Detroit Should Consider a Six-Man Starting Rotation

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 23: Starting pitcher Matthew Boyd #48 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the bottom of the first inning of game one of the doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 23, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 23: Starting pitcher Matthew Boyd #48 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the bottom of the first inning of game one of the doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 23, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers Should Use a Six-Man Starting Rotation for the Delayed 2020 Season

With the start of the 2020 season being postponed, it is likely that the season will be dramatically shortened. Because of this unique situation, teams should consider this an opportunity to try a six-man starting rotation. Not many teams have pitching depth like the Detroit Tigers, making them the perfect team to be the trendsetter and effectively pull off the six-man rotation.

A six-man rotation might keep the team healthy and lessen the effects of fatigue that occurred to some of Detroit’s starting pitchers last season. Giving an extra day of rest for starting pitchers has been shown to reduce the risk of injury as shown in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization where there are fewer Tommy John surgeries each season. Yu Darvish expressed his desire for teams here to switch to an NPB style six-man rotation to protect their pitchers’ arms in 2014.

Why 2020 is the Perfect Season For A Six-Man Rotation

A 2011 study by Posner et al. looked at injuries in MLB from 2002 to 2008. They found that the highest rate of injuries occurred during the month of April, while the lowest was in September. The number of April injuries was double the amount in August and ten times the injuries in September. September’s numbers were skewed by the roster expansion and less of a need for players being placed on the Injured List but still shows that players suffer many more injuries early in the season.

One cause of the early season injuries is due to increased shoulder external rotation (the “lay-back” position in the pitching motion) without the muscle strength and stability in that new position. During Spring Training and the early season, this increase in shoulder laxity is a normal occurrence, but if there is not an accompanying increase in strength throughout the range of motion, the elbow is put into a much more vulnerable position. Eric Cressey, the New York Yankees Director of Player Health and Performance, explains the need of starting a throwing program with an appropriate arm care strength and conditioning program to prevent an early-season elbow injury. Having another day of rest between starts in a six-man starting rotation would allow for more arm care and rest to recover.

Why This Season?

The increase in external rotation is further increased when a pitcher throws off of a mound compared to flat ground. This season, pitchers have already seen game action during Spring Training and now have had to stop throwing in game situations. Their throwing range of motion has already been increased and now pitchers may have lost some of the stability in their elbow joint because of the long layoff. It’s doubtful that once MLB has the approval to restart that there will be another full Spring Training for pitchers to regain that stability, so there must be something else done to protect pitchers’ elbows. Giving each pitcher an additional day of rest this season will help offset the quick return to game action once the MLB season starts.

There is a new 26-Man Roster starting in 2020 that also makes it easier for a team to carry six starting pitchers. That 26th player could be another starting pitcher without taking away from the bullpen or bench depth. The new rules do limit the number of pitchers on the active roster to 13, but that would still allow a four-player bench and seven-man bullpen.

Detroit Pitchers Struggled Late Last Season

Another study, done by Whiteside et al., looked at factors that could be predictors of ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries. UCL injuries usually lead to a lost year due to Tommy John surgery. According to their research, fewer days of rest between consecutive games and an increase in mean pitch counts per game were both significant in predicting significantly higher odds of a pitcher needing UCL reconstruction.

Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull each saw dramatic second-half slumps last season. With an extra day of rest for them this season, they might avoid the fatigue that caused them to struggle later in the season and most importantly stay healthy this season. Daniel Norris’ last nine starts were just three innings apiece as Detroit tried to manage his innings. Rather than shorten starts at the end of the season to work around innings limits, a six-man rotation will average about five fewer starts per season.

Michael Fulmer will be returning from Tommy John surgery later this season and he should be brought back into the rotation carefully. He will also benefit from having the extra day between starts to rest his elbow and allow it to build up strength to look ahead at the 2021 season.

The Future

Detroit’s rebuild is built around top pitching prospects. Their health will be a big factor for when the Tigers will begin to compete again. Taking care of these pitchers’ health should be the most important objective for this season. Implementing a six-man rotation, not just in the Major Leagues, but throughout the entire system will give another day of rest to each pitcher which might serve to decrease the risk of UCL injuries.

Top pitching prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal could all debut this season, but Detroit has to be cautious about how much they pitch. Mize spent some time on the Injured List in 2019 and Skubal had Tommy John surgery while in college. Giving them each an extra day of rest could be what it takes to keep them healthy, and a healthy rotation of Boyd, Fulmer, Turnbull, and Norris with two of Mize, Manning, and Skubal has the potential to be one of the leagues’ best next season.

The New Normal

Giving one more day in between starts will allow pitchers to better recover from starts and to work on their strength and conditioning programs to keep their arm strength and stability throughout their range of motion throughout the season. Hopefully, this translates to a healthy pitching staff that can look ahead to a full 2021 season. With a full Spring Training to get ramped up for the 2021 season, Detroit could move back to the “normal” five-man pitching staff, or they could be the team that sets the six-man rotation trend.