The eight-man pitching rotation has returned — although it never really left.
The Houston Astros last season announced they would be using eight-man rotations at every minor league level.
Unlike traditional five-man rotations, Houston’s farm teams use eight starting pitchers in a piggyback system.
The starting pitcher is limited to five innings or 70 pitches. His piggyback partner comes out of the bullpen. The next time through the rotation they flip-flop roles.
“It’s a little outside the box,” said interim RedHawks manager Tom Lawless. “They’re creatures of habit. They now have to plan differently. They have to make adjustments. It is what it is. It’s going to be that way, so they have to figure out how to go do it.”
The Astros last season squashed the eight-man plan for the RedHawks following a couple of injuries and promotions to the majors, but they continued to use eight starters at Double-A and their Class A teams.
Mike Foltynewicz, the Astros No. 4 prospect who can hit 100 mph on a radar gun, opened the season at Class A Lancaster but spent the bulk of the season at Double-A.
A first-round pick selected out of high school four years ago, Foltynewicz compiled a 6-3 record with 3.06 ERA. In 30 appearances, Foltynewicz made 21 starts.
“We used it up until the All-Star break, cut back to a six-man (rotation), then a five-man in August,” said Foltynewicz, now with the Oklahoma City RedHawks. “It’s a different mindset when you come out of the bullpen.
“The big difference is you never have to pace yourself. You can go out and let it eat (at you). Every once in a while you’re closing a game, which is pretty cool. But I think it took a toll on some guys’ arms because we were only getting three days rest.”
That’s the major difference. In the eight-man rotation, starters throw every four days instead of every five.
It’s a new concept for Paul Clemens, who spent most of last season with the Astros. Clemens’ only six appearances with the RedHawks were all starts after Oklahoma City had scrapped the original plan.
“A lot of guys have their routines where they’ve done the same thing year after year,” said Clemens, who was recalled by Houston over the weekend. “This is different. At the end of the day, they’re writing the paycheck so you do what they want you to do.”
Bobby Doran compiled an 11-2 record with a 3.51 ERA last season. Doran made 31 appearances, including 21 starts, the majority in Double-A with Corpus Christi.
“I see the pros and cons. The biggest benefit is everyone gets a lot of mound work,” Doran said. “If you can get into a rhythm, it works well for you because you’re spending more days on the mound. But if you’re working on something specifically, it can be a little more difficult.”
RedHawks pitching coach Steve Webber said the concept works well for the Astros because they have several young pitchers, most age 24 or younger.
“The whole basis of it is it allows all these pitchers to show what they can do,” Webber said. “We want to keep as many of them as starters as we possibly can. Now that all these guys have experienced this last season, they should be more accustomed to it this year.”
The concept was devised by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who watched the St. Louis Cardinals use a similar philosophy at lower levels when he was in St. Louis’ organization.
“They still get about the same number of innings,” Lawless said. “We’re grooming more than 30 starters from Triple-A all the way down to the low-A club. When you have that much starting pitching people will come knocking to your door.”
Clemens said the key is focusing on the positives.
“You need to be open minded because you can learn something from everything,” Clemens said. “Sometimes you might find out things like you have more in the tank than you realized. In this game, if you’re not learning you’re getting worse.”