clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Luhnow Challenges Traditional Pitching Philosophy With New System

The Astros will implement a new pitching structure with their minor league rotations that once again challenges traditional baseball group-think. Is the idea really absurd or does mainstream media fail to understand again?

Bob Levey

Once again, the Astros front office are challenging conventional baseball wisdom. Of course Danny Knobler had to weigh in on twitter.

Astros tell that they won't let minor-league starters throw more than 75 pitches in a game. Hard to see how that helps.

You're not doing anything if you don't incite national media types to make snarky remarks.

The new minor league pitching development system, is definitely different and has definitely raised eyebrows. There will be four groups of two starting pitchers at each of the full season affiliates. That gives each affiliate eight starters to work through. The first pitcher will go five innings or seventy-five pitches, whichever comes first, and will be piggy-backed by another starter who will go the remaining four innings or sixty pitches. They'll go through those four groups, and flip-flop the starter-reliever combo and go through again. This is something Jeff Luhnow has experience with since he implemented this in the lower levels of the minors. However, this is the first time it's been done in the upper levels.

Eventually, the hope is that five starters will ultimately separate themselves from the pack and the affiliate will transition back into the traditional five-man rotation. Although, there is no set timetable for that transition.

Relievers are unfortunately not guaranteed much work. The managers are at their own discretion to use the relievers for game situations closing out games, but the starters are guaranteed their work.

That's obviously very different. It's something that has been hinted at during the off-season as a possibility to handle the starting pitching depth, to the point that Sean and I discussed it at length last week. Since the, I've come across some interesting reading that has curbed my interest and made me think a little harder on the subject. It's challenged my thoughts somewhat.

The most notable article I can guide you to is from Will Carroll on developing pitchers. Will Carroll to me is like Baxter to Rob Burgundy, he knows how to cut to the core of me. He knows my trigger phrases like, "progressive overload," "weight-training," and "physical therapy" (imagine that). He really challenges the traditional system of development, and in reality, I think we should. Can we honestly look at the past several years and say that we have developed pitchers effectively in terms of injury prevention and longevity? NO! David put it pretty nicely an email discussion,

Has anyone shown a foolproof system on developing pitchers? Does any one team have the market cornered there? Pitchers get injured at about the same rate on every team. There's No Such Thing As a Pitching Prospect. Drafting high school pitchers is like buying a lottery ticket for the Powerball.

It's different, and it goes against a lot of conventional wisdom, but I'm not convinced that convention is important enough to uphold.

Luckily, there have been some developments like Verducci effect and Pitcher Abuse Points that have looked at things somewhat differently, but those are limited to the law of averages and not been shown to apply greatly with individual pitchers. It's progress, but it's only something that can be built on. The progressive system Carroll describes uses the principle of PAP and expands on it to be used in conjunction. It avoids over use early in a pitchers career and uses piggy-backing in order to keep young pitchers as starters longer (exactly what Jeff Luhnow is doing). Pitch counts expand with sets of successful outings, development, and maintaining health and diminish with poor results and injury.

Where Luhnow's new system and Carroll's differ is that Carroll allows a pitcher to transition to a true starter when he is able to expand his pitch count to 85-90 pitches. If a pitcher can't expand to that because they move out of being a starter. Luhnow has them on the strict count that stays until five distinguish themselves. Additionally, Carroll expects that pitchers in AA and AAA have already proved they can work though the 85-90 pitch count and begin to focus more on efficiency and getting guys out, especially in triple-A. This idea fits the philosophy that Anthony takes, which sets up his disagreement in part for this new system.

My problem comes when you hit Triple-A and you want to start grooming pitchers to pitch in the majors. The talent level between the Majors and Triple-A is not so vast -- pitchers go up against major league-level hitters with some regularity there. Ideally, I'd like to see them in more of the high-stress environments they'll face in the majors -- and I think this is also the level where you can best determine where their "tipping point" lies. Some pitchers will fatigue around 80 pitches. Others can safely get well into triple digits. The mechanical adjustments at this level should be minor, if at all, so the primary purpose is really evaluation. Setting an artificial pitch or inning count, which would seem to be necessary with a tandem rotation, doesn't seem well-suited to the Triple-A level, in my opinion.

