Throwback Colorado hopes to solve its pitching woes with the old four-man rotation

May 16, 2004

Like 50-cent bleacher seats and flannel uniforms, the four-man
rotation is a relic of a bygone era. The Rockies are hoping to
make it fashionable again. Last week they dropped their No. 5
starter in an attempt to invigorate the other four and solve the
conundrum that has vexed the franchise since its inception 11
years ago: how to keep their pitchers' ERAs from soaring into
thin air. "Some people probably think we're crazy," says
righthander Jason Jennings, who was 2-4 with a 9.57 ERA through
Sunday. "But pitching in Colorado, sometimes you have to mix it
up."

Indeed, with a five-man rotation that had a major-league-worst
7.93 ERA before the switch, what did the Rockies have to lose?
Despite an offense that ranked second in the league in runs (5.5
per game), Colorado was 13-17 and fourth in the National League
West.

No team has used a four-man rotation for an entire season since
the 1984 Blue Jays (who went 89-73), and the last club to try it
for a significant period was the '95 Royals (39 starts were made
on three days rest over the course of the season, and the team
went 19-20 in those games). However, the Rockies decided to
experiment with a short rotation because their fifth starters,
Denny Stark and Jeff Fassero, were a combined 0-3 with a 17.47
ERA, and they want to give their top pitching prospect,
22-year-old righthander Chin-hui Tsao more time at Triple A
Colorado Springs.

"We've batted the idea around for more than two years but have
been too scared to try it," says manager Clint Hurdle, who
intends to reevaluate the rotation's performance after a month.
"It's time for us to be a bit more creative to get our pitching
right."

The Rockies also believe the four-man rotation is a good fit
because their top three starters--Jennings and lefthanders Joe
Kennedy (4-0, 2.40) and Shawn Estes (4-2, 7.34)--are all
ground-ball pitchers. "That kind of pitcher is more effective on
short rest because they don't rely on power and are less likely
to wear down," says pitching coach Bob Apodaca. "The increased
frequency of pitching will make them sharper and increase their
precision."

Colorado would seem the most unlikely place to use a four-man
rotation. Keeping pitchers strong and effective is already a
daunting challenge at Coors Field, where the reduced oxygen level
a mile above sea level taxes the body more than at any other
ballpark and pitches don't break as sharply. Of the 31 Rockies
pitchers who made 10 starts or more over the last five years, 24
had an ERA above 5.00 and only one had an ERA below 4.00.

"If anything, they should go to a six-man rotation," says Braves
lefthander Mike Hampton, who pitched in Colorado in 2001 and '02
and was 21-28 with a 5.75 ERA in 62 starts. "It takes so much
longer to recover from starts there."

But Hurdle thinks he can keep his starters--the fourth is
righthander Scott Elarton (0-5, 8.91)--strong by limiting them to
between 85 and 90 pitches per outing. He'll also have a
well-stocked bullpen with a major-league-high eight relievers.
(Most teams keep six.) The early returns have been promising:
Kennedy and Jennings each pitched six strong innings and picked
up wins against the Expos and the Cubs in their first starts on
three days' rest. On Sunday, Kennedy gave up two runs in a 5-4
13-inning loss to the Cubs.

Outside of the Rockies, the five-man rotation appears to be
firmly entrenched. Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin notes that pitchers
are conditioned in the minors to pitch on four days' rest. But
desperate times in Colorado require desperate measures. "We've
been looking for answers for years," says Hurdle, "and maybe this
will get us somewhere."

FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES (4) The Rockies hope their starters will regularly be able to pitch on three days' rest. #1 ESTES #2 JENNINGS #3 KENNEDY #4 ELARTON

Three Up

Freddy Garcia, RHP, Mariners
Despite the worst run support in the AL (1.90 runs per nine
innings through Sunday), Garcia was 1-1 and still ranked first in
the AL in ERA (2.11) and tied for third in strikeout-to-walk
ratio (3.30 to 1).

Lyle Overbay, 1B, Brewers
He's off to a monster start (.356, 31 RBIs) and earning $8.4
million less than the man he replaced at first, Richie Sexson.

A.J. Burnett, RHP, Marlins
Rehabbing after elbow surgery, he faced batters for the first
time in a year and impressed teammates while throwing BP.

Three Down

Montreal offense
The punchless Expos, who were averaging 2.4 runs a game through
Sunday, were on pace to score fewer runs than the 2003 Tigers
(3.7) and the '62 Mets (3.8).

Mike MacDougal, RHP, Royals
After his fifth blown save in nine chances going back to mid-July
of last season, the 2003 All-Star lost his closer's job.

Barry Zito, LHP, A's
Ineffective with his signature curveball, the 2002 AL Cy Young
winner had a 6.17 ERA with the fourth-worst
ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (.82 to 1) in the league.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)