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History Suggests Rockies' 4-Man Rotation Won't Last Long

Tuesday night in Philadelphia, a Grand Experiment began.

No, the Phillie Phanatic didn't spurn slapstick for political comedy.

Manager Jim Tracy's Colorado Rockies are switching to a four-man pitching rotation. Which is, at this point in the season, exciting news.

Of course the four-man rotation isn't exactly new.

In one sense, it's quite old. In the 1960s, with fewer rain delays and fewer double-headers, managers realized they could generally start their four best starters every four games.

In 1966, for example, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and rookie Don Sutton started 154 of the Dodgers' 162 games, and most of the time they were going on just three days of rest. In 1971, the Orioles featured four 20-game winners and most of the time they were going on three days of rest. For a few decades, that was the paradigm. The starters themselves might change, due to injuries or ineffectiveness. But you wanted your best starters going as often as possible, and that meant once ever four games.

But the four-man rotation essentially died in the 1970s. Which makes it quite old.

In the 1970s, there were 46 pitcher-seasons that included at least 40 starts.
In the 1980s, there were two: Jim Clancy in 1982 and knuckleballer Charlie Hough in 1987.
In the 1990s, there were none.
In the 2000s, there were none.

No pitcher has started more than 36 games in a season since 1991 ... when Greg Maddux started 37.

In one sense, it's new. If you can't remember something, it's new. In a sense.

Ah, but you probably can remember four-man rotations. Because they happen every spring, when teams have more days off than later in the season. Which allows starting pitchers to start every fourth game, but with four days of rest. When the off-days diminish, though, it's back to the standard five-man rotation. Until perhaps the end of the season, in a pennant-race situation. But that's for just a brief stretch, and just rarely.

The last time a team semi-committed to a four-man rotation for a long stretch was 1995, when Bob Boone's Kansas City Royals did it. I say semi-committed because it was never a strict four-man rotation. But in the first half of the season, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon and Mark Gubicza did often start after only three days of rest. Boone -- or "the Boy Genius", as I used to call him -- junked the idea in the second half of the season.

Since then, teams have been roughly as serious about the four-man rotation as they've been about the three-man rotation (Tony La Russa's A's, 1993) and the six-man rotation (Ozzie Guillen's White Sox, 2011).

Ultimately, everybody always winds up where they started, looking for five pitchers who can start once every five games. Which is where Jim Tracy's Rockies will almost certainly wind up, too.

That said, Tracy is trying something new. I believe this is the first time that a manager has linked a four-man rotation to a 75-pitch limit. The argument against the four-man rotation for the last 30-odd seasons has been that (most, or many) pitchers can't stay healthy and effective unless they have four days of rest between starts. But that was based on the notion that starting pitchers would, ideally, give you at least 100 pitches when starting every five games.

But if the goal is only 75 pitches, maybe they can stay healthy despite pitching every four games?

Tracy's just guessing, of course. And there's another, perhaps larger issue. If Tracy sticks to that 75-pitch limit, he'll routinely be turning to his bullpen in the fifth and sixth innings. Now, if managers are crying for relief help with starting pitchers on 100-pitch limits -- as they do, routinely -- what's going to happen with 75-pitch limits?

Theoretically, it could work. Tracy's starters have been terrible, so he's been going to his bullpen early in most games, anyway. The hope, I suppose, is that Tracy keeps going to his bullpen early, but with his starting pitchers allowing fewer runs than they have been. It's a lot better to call the bullpen when you're ahead 4-3 than when you're losing 6-4.

So this should be interesting. For a week or two. Which, if history's any guide, is how long this experiment will last.