The Rule of Three redux

Leigh Allan

Long ago (OK, April 2019) and far away (clear over on SSS), I tried to make the case for MLB teams, and specifically the White Sox, to put the Rule of Three into operation. Jerry, Kenny, Rick, Ricky and Coop weren't listening, and look what happened.

Fortunately this season, short and with an abbreviated training period and expanded rosters for a while, makes application of the Rule of Three even more desirable. so let's try again.

(Well, OK, the best rotation this year probably follows the Rule of Zero, as COVID-19 not only sweeps through the Sun Belt but makes a resurgence in places like Chicago, where wearing masks and social distancing courtesy have become of mere historical interest to the age groups with whom ballplayers and their families are most likely to associate (just look around). After all, no one ever went broke or ran a sports league underestimating the intelligence of the American people. But we have to pretend there will be a season.)

First, some background — with apologies to those who actually read the original piece and somehow remember some of it. The Rule of Three is famous in comedy, in writing, in argumentation, in oratory, in advertising, in blind mice and little kittens.

Threes are even on the side of the angels (just not the Mike Trout ones).Hidden Numerology

Three is also the very foundation of baseball ... three strikes, three outs, 3 x 3 innings, 3 x 3 x 3 total outs, three basemen, three outfielders, 3 x 3 players per side, and even, now, a three-batter minimum for relievers. And if there was ever a time to apply the Rule of Three to pitching rotations, this is it, and the White Sox are the team. 

The basic rotational idea is simple ... three pitchers, three innings apiece, every three games. The concept goes back at least to an article by Dave Fleming in Bill James Online in 2009. But in an industry where change was what sides do between half innings — until the breakthrough of the Opener — no one has tried it.

Fleming's pitch about pitching wasn't long ago, but it was long enough ago that pitching staffs were slightly smaller (Sox carried 11 in the 2008 playoffs), so going 3-3-3 might leave only a couple of relievers. With 30-player rosters to start the season (yeah, yeah, I know it's if, not when), the bullpen can stretch clear across the outfield seats, what with social distancing and all. 

The argument for the system is basic — everyone knows pitchers become less effective as they go multiple times through a lineup. They also go downhill after about 60 pitches. So why set them up for failure? Dallas Keuchel may be an extreme case, but his times through the order BAA ran .219/.269/.314 in 2019.

With less of a training season, those problems are apt to be much worse. That especially applies to the White Sox, the perfect team to give the Rule of Three a try.

Why the Sox? They have seven reasonable starter candidates, only two of whom have been recently successful, two of whom are recuperating from Tommy John Surgery and could benefit from shorter outings, and none of whom will ever be confused with Justin Verlander when it comes to eating innings. That's plenty for a modified 3-3-3, and there are even a couple of full options if you want to be pedantic about it.

Lucas Giolito and Keuchel are the top of the ticket, and they both averaged about six innings a start in 2019. Ditto Reynaldo López. Carlos Rodón hit the same level in 2018, but he's post-TJS. Dylan Cease barely averaged five, and Michael Kopech barely that at Charlotte in 2018 — and he's also post-surgery. Gio González was less than five innings a start last year, and only got to six once. And if you want to rush Garrett Crochet into the mix, he's only pitched 132 innings of college ball, with questionable results.

Now, the more mathematically astute will note that the list has 7 ½  names, and a true 3-3-3 would require nine starters/long-haul relievers. I originally considered the full system, given how much the whole Sox world was raving about the amazing stuff of first round draftee Crochet, and Jimmy Cordero's success in two longer relief stints last season (don't you dare even mention Caron Fulmer).

Then I made the mistake of actually looking up Crochet's performance in college, where he was below average on the Tennessee staff last year in pretty much every category except strikeouts, and had a .268 BAA, just a couple of points better than the NCAA average. He began to look less like a rush-to-the-big-leagues phenom and more like somebody who would be best off spending some time in Great Falls to learn his craft, if only such a thing as minor leagues still existed.

Anyway, while 3-3-3 in general would be a good idea under any circumstances, and becomes really good this year, a modified 3-3-3 would work best for the Sox. Call it a 3-3-3, 3-3-(3), 3-3-(3), with the (3) being the usual three relievers in the second and third groups. This also gives the benefit of getting the relievers sufficient work before roster cuts have to be made, though relievers can come in to bail out any of the three-inning guys when needed.

The Rule of Three provides a chance to evaluate each of the possible starters four or five times before the first roster reduction, instead of three or fewer, without any undue burden on any of them. The three innings every three days is actually less of a load than six every five, which is a benefit to the young, old and recovering.

Worried about pitchers having just two days' rest? Don't be.

Most coaches will call 15 pitches an inning ideal, but few pitchers meet that. Still, they come reasonably close. Cease was the worst among the seven last year (or their last year pitching) at 18.7 an inning, Kopech next at 18.2, and Giolito the most efficient, at 15.9. Thus, unless one of them is having a very bad day — for which there will be many relievers available — they should get through their three innings in fewer than 60 pitches.

Even high schoolers are free to pitch on two days' rest in those circumstances. Illinois is one of the tougher states on high school pitch restrictions, and Illinois only requires more than two days' rest after throwing 60 or more pitches. That's for high schoolers — presumably pros are a little more able to handle the load. Many states aren't that strict.

hs pitch
Many high school rules are more lenient than Illinois' (above).

So let's set it up. Four righties, three lefties, so we might as well switch paws when possible. For example:

Sequence one:               Giolito/Rodón/Cease

Sequence two:               Keuchel/López/relievers

Sequence three:             Kopech/González/relievers

Nobody would ever go a third time through a lineup, and they shouldn't have to face many batters more than once. Rodón, Cease, López and González would probably start facing batters someplace other than the top of the lineup, getting some of the same benefit as a starter who follows an opener.

Given the likelihood that one of the seven pitchers gets hurt or quarantined, the system could change to a full 3-3-(3), with no harm done. The temptation to let a hot hand keep tossing is probably best avoided, but with the plethora of relievers available early in the season, it's not hugely damaging.

This season even provides an unusual opportunity in pregame preparation. If a starter who is the second or third "3" has a warmup ritual that takes a lot of space, no problem. With no fans, the parking lots are wide open for long toss or anything else.

New long-toss practice area.

3-3-3 - three times as good! At least to start the season and see how it goes.

And much better than 0-0-0.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Mark Liptak
Mark Liptak


You can scratch Kopech.