So, if there are significant differences in the system, why am I bringing it up? I think there are some key principles here that correlate and Carroll's system isn't something you just jump into. You have to have the pitchers that have been brought up in the system and have already differentiated from reliever to starter. These guys haven't been. So, Luhnow and Co. are doing it now. This is the evaluation period at all levels. As they figure it out over the next few seasons or so, I think this piggy-backing business falls off in AA and AAA.

This allows for the minor league starters to have another month of strict pitch counts in which they slowly ramp up their pitch counts and "progressively overload their limits" in order to avoid injuries that can happen by throwing 100 pitches out of the gait after spring training. Once guys have developed in the system, they can begin to stretch out past that 90 pitch count and begin to dictate their pitch limits in AA and AAA instead of the piggy-backing.

But, this may all be well and good in the long term, how does if affect his season? That sounds better to traditionalists because the piggy-backing ends, and we still have it in the upper minors this season. There are issues about readiness for a call-up, innings totals, and reliever usage that are concerns right now.

In the case of a starter being needed, is it that critical it comes from AAA? Alex White is a starter in a long-man spot for that kind of situation to begin with. If a serious injury does happen, one man comes up in White's spot who is now a rotation pitcher and Edgar Gonzalez moves from his AAA long-man to AAA rotation piggy-back man. Quick solution.

If a minor leaguer is injured, you have a handful of minor league bullpen guys that aren't getting much work and one could be a long-man. Also, you take your oldest starter who can handle the load more quickly, like a college guy, and let him pitch a little deeper. That fits Carroll's system as he says college guys can have the pitch caps fall off earlier.

Innings total is still a question mark for me. Two turns through a rotation yields nine innings. Four turns gets you eighteen innings over sixteen days. Same sixteen days gets you three turns through a rotation your ace getting four starts which can yield eighteen innings if you average six per start, with potential for more. But, pitch counts are lower and avoids the problem innings which occur after you exceed 90-ish pitches. So, as a baseline in the lower minors, I can see this working fine, but I think the ability to pitch deeper than six innings that AA and AAA starters should have, their innings will be limited. I think Luhnow recognizes that and is why he plans to transition back to the five man rotation eventually.

Reliever usage is probably one of my biggest concerns. I can't tell you how many times we have mentioned to volatility of relievers and how they frequently jump back and forth between the major leagues and the minors. My point? Well this major league bullpen has potential but several have control issues which could lead to some shuffling back and forth. That can be a problem if these guys aren't getting frequent work. This is probably my biggest short-term concern.

The last concern I have is one that clack made me think about. I'll just quote him because he put it in a very good way,

In my mind, the arrangement brings up the conflict between two types of errors: (1) error in removing players from the starter pool who shouldn’t be removed; (2) error in over-valuing pitchers who have difficulty pitching deeply in games. I tend to think the first type of error is more significant, and for that reason I don’t think the "piggy back" solution is that bad an idea.

The issue here is plain and simple, value. A starter is simply more valuable than a reliever. The first scenario you decrease a players value. The second, you over-value. Where's the problem in over-valuing a minor league player? I don't think the problem is there is that important. At the major league level, over-valuing can lead to holding on to a player too long, but this is the minors. The first is where the problem lies, you give up on a player and you could be missing out on a very good late-bloomer...but you'll never know. Or you will, when they catch on somewhere else.

There are definitely questions that remain with the system that we'll have to see play out. I can understand both sides and where I fall ultimately will be determined with how long this sticks during the season. If this was something that played out all season (which it won't with attrition and injuries), I would be very concerned. But, I can see the value in testing this out since I don't think one to two months is that risky and it provides good evaluation. I think this is a significant step forward for the Low-A and High-A development plan that I can get behind and would be fine with it sticking through the season or most of the season.

In summary, I think David has a good quote again,

It could fail spectacularly. It could revolutionize how pitcher development is done in two years. Most likely, it'll fall somewhere in between. But, you have to admire the Astros front office for so consistently doing thing their own way, outside opinions be damned.