It seems as if the Phillies are considering a six-man rotation for the upcoming season, but a decision like this comes with a lot of complications. 

There has been a lot of talk this offseason about six-man rotations. The Mariners have already announced they’ll be using one. Phillies President Dave Dombrowski has suggested his team might consider one as well

After signing Matt Moore and Chase Anderson to major league contracts, the Phillies now have at least four serious contenders for the back end of the starting rotation (Moore, Anderson, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard). There’s even been talk that the Phillies are still looking at free-agent starters

The Phillies tend to be a pretty traditional franchise, and Joe Girardi is a pretty traditional manager, so it seems hard to believe the Phillies would try something so different. That being said, the 2020 season was so untraditional that pretty much all bets are off. If the Phillies do add another starting pitcher, they’ll almost surely be trying a six-man rotation. There are benefits to this strategy, but it also poses a ton of questions that the Phillies might not be ready to answer.

The Pros

First things first, if it’s what the athletic training staff deems necessary, or if it’s what the pitchers themselves want, then a six-man rotation is a no-brainer. I love watching Aaron Nola pitch as often as possible, but not if it’s going to make his arm fall off. I know we’re all sick of this word, but the 2020 season was unprecedented. No one on the Phillies staff threw more than 72 innings last year, so it’s hard to know if any of them are capable of pitching 180-200 innings in 2021.

Spencer Howard will almost certainly need to be on an innings limit this year. His career-high is 116 IP, and that was back in 2017. Zach Eflin is another promising young starter who might need some extra rest. His career high is 163.1 IP, and after pitching only 59 innings in 2020, he might not be ready to throw 180-200 innings this season. It’s also worth noting that Aaron Nola pitches much better with more rest between starts. With five or more days rest, Nola has a 2.72 ERA in 73 games. On four days rest, Nola has a much higher 4.34 ERA in 66 games.

A six-man rotation would also allow the team to give regular reps to all the back-end guys, instead of swapping them between the rotation and the bullpen or sending anyone to the minors. Perhaps it makes sense to promise Moore, Anderson, and Velasquez 20+ starts each instead of relegating one or two of them to the bullpen to start the year.

The Complications

The one major downside to a true six-man rotation is that it means fewer starts by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. In a typical season, Nola and Wheeler would combine for about 60-65 starts. With a six-man rotation, they might combine for only 50-55 appearances. The Phillies will need every advantage they can get in 2021, so they cannot afford to sacrifice that many Nola/Wheeler starts if they want a chance at making the playoffs. (Nola may be a worse pitcher when he has less rest, but he’s still one of their best options.)

This problem could be remedied if the Phillies choose to employ a six-man rotation while still having Nola and Wheeler start on regular rest. We have yet to hear any clear reason to believe that Nola and Wheeler are not ready to pitch full seasons. Yes, the delayed 2020 season and 60-game schedule surely messed with their routines. But every single year pitchers come back from injury-shortened seasons and still manage to pitch 180+ innings. Zack Wheeler himself went from throwing only 86.1 innings in 2017 to throwing 182.1 innings in 2018.

Unfortunately, this plan would come with many difficulties for Phillies to address. Starters number three through six would be pitching on an irregular schedule. Sometimes they would have six days rest, but other times they could have as many as eight games between starts. If there are a couple of off days over that stretch, they could find themselves going 10 days without pitching. This would certainly reduce their workload, but the uneven timing could generate its own set of problems. For veteran journeymen like Matt Moore and Chase Anderson this might be feasible, but I worry that this set-up could be very detrimental for Spencer Howard and Zach Eflin. Extra rest is beneficial for their arm health, but a confusing schedule isn’t.

There are also numerous factors that could make things even more complicated. For example, what if a third member of the rotation is pitching so well that the Phillies decide he needs to start ever fifth day too? And what happens when someone inevitably gets injured? Will the team temporarily revert to a five-man rotation, or will they sub someone else into the six-man schedule? What if it’s Nola or Wheeler who gets injured? If any one of these things happens, the Phillies will need to make more changes, and therefore throw everyone’s schedule into even further disarray.

Everything I’ve brought up here is more of a complication than a downside per se. Perhaps a six-man rotation is still possible. Perhaps the Phillies starters are comfortable with this confusing set-up, or perhaps Nola and Wheeler need the extra rest too. Perhaps a six-man rotation could help the Phillies in 2021. But as of right now, no one outside the Phillies organization is equipped to know that for sure.

The Conclusion

Yes, I know that I just wrote I’m not really in a position to come to a conclusion on this topic.

That being said, I think the smarter decision is to invest in an improved bullpen instead. If the Phillies have a competent bullpen, they can reduce their rotation’s workload by taking starters out of games earlier and relying on the relievers to close them out. Nola and Wheeler can still pitch deep into games if they’re feeling up to it, but no one needs to be pressured to pitch too many innings. Investing in the bullpen will also prove beneficial come the postseason. In the playoffs, the fifth and sixth starters won’t be worth much, but good bullpens win championships.

Trevor Rosenthal and Shane Greene are still out there Dave Dombrowski…

Yong Kim | Philadelphia Inquirer
Yong Kim | Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Featured Image: Jose F. Moreno | Philadelphia Inquirer

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