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For most teams in the major leagues, the search for a fifth starting pitcher begins every February and lasts all season. Candidates come in all ages and sizes, some in uniform numbers in the 60's, many with ERAs that look like phone numbers.
Most of the teams conducting these searches are reasonably happy with three, sometimes four of their starters. So why do they look so hard, so desperately, for that fifth starter who, once anointed, rarely pleases? In other words, why don't these teams try a four-man pitching rotation?
To the dismay of many pitchers and pitching coaches, the days of the four-man rotation are gone. As recently as 1973, 37.3% of all starts were made on three days' rest or less, meaning that the four-man rotation was still the norm for many teams. But that percentage (box) has dropped to nearly nothing.
It's a trend that baffles George Bamberger, a former major league manager who was the pitching coach for Earl Weaver's great Oriole teams of the late '60s and early '70s, led by the four-man rotation of Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson, all 20-game winners in '71. Bamberger, 67, is retired but follows the game closely.
"Pitchers are overprotected," he says. "We got more sore arms now than ever. Why? Because pitchers don't throw enough. The more you throw, the stronger your arm gets. You can't tell that to the dopes today, but that's a fact. Jim Palmer missed two years [1967 and '68] with back and shoulder injuries. Did we baby him when he got back? No. He threw, threw, threw and won three Cy Youngs. Now guys are always in the trainer's room. But we'll never see a four-man rotation again, because no team has the guts to do it."
The reason for that? "Easy," says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "Doctors and salaries. With the investment in these guys, a pitcher gets the slightest twinge and the doctor tells him not to throw between starts. That ticks me off. Here you're paying [ Houston Astro starter Doug] Drabek $4.5 to $5 million a year. He makes 32 starts, but he could make 38 starts." Adds Bamberger, "Who is getting those extra 12 starts that your Number 1 and Number 2 starters should get? The fifth starter. With your best guys starting those 12 games, you might go 8-4 instead of 4-8."
But, says A's pitching coach Dave Duncan, "a lot of guys aren't capable of going every fourth day. It takes its toll. Physically, a five-man rotation is less demanding. You can't sacrifice long term for short term."
You don't have to, says Miller, who succeeded Bamberger as Oriole pitching coach under Weaver. "The fifth man joins the rotation when you need him," Miller says, "but you don't need him often. Whenever we played 19 straight days, Earl tried not to use the four-man rotation more than twice [in succession]. The first time you'd need the fifth starter was the ninth day, then you wouldn't need him again for nine days. The four-man works."
"Objective data doesn't support Ray's conclusions," argues Tom House, the Texas Ranger pitching coach from 1985 to '92. "It takes at least 72 hours for the body to bounce back from any kind of muscle failure. In the case of pitchers, throwing off a mound further exacerbates that muscle failure. In the late '60s and early '70s it was a badge of courage for a pitcher to throw every fourth day. But with the gene pool as it is with expansion, you can't find many workhorses."
That's because workhorses are no longer developed, according to advocates of the four-man. When pitchers are drafted today, they're immediately put into five-man rotations in the minors. Says Miller, "Ask a kid pitcher, 'Do you think you can pitch in a four-man?' and he'll say, 'I don't know. Never tried it.' "