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Baseball's New Math Formula: Subtraction By Addition

March 5, 2018
SARASOTA, Fla. -- I'm not sure if you consider this part of the analytics invasion or not, but baseball is on the verge of unveiling its own version of new-age mathematics.

It's called subtraction by addition.

We all know about the other half of the equation -- addition by subtraction, when the sum becomes greater by eliminating a bad part. Well, say hello to its polar opposite.

A lot of baseball teams are beyond merely thinking about the possibility of tinkering with what is considered the most important element of the game -- starting pitching -- by going to a six-man rotation. Even the Orioles, who may be the most pitching-poor team in baseball, have at least given some thought to the notion.

If you don't believe this is subtraction by addition, maybe a little history lesson will better explain how this form of math works.

Sometime back in the late 1970s, nobody seems to know exactly when, a lot of teams discovered they were having trouble coming up with four good starting pitchers, so they decided the solution was to add a fifth starter to the mix. George Bamberger was still the Orioles' pitching coach when he received a call from Herm Starrette, former O's pitcher and a Bamby student, saying he got the job as pitching coach with the Atlanta Braves, and Starrette told Bamberger that his toughest job "was finding a fifth starter."

Bamberger didn't mince any words with his reaction and the advice he gave his protégé. "All you're going to find in a fifth starter," he said bluntly, "is a pitcher with a losing record." I don't know how many teams in history have ever had five starters with a winning record, but my guess is you wouldn't have to take off your socks to count them.

The five-man rotation was in its infancy then. Bamberger, a strong believer in pitchers throwing every other day, was the most severe critic of the system. But with more expansion and the need for more starting pitchers, the four-man rotation went the way of the "Baltimore chop," and the five-man rotation became the new norm.

Now we've gone full cycle again. There has never been more of a premium on starting pitching as there is today. A lot of teams (and you know the one heading that list) are in dire need of filling out a five-man rotation -- despite the fact that starters pitch fewer innings now than at any time in history. In other words, more does less -- which kind of fits right into the "subtraction by addition" theory
Lost in the translation, of course, is the fact that the more starting pitchers throw fewer innings, the less work there is for the aces, the No. 1s, the guys who used to routinely make 32-33 starts (38-40 in the four-man rotation). They will be hard pressed to make 29-30 if six-man rotations become vogue. You need no more math than that to explain why some pitchers like Jake Arrieta remain on the open market. With 30 starts and 200 innings becoming the new norm, the market is out of whack -- and a big reason why it seems to be making a severe adjustment this year.

Cole Hamels, the left-handed ace of the Texas Rangers, is the first (at least to my knowledge) to come out strongly against the possibility of the six-man rotation his team is at least considering. 

"I know that's the new analytic side trying to re-invent the wheel," Hamels told's Dave Sessions, "but that's not MLB to me."

Hamels compared the possibility of six-man rotations to the college game, where schools traditionally play weekend series, and pitchers are labeled by their position on the staff as Friday, Saturday or Sunday pitchers. O's manager Buck Showalter has often talked about "getting one of those Friday night pitchers" when looking ahead at the amateur draft.

All of which begs the question of what is the next step beyond a six-man rotation? With one day off per week, many teams in Japan have a different starting pitcher for each day of the week.

How long will it take before starting pitchers are labeled by the day they pitch rather than by their slot in the rotation? You can almost hear some future trade discussion.

GM No. 1: "I need a Tuesday pitcher and can offer you a Thursday starter plus a utility infielder." 

GM No. 2: "Can't do that, but if you give me the Thursday guy and throw in a Monday prospect, maybe we can work something out."

As presently constituted, which means until they start developing a staff they can call their own, none of this really affects the Orioles. They are trying to put together a rotation without any proven No. 1s or No. 2s. In other words, they have a lot of pitchers who fall into the "Wednesday" category using the new-age formula.

Not to worry, however, baseball is finding a way to fix the dearth of starting pitchers. Teams that don't have five reliable starters will solve the problem by adding a sixth. Whether you want to count "quality starts" or quality innings, the formula remains the same: 5+1 = less. If you can't find five quality pitchers, solve the problem by adding an inferior one.

It's called subtraction by addition.

Jim Henneman can be reached at 

Photo credit: Rich Dubroff/PressBox