When Jeff Luhnow announced the Astros were officially going to do what they had been hinting during the off-season by using tandem pitching, some eyebrows raised. Traditional pitching development is not without question marks since it's not an exact science, but something new is always watched more closely. It has to be monitored to see if what is new is actually worth the risk. It has to answer questions.
Many of those questions won't be answered until the end of the season. Several won't be answered for several years, if it's not deemed inadequate before that. Short term results aren't what Luhnow and Co. are necessarily looking for, but they are still watching them. I'm going to attempt to take a look at the very short term results with a very small sample size of what we know.
|Oklahoma City RedHawks|
Few caveats to start out with. April 5th was a double header, so the tandem pitchers were split. That way you didn't have half of your eight starters pitching in one day and the first pair having two off days before pitching again. Plus, the piggy-backing pitcher would only go two innings. April 7th found the team short with movement going to the big league club and they used relievers. On April 10th, Musick isn't quite stretched out since this wasn't his original role.
The tandem set up only worked to complete the game one time, April 8th with Rudy Owens and Jose Cisnero. OkC lost that game and were the visitors so they didn't pitch the bottom of the ninth. Although, there is a trend in the last three games for the starter to get his full work.
|Corpus Christi Hooks|
With this set, only the 9th used the tandem group to the most potential. Manager Keith Bodie used a reliever to finish it out on the 4th and 5th. RJ Alaniz was the only starter to not make it through his start. The 8th was the debut of Carlos Quevedo in AA and was not stretched out for this role either.
This set up is working pretty well for the Hooks for the most part. Bodie to be using his discretion willingly to use his relievers in the 9th inning.
|4-Apr||Folty||2 2/3||69||Gillingham||1 2/3||54|
Hasn't worked at all. Alex Gillingham and Chris Devenski are the only starters to make it through their five innings of work while David Rollins and Luiz Cruz were the only piggy-back starters to finish the game out. This is the toughest environment and probably the place where piggy-backing is most appropriate since starters are not likely to pitch deep anyway.
|Quad Cities River Bandits|
Quad Cities has been able to complete the game with the piggy-back twice: Vincent Velasquez and Bircher in both of their starts. The impressive part is that the starter has completed their five innings in every single opportunity.
Obviously, it's too early to call it a success or a failure. I'm not going to attempt to say either one anytime soon. But, we can start to see how some of the questions surrounding the system are being answered.
How does this affect pitchers getting called up?
We've definitely seen how this system works with this question with three relievers already going to the DL. Edgar Gonzalez, before DFA'd and claimed, was brought and was prepared to pitch out of the pen. Same can be said for Dallas Keuchel. Paul Clemens was prepared for relief work, despite not having good results. Covering minor league innings has been effective since the reliever work load has been fairly light.
Questions still remain when one is needed as a starter. But, I still imagine the long man would be the one to take that job.
How are relievers going to get work?
They've received some good work load except for in QC. An argument can be made that the AA bullpen hasn't gotten much work either. The OkC has to fill in for shuffling starters and the Lancaster pen has received plenty of work. Typically, good major league relievers were starters in Low-A, so I doubt the front office is loosing much sleep over that.
The pen in AAA is definitely getting regular work, which is level of most concern here. Tony DeFrancesco and Keith Bodie have both shown willingness to call to their pen in the 9th for their best relievers to get high leverage work. And, that's what you want. Plus, several starters aren't completing five innings in 75 pitches, so you have middle relievers getting work there.
Are pitchers really going to get the same innings?
This is where the sample size really plays out. Can't gather any significant data from 6-7 games worth. We can say well they aren't pitching deep anyway so it's the same. But, in reality, a lot of these guys had 100 pitch limits this time last year and would have pitched deeper. So, while it's limiting them, it's not necessarily a bad limitation. It's lowering risk of the more potentially damaging pitchers that occur past 90 pitches. As you see with most of the pitchers so far, they are around the 75 pitch count already after 5 innings. There are some good examples like Rudy Owens, Nick Tropeano, and Alex Gillingham all possibly capable of pitching six innings within the 75 cap. But, right now, those are outliers and not the norm.
Had Luhnow instilled a similar pitch cap to start the season without the tandem pitcher, I think you would see similar innings. Plus you add in that they pitch every four days vs. five days. With that extra day, Luhnow probably would have raised that pitch count to about 90.
I'm still not sold entirely on the innings, but I can at least see it a little more clearly now.
You add in that this is supposed to be temporary, and it makes more sense. This is essentially an extended spring training where you take the build up arm slowly and you expand their pitch count when you transition to a five man rotation.
What about the third time through the order?
This remains the biggest question. The previous paragraph can apply here as well. As they expand the counts, they can face the order more, but only when the organization is sure the arms are ready. If they can't go through the order twice in 75 pitches, they likely aren't going to make it through the order a third time without running out of gas.
Part of making it through the order a third time is incorporating the third and fourth pitches of your repertoire more and changing your attack up. While they may not be entirely possible in a shortened outing, you can at least change your approach each inning to semi-simulate that goal. For example, I was able to watch Jordan Lyles in AAA this year. In his first inning of work it was primarily fastball, fastball, fastball. He threw an occasional change-up and breaking ball. The second inning of work, he really focused on his change-up and brought the curve in a few more times. In the third inning of work, he primarily showed off the breaking ball. It's not the optimal scenario, but it's a mock set-up.
Is the pitch cap a hard cap?
Not at all. You see in several instances that pitchers exceed the cap to finish out innings or at-bats. They also fail to meet them when they're struggling to get through innings.
Overall, the system hasn't been spot on to the way it was described primarily because of pitcher execution. So, that's not the fault of Luhnow, but the pitchers. It's a surprisingly safe approach when you look at it considering how it challenges traditional group think. It's very protective of pitchers arms. As it expands, it will allow for the risk of expanding pitch counts so that the Astros are really able to figure out who is capable of pitching effectively after 100 pitches. You're already starting to see who can pitch effectively through five innings with 75 pitches. Sure, it limits some performances, like Chris Devenski and Alex Gillingham for Lancaster, but would it be worth it this early in the season to risk injury?