Pitching Rotations: An Alternative Strategy

June 2, 2010

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At the start of each season, each team sends its ace to the mound on opening day, squaring off against the other team’s top pitcher. The next day, the second best pitchers on each team face off, and so on. At some point in the season, this does get disrupted by rainoff and off days so that the pitching matchups no longer align.

But I’ll pose this question: is this the best strategy, anyway?

Let’s look at the rotation of two teams.  Note: the ERAs are exaggerated for the sake of illustration.

Good team:

  • Pitcher 1: 1.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 2: 3.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 3: 5.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 4: 7.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 5: 9.00 ERA

Bad Team

  • Pitcher 1: 2.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 2: 4.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 3: 6.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 4: 8.00 ERA
  • Pitcher 5: 10.00 ERA

If the teams were to play five games, with the top pitchers facing off in the first game, the second best pitchers in the second game, etc, the bad team would be the underdog in all five games.

But if the bad team makes a slight adjustment to its rotation, it would be the favorite in four of the games. How? Let’s look at this:

  • Good pitcher 1 (1.00) vs. Bad pitcher 5 (10.00): Advantage Good
  • Good pitcher 2 (3.00) vs. Bad pitcher 1 (2.00): Advantage Bad
  • Good pitcher 3 (5.00) vs. Bad pitcher 2 (4.00): Advantage Bad
  • Good pitcher 4 (7.00) vs. Bad pitcher 3 (6.00): Advantage Bad
  • Good pitcher 5 (9.00) vs. Bad pitcher 4 (8.00): Advantage Bad

It’s important to note that this is a very extreme example.  In the real world, the ERAs would be much closer together.

If you’re a card player, you probably understand what’s going on.  It’s a situation where your opponent has an Ace, Queen, Ten to your King, Jack, Nine.  You lose all three tricks if you throw your King against the Ace, your Jack against the Queen, and your Nine to the Ten.  However, if you discard the Nine against the Ace, you can take the Queen with your King and the Ten with your Jack.

I’m not advocating this strategy for everyone.  It basically involves surrendering one of the games to your opponent.  If you feel that your pitchers are close to the same level of the opponent, this might not be the best strategy.  However, if the opponent has a record of 22-1 with a 0.99 ERA, throwing your ace against him might be a waste of a good pitcher.  The teams that would benefit most are teams whose pitchers are a bit inferior to the opponent.

There are only a few times a year when teams would have the ability to use this strategy without seriously disrupting the preparation of the pitchers – the start of the year, the beginning of the second half (after the All Star break) and on days when there is a doubleheader.  If your ace is going to pitch one of the games of a doubleheader, it may make sense to pitch him opposite the other team’s ace, if the other team’s ace is a super-hero.

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