would not be eligible for a win. Most of the Phillies pitchers in this experiment, though, are veterans who may not be seeking a future contract or will welcome any opportunity to prove their effectiveness. If this is an issue, it might be less so for the Phillies than for other teams.

All things considered, this is something the Phillies should at least think about trying in 2015. One of the advantages of knowing your team is going to be bad is that there is little pressure to avoid risk. The Phillies won't miss the playoffs because they tried something different and failed; they're going to miss the playoffs because the players on their roster aren't as good as those on other teams' rosters.

The Phillies have the luxury to experiment with innovative roster construction. Luckily, their roster is already constructed in a manner conducive to such experimentation with a number of versatile parts in Herrera, Galvis, Asche, and Hernandez that could be combined to free up a roster spot (for Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, or someone of that ilk) to make an expanded rotation work. If it fails, the Phillies will still be one of the worst teams in baseball. If it works, they may have found a new way to construct a roster that will help them when they have the players to compete for a spot in the playoffs.

We all know the Phillies will never try this, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't. What do you think, should the Phillies use their glut of veteran starting pitchers to experiment with roster construction? Share your thoughts in the comments.