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Weird Ideas: The Designated Starter

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This article was originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com.

With the dismissal of Jason Marquis and subsequent promotion of Cole DeVries, the Twins’ rotation is down to one member of the original group projected to come out of Spring Training. Only Carl Pavano remains (and his balky shoulder makes you wonder how much longer he’ll last). And we haven’t reached Memorial Day yet.

So, with the rotation situation as it is, I’m going to put myself in Ron Gardenhire’s and Rick Anderson’s shoes for a moment, today.

The season is off to an absolutely abysmal start, to the point where your team has pretty much been eliminated from any shot at contending with only about 25% of the schedule behind you. The pitching… in particular the starting pitching… has been a disaster. And our grips on our jobs… manager and pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins… is growing just a bit tenuous.

So what do we do?

If ever there was a situation that called for trying unconventional pitching strategies, this is it. After all, what is there to lose? If the weird approaches work, we’re geniuses. If they don’t work, well, at least we get credit for recognizing the status quo had failed and we were willing to try something… anything… to get things turned around.

But what to do? What kind of changes could we make that would be so unheard of among our peers that we’d get credit for trying something totally new AND at least have some remote chance of not blowing up in our faces and costing us whatever little bit of credibility we might otherwise retain at the end of this season?

Ron… Andy… please allow me to introduce you to Joe Posnanski.

This week, Poz wrote one of his “Curiously Long Posts” about one of those off-the-cuff sort of truisms that broadcasters and other baseball “experts” tend to spout off without really checking to see if they’re the least bit true. There are a lot of those, of course, but in this instance it was the cliché that, “the last three outs are the toughest outs to get in baseball.”

Of course, for a variety of reasons, that’s not the least bit true. Statistically, in fact, ninth inning outs turn out to be the easiest three outs to get in baseball. The actual toughest three outs are the first three outs. Yes, hitters have the best stat lines in the first inning and pitchers have their worst stat lines in the first inning. More runs are scored in the first inning than any other single inning. Posnanski hypothesizes that this may be because it’s the one inning when the opposing manager can actually set his batting order the way he wants it. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but it sounds as good as anything, I guess.

He credits, “a couple of radical thinkers inside the game,” with proposing that teams might be better off to have official game “starters” rather than “closers”… guys who start games every other night or so and go just one or two innings, before turning the game over to another pitcher geared up to pitch several innings. The idea, of course, is to use a hard throwing pitcher with, perhaps, a limited arsenal of pitches to get through that dangerous first inning or so when, statistically, more runs are historically scored than any other single inning.

Think about that in terms of the current Twins for a moment.

Francisco Liriano, "designated starter"?

What if Francisco Liriano and, say, Jared Burton, were designated the team’s two “starters”? One lefty and one righty, they would start every other game and pitch just the first inning… maybe two if the first inning turned out to be easy enough. How many starts this year did Liriano breeze through the first inning, only to cough up runs in the second?

Wouldn’t it have been great to let him get through that first inning, then immediately turn the game over to Carl Pavano or another “starting pitcher,” who could then face the bottom of the opposing team’s order in his first inning of work? Wouldn’t it have been much more likely that the “starting pitcher” in that situation would be able to get through the 7th inning before hitting the magic 100-pitch mark, allowing Glen Perkins and Matt Capps to close things out?

Why not give it a whirl, guys?

What are you afraid of? Is it that the national baseball media would howl? Would it just be too weird to see the same two guys listed the starting pitcher for the Twins on the schedule every other day?

Or are you afraid that the managers and players on the other teams will laugh at you?

Let’s hope that isn’t what stops you, guys. If it is, I’ve got news for you… they’re already laughing at you, because doing things the way they’ve always been done sure isn’t working.

You might as well try something really new.

- JC
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  1. James's Avatar
    Interesting idea. I like it. This is the perfect time to try something new.
  2. Chance's Avatar
    I don't mind the idea but in the minors aren't there often days where a game would be played with pretty much all relievers pitching 1-3 innings each? Obviously not often but occasionally you tend to see this. That's not much different than the article is proposing. At any rate, it's not s terrible idea. Could have some positive results but, then again, why not have the closer pitch te first the setup man pitch the 2nd maybe somedays you have a middle reliever take the 3rd/4th and let the starter pitch the final 6-7 innings. Just a crazy idea.

    While we are at it lets have the lineup be:

    That way a guy with some xbh potential can do that and be followed by a guy with singles potential who can hit him in? I realize the flaws with this thinking but just saying... Or just breakup the best hitters so we don't have spots in our lineup that you don't want up in the 8th/9th innings.
  3. ashburyjohn's Avatar
    I didn't much like his debunking of the 9th being tough, and the many comments gave several reasons why. But the 1st inning idea has some merit. You might have to learn to accept a different standard than for closer; an ERA of 3.00 might be excellent in that role, and 4.00 pretty acceptable.
  4. PopRiveter's Avatar
    It would create a role whereby the first pitcher by rule, could not earn a W. However, the second pitcher would not need the requisite 5 innings to earn a W. this is a fun idea. Let's do it! Maybe we could bring back Zumaya next year and use him to record just the first out of each series!
  5. Fire Dan Gladden's Avatar
    Managers can't even let go of the notion that they need to save their best reliever for the ninth inning and not use them when they really need them (ie the save fallacy). God forbid they try something that makes their pitching line look like a preseason game.
  6. Jim Crikket's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Fire Dan Gladden
    Managers can't even let go of the notion that they need to save their best reliever for the ninth inning and not use them when they really need them (ie the save fallacy). God forbid they try something that makes their pitching line look like a preseason game.
    I hadn't thought about it ending up looking like a preseason game... all the more reason for Gardy to try it. Pre-season is the last time the Twins were winning games with any regularity.
  7. Shane Wahl's Avatar
    Very interesting idea. Of course teams could just adjust, if that "setting the lineup" thing as merit (one way to check this would be to see how the top three do elsewhere in the game if they lead off the inning 1-2-3--which happens sometimes in the 4th) I do think, however, that perhaps a lot of the 1st inning scoring might have to do more with pitchers and getting "settled" into the game. You would still have that problem with whoever came into pitch the second.

    But very interesting.

    As far as the lineup goes, Willingham should bat third behind Mauer. You want your best power hitter batting third because he often comes up with 2 outs and no one on in that first inning. With 2 outs and no one on, the most likely run-producing situation is simply the homer.
  8. ashburyjohn's Avatar
    Humber doesn't seem to have found the first inning a particularly difficult one tonight.
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