The evaluation of pitchers in the minors is extremely important for all teams, especially those currently in a rebuilding process. The best pitchers stand above the rest and separate themselves, but there are countless pitchers in the MLB, both starters and relief pitchers, that were taken late in the amateur draft and weren’t given a very high chance of success. Their evaluation is of the utmost importance, but they must be given an opportunity to do so even at the low minor league level. The Houston Astros are attempting to allow their best to separate themselves with a radical new idea, the 8-man minor league rotation.
What is the 8-man rotation? It isn’t quite as it sounds, pitchers are not trotted out on a straight starter rotation of 8 games, that would be way too few chances for the pitchers to showcase their abilities. It is quite the opposite, pitchers are trotted out on shorter rest with 2 4-man rotations working in tandem. The starting pitcher for that game has a fairly strict pitch limit set at 75 pitches for the game, and the second pitcher is given a limit of 60 pitches. The pitchers go through this 4 game rotation and the 2 sets of pitchers are then flipped, with the pitchers that threw 60 pitches the first time through the rotation given the starting spot of 75 pitches and vice versa. This many pitches will often get the team through the game, but if the pitchers run high pitch counts, which could be often, it will clearly allow a dedicated reliever a chance to showcase his skills as well. A closer would likely still be given regular work as well.
This would seem to limit the chance of relief pitchers to show the major league scouts what they have, which could be rather detrimental seeing as I just witnessed Dominic Leone come in for 2 innings of dominant relief for a Low-A club yesterday. However, another key for the Houston Astros is that they convert the majority of their possible major league pitchers into pseudo-starters. Many major league relief pitchers were starters in the minors and eventually found that they didn’t have enough pitches or didn’t have enough stamina to stick in the rotation so they convert to relief and get to “throw” more instead of “pitch.”
I saw the Astros Low-A affiliate in action and unfortunately I don’t have a pitch count for them in their first round of outings. It didn’t quite seem to be a strict 75 pitches for the starter, as Velasquez went 5.0 innings on opening day and I would estimate that he averaged a bit more than 15 pitches/inning. This may indicate that they are working into this 8-man rotation slowly and allowing their pitchers to get used to the idea first. GM Jeff Luhnow talked about the rotation on opening night against the Texas Rangers, so they may still be getting it implemented in the lower levels. They may also not have an ideal amount of pitching talent to implement this approach properly, we could see it take off after the draft.
As they say, the cream rises to the top and Luhnow acknowledged that this isn’t a hard and fast, full year plan for the Astros affiliates. Once pitchers start to form a hierarchy, the best pitchers will be stretched out more and allowed to get their work in, while the less successful pitchers will be given their shot in the bullpen. This is especially true of the Triple-A affiliate because when the trade deadline rolls around, the Astros will likely be selling at least 2 or 3 starting pitchers on their major league roster and will need properly stretched out starters to step in for the Astros.
It is a unique idea, but I think it is a fantastic way of getting to evaluate more of your pitchers at the minor league level. I’m certain that in the classic 5-man rotation in the minors that some potential major league contributors may sneak through the cracks of the system because they are forced into a bullpen role. When a new front office group takes over for a team, they need to form their own evaluations of the farm system, and this will allow GM Jeff Luhnow to find any potential diamonds in the rough. I’m intrigued by any new idea and this one seems to have been given the proper amount of thought to be successful. The success likely won’t show up in a clear way on the major league roster, but it could be one of those ideas that other front offices recognize as successful and eventually could become the new norm for every team’s farm systems.