The Colorado Rockies made waves in the baseball community when general manager Dan O'Dowd announced Project 5183. The team was in the midst of a yet another losing season in 2012 when O'Dowd announced his plan to have a "rotation by committee" in which four starters would be enlisted to throw a maximum of 75 pitches per start. After the starter was taken out, the Rockies would put in one of a few designated long relievers—one of whom was Carlos Torres—to pick up the slack for the starter's early exit before handing the game off to the rest of the bullpen.
The logic is simple: on average, starters allow about 0.8 runs the first time through the opposing lineup, and about 1 run the second time around. Essentially, if all of a team's other pitchers that day are as good as its starter and opposing hitters face each pitcher once, the team stands shave off up to an entire run allowed per game. For reference, this difference is enough to turn a below average pitching staff into the most productive in the major leagues.
Of course, the results for the Rockies weren't good. They allowed a total of 890 runs in 2012, the worst in Major League Baseball. This, however, doesn't debunk the validity of the strategy. The Rockies turned to this method because they had some of the least-talented starters in the game and play half of their games in a hellaciously hitter-friendly ballpark. No strategy would have been enough to stop Jeremy Guthrie from allowing 21 home runs in his 90 innings of work for the Rockies, or make up for the fact that Jeff Francis was the team's Opening Day starter.
The Rockies' lack of success was because of their approach, but simply the lackluster set of pitchers Dan O'Dowd had assembled. But if this strategy can really save a run per game and the Rockies don't serve as a cautionary tale, why aren't more teams employing this method? It turns out this question has two answers.
The first answer is that they are—sort of. In the lower levels of the minor leagues, this strategy is used and it is called "piggybacking." Teams typically use a couple more starting pitchers at a level than they have starting slots, and some of those pitchers have shorter outings. This approach allows multiple young arms to get a good amount of work in while not overextending anybody. Piggybacking is a great way to stretch out prospects who spent the past season in high school, college, or a rookie league.
The second answer is quite simple: teams avoid this method because of their players. The best pitchers, most famously Justin Verlander, get consistently better as the game goes on, so the marginal return of leaving him in the game only increases. For pitchers who are not quite Verlander but are still reasonably good, limiting their innings limits their market value. Fewer innings means fewer dollars on the free agent market, and messing with their bank accounts with this approach could not only create tension in the clubhouse, but also give a team significant difficulties when it comes to attracting free agent talent.
This would also give the Players Association a fit. If teams converted to piggybacking all of their pitchers, players would soon file grievances claiming that teams are trying to deflate their arbitration salaries or their free agent contracts. If the league moved to this approach as a whole, there's potential for another strike. It's a slippery slope.
With all this in mind, it's doubtful the Mets would benefit from piggybacking all of their starters, but they could benefit from piggybacking a few. For pitchers like Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee, and Zack Wheeler, locks for the rotation who have not been bit by the injury bug recently, this approach is a bit superfluous. For pitchers whose durability is a question, specifically Jon Niese and Jenrry Mejia, this approach could be a strong way to start the season.
Niese missed a month and a half with a shoulder strain last season and has had a couple of injury scares this spring. For him, it makes sense that he start April on a pitch count around eighty pitches, which would escalate incrementally throughout the month. A long man, such as Carlos Torres or Jeurys Familia, can pick up the slack for a few innings. By the time May rolls around, Niese should be off the pitch count and considered a full-fledged starter again.
For Mejia, it's a bit more complicated. Many fans want to see his electric stuff on the roster from the beginning of the season. If Sandy Alderson is serious about winning 90 games, it would seem curious at best to keep Mejia's live arm in the minor leagues. Still, it's important to manage expectations for him, who has only eclipsed the 100-inning mark once in his young professional career.
Giving Mejia three innings per start in April and four innings per start in May—with Daisuke Matsuzaka or John Lannan on staff to pick up the slack for an additional two to three innings—would allow him to build up his workload steadily without costing the Mets runs in the process. This could also allow him to pitch deep into August or September if the Mets need him to and still finish the season with around 150 innings, an optimistic but not unreasonable total for the young stud.
Piggybacking the back end of the rotation could be an interesting way for the Mets to minimize risk for both Niese and Mejia early in the season and maximize their performance in those limited innings. If the organization can get everyone on board, it would be a worthwhile pursuit that would satisfy fans looking to see a competitive team and also allow the team to proceed cautiously with their young pitchers.