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On the Astros: Tandem starting gets incomplete grade at Triple-A

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The grand experiment at using piggy-back starters in Triple-A lasted a month before injuries and callups ravaged it.

Al Messerschmidt

In the grade pitching experiment the Houston Astros undertook in the minor leagues, one of the most controversial parts included a piggy-back tandem starter situation in Triple-A.

Tandem starters aren't a new thing. Teams have been using them in the low minors for years. What's unusual is Houston's systemic use of the strategy at every level. Most teams move away from tandem situations in the high minors because that's where pitchers can learn to get through a lineup three times.

Pitching deeper into games, then, is a learned skill, according to the traditional wisdom. By holding a starter back from pitching more than five innings, it limited their ability to see a lineup three times and possibly to use more pitches to get through the game.

It wasn't a popular move with the players, either. Jarred Cosart, who has an opinion from time to time, was not a fan when he found out about it shortly after being cut from big league camp.

"When they first told us in Spring Training, it was about the third day [after] I'd been sent down from Major League camp. I'm not in the best of moods, so that threw a little icing on the cake."

Lucky for Cosart, the policy didn't last past April. Brian T. Smith reports that the tandem starter experiment has quietly ended at Triple-A after another round of injuries and call-ups.

Houston could have survived losing Alex White. It could have survived losing Edgar Gonzalez to waivers or Rudy Owens and John Ely to the knife. But, couple that with callups for Dallas Keuchel, Paul Clemens, Jordan Lyles and Jose Cisnero and the system just became unstable.

Think about that. Even if we assume one of the callups took care of White's injury, that's still seven different pitchers that could have been at Oklahoma City who are not available. That's bad luck on a grand scale.

It's a shame, too, because the system didn't even get a chance to make an impact at Triple-A. But, in a weird way, the system may have helped the major league team more than anything.

Houston didn't just have injury problems in the past month. It also had starter ineffectiveness in a big way.

That led to a huge reliance on long relievers, including guys like Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer and Dallas Keuchel. Houston has already had eight relief appearances of at least three innings and another four games with more than two innings in relief.

By calling up so many guys in the past two weeks and asking them to pitch in long relief, Houston needed guys who were stretched out already. Under the old system, they probably call up starters at Triple-A, which then creates a problem with a reliever getting bumped up to the rotation or a starter at Double-A getting called up to throw in the rotation.

Instead, Houston's tandem system let them call up pitchers when needed. They also had guys set up to fit into the tandem rotation already.

However, any system can only take so much pressure before it breaks down. That's what happened in Oklahoma City this week. The callups of Lyles and Keuchel (again) were the last straws, especially after Rudy Owens hurt his ankle.

Still, it's hard to call the experiment a failure. It may not have helped Jarred Cosart get through a lineup three times, but it has helped the major league roster in an unexpected way.

That's valuable.

We just can't know how the experiment would have worked in better circumstances. How long would it have held up without the callups and injures? That's the question which will hang over things until next season. It's not a big one, but it's disappointing Houston couldn't see more results from their new system.