Houston Astros test radical system to save minor league pitching

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Everyone is looking for a solution to baseball's elbow injury crisis. The Houston Astros are in Year 2 of their novel approach.

Baseball logic tells us that pitchers should throw less than 100 pitches every five days in a five-man rotation.

In their minor leagues, the Astros have installed a system where they have eight starters. Two pitch, back to back, each game and they throw on four days' rest instead of five.

“It’s primarily a developmental tool but I wouldn’t rule out somebody, even us, considering it someday,” general manager Jeff Luhnow was quoted as saying recently. “The way Bo Porter has managed our staff, essentially we had two of the spots in our rotation (Jared Cosart and Lucas Harrell) as tandems, we always had a backup starter (Jerome Williams and Brad Peacock) to back up the first guy.

It certainly is a tactic that other teams will watch. Because, as much as baseball is a game built on tradition it is even more one built upon copycats at this point.

Teams are afraid to break stride, but when someone does and finds success then others will be quick to follow out of fear of being left behind.

Other teams have instituted the idea in smaller capacities. But the Astros plan to have it be just temporary at the higher levels.

“Both our Double-A and Triple-A teams, they will at some point this season switch back to a traditional five or six man rotation but early in the year, it prevents managers from having their pitchers go 100, 110, 120 pitches," Luhnow said. "I believe that with the rash of injuries we’re seeing this year early in the season, being overly cautious early in the year is probably a benefit to the organization. All of our starters so far, knock on wood, have been healthy, last year they were healthy and so I do think that’s a benefit.”

In theory, the philosophy makes a lot of sense. Teams are worried about pitchers throwing too much at one time. Pitchers usually throw one "bullpen' between starts. Essentially, those are wasted pitches. So, by limiting each day's workload and pushing the days pitchers throw closer together, it makes the pitches more useful when they do throw.

Luhnow also said it is forcing the team's pitchers to be more economical.

“If the guy that starts can’t get the win until he gets through the fifth inning, and he’s got a pitch limit on getting through the fifth inning, he’s no longer thinking, ‘I’m going to strike this guy out using seven pitches,’” explains Luhnow. “He’s thinking, ‘I’m going to get this guy to ground out using one pitch so I don’t use up my pitches so I can get to that fifth inning and get that W.’ We have seen pitchers becoming more efficient in reaction to the fact they have these limitations.”

The problem is that it's hard to know whether it's working or not since each pitcher brings his own history to the equation and a team would never know how that pitcher would perform if put in a different situation.

Astros 2013 No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel is currently an issue. The starter, drafted out of Stanford, is currently struggling at Single-A in the system with a 6.63 ERA and 1.57 WHIP.

Despite the limited innings, he's give up at least three runs in his past eight starts, including allowing seven runs in just over four innings last Thursday and 10 runs on May 31.

For some guys, especially guys with Appel's experience coming in, it could be a tough transition. But overall, it seems to make a lot of sense.

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MLB American League
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