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Could The Orioles Make A Six-man Rotation Work?

June 18, 2014

Orioles starting pitchers continued to shine during the Birds' series win at Tampa Bay June 16-18.

The O's added another two quality starts to their recent string of success, with Wei-Yin Chen allowing three runs in 6.2 innings June 16 (taking a no-decision during an eventual 5-4 loss) and Kevin Gausman holding the Rays scoreless in six innings June 18 en route to a 2-0 shutout. Since June 6, Orioles starting pitchers have thrown 11 quality starts during a 13-game span.

Gausman in particular showed remarkable poise during his outing. He labored through a 35-pitch first inning -- getting victimized by a tight strike zone and a J.J. Hardy error -- but escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam and settled down from there. With the Birds needing their starter to eat up innings, Gausman rebounded well enough to pitch a full six, throwing a career-high 111 pitches. Gausman has won each of his last three starts, pitching to a 0.95 ERA (two earned runs in 19 innings) since his June 7 call-up.

Gausman's success, though, has created a logjam in the Orioles' rotation.

With Miguel Gonzalez returning from the disabled list June 17 (he gave up four runs in five innings to the Rays, getting the win during a 7-5 O's victory), the Birds' Opening Day five-man starting rotation is back at full health. But Gausman has pitched so well that it would be difficult for the O's to bump him out of the rotation.

The Orioles are temporarily using a six-man starting staff, though manager Buck Showalter seems hesitant to consider it a long-term solution. But could the Orioles make it work if they wanted to?

On the surface, there could be a few benefits to using a six-man staff. For one thing, it would allow starters to receive an extra day of rest between starts -- which is especially useful for a pitcher coming off a laborious, high-pitch start, such as Gausman's 111-pitch outing June 18. It could also help hurlers who tend to wear down during the later months -- especially Wei-Yin Chen, who has a career ERA of 5.22 in August and 5.08 in September and October. Extra rest throughout the season could keep Chen and everyone else fresher at the end of the season.

Historically, several members of the Birds' staff have pitched better when working on five or more days' rest as opposed to the usual four days:

Chen, four days' rest (33 starts): 4.28 ERA
Chen, five or more days' rest (36 starts): 3.72 ERA

Gonzalez, four days' rest (25 starts): 4.18 ERA
Gonzalez, five or more days' rest (28 starts): 3.16 ERA

Chris Tillman, four days' rest (57 starts): 4.52 ERA
Tillman, five or more days' rest (42 starts): 4.14 ERA

But extra rest doesn't seem to work for everyone. Two other O's starters, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris, actually have worse career numbers when getting five or more days' rest as opposed to four days.

Jimenez, four days' rest (133 starts): 3.69 ERA
Jimenez, five or more days' rest (92 starts): 4.43 ERA

Norris, four days' rest (67 starts): 3.97 ERA
Norris, five or more days' rest (71 starts): 4.65 ERA

Still, a six-man rotation might not be a bad idea for the Birds, whose staff doesn't include one particularly dominant starter. Whereas a team with a bona fide ace would more likely stay with a five-man staff to get their top pitcher as many starts as possible, that's not the case with the Orioles.

A six-man rotation would present roster challenges, though. Currently, the Orioles have a six-man bullpen -- one reliever fewer than the O's normally prefer. If they wanted to return to a seven-man bullpen with six starters, they'd have to cut their bench down to three players, something the Birds don't seem inclined to do.

One possible solution is to have one excess starting pitcher serve as an available reliever during any given game. Normally, a starting pitcher throws a bullpen session on the side in between starts, usually two or three days before his next scheduled start. The O's could simply tweak that arrangement so that the pitcher slated for side duty would be made available to pitch out of the bullpen.

For instance, if a pitcher starts a game on Sunday and has his next start scheduled for Saturday, he could potentially be available to pitch a short stint in relief on Wednesday -- three days after his previous start and three days before his next one. Because he would normally throw a side session that day anyway, pitching in relief shouldn't throw off his routine too much.

The question is, would the Orioles' starting pitchers be agreeable to that arrangement? It might be a difficult adjustment for some. Tillman hasn't pitched in relief in the major leagues, and made one relief appearance in the minors above the Rookie League level. Jimenez pitched in relief during his major league debut Sept. 26, 2006 -- and hasn't done it since. Chen hasn't pitched in relief during his three years in the majors; his last significant experience as a reliever came in 2008 while pitching in Japan. Norris has three career relief appearances during 143 games; Gonzalez has six during 60 games.

Ultimately, the lack of bullpen experience for the Birds' starters might make the O's hesitant to use them in relief, even for emergency stints. So if the Orioles intend to use a six-man rotation for a while, they'll likely need to decide whether they can get by with six regular relievers or whether they'll need to jettison a bench player, such as Delmon Young.

It could be tricky to make a six-man rotation work in the long run. But if the Birds' starting pitchers keep throwing as well as they have been lately, it'll be even trickier to decide how to cut the staff down to five.