For most teams in the major leagues, the search for a fifth starting pitcher begins every February and lasts all season. Candidates come in all ages and sizes, some in uniform numbers in the 60's, many with ERAs that look like phone numbers.
Most of the teams conducting these searches are reasonably happy with three, sometimes four of their starters. So why do they look so hard, so desperately, for that fifth starter who, once anointed, rarely pleases? In other words, why don't these teams try a four-man pitching rotation?
To the dismay of many pitchers and pitching coaches, the days of the four-man rotation are gone. As recently as 1973, 37.3% of all starts were made on three days' rest or less, meaning that the four-man rotation was still the norm for many teams. But that percentage (box) has dropped to nearly nothing.
It's a trend that baffles George Bamberger, a former major league manager who was the pitching coach for Earl Weaver's great Oriole teams of the late '60s and early '70s, led by the four-man rotation of Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson, all 20-game winners in '71. Bamberger, 67, is retired but follows the game closely.
"Pitchers are overprotected," he says. "We got more sore arms now than ever. Why? Because pitchers don't throw enough. The more you throw, the stronger your arm gets. You can't tell that to the dopes today, but that's a fact. Jim Palmer missed two years [1967 and '68] with back and shoulder injuries. Did we baby him when he got back? No. He threw, threw, threw and won three Cy Youngs. Now guys are always in the trainer's room. But we'll never see a four-man rotation again, because no team has the guts to do it."
The reason for that? "Easy," says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "Doctors and salaries. With the investment in these guys, a pitcher gets the slightest twinge and the doctor tells him not to throw between starts. That ticks me off. Here you're paying [Houston Astro starter Doug] Drabek $4.5 to $5 million a year. He makes 32 starts, but he could make 38 starts." Adds Bamberger, "Who is getting those extra 12 starts that your Number 1 and Number 2 starters should get? The fifth starter. With your best guys starting those 12 games, you might go 8-4 instead of 4-8."
But, says A's pitching coach Dave Duncan, "a lot of guys aren't capable of going every fourth day. It takes its toll. Physically, a five-man rotation is less demanding. You can't sacrifice long term for short term."
You don't have to, says Miller, who succeeded Bamberger as Oriole pitching coach under Weaver. "The fifth man joins the rotation when you need him," Miller says, "but you don't need him often. Whenever we played 19 straight days, Earl tried not to use the four-man rotation more than twice [in succession]. The first time you'd need the fifth starter was the ninth day, then you wouldn't need him again for nine days. The four-man works."
"Objective data doesn't support Ray's conclusions," argues Tom House, the Texas Ranger pitching coach from 1985 to '92. "It takes at least 72 hours for the body to bounce back from any kind of muscle failure. In the case of pitchers, throwing off a mound further exacerbates that muscle failure. In the late '60s and early '70s it was a badge of courage for a pitcher to throw every fourth day. But with the gene pool as it is with expansion, you can't find many workhorses."
That's because workhorses are no longer developed, according to advocates of the four-man. When pitchers are drafted today, they're immediately put into five-man rotations in the minors. Says Miller, "Ask a kid pitcher, 'Do you think you can pitch in a four-man?' and he'll say, 'I don't know. Never tried it.' "
How times have changed. Ten years ago some pitchers would throw off the mound I twice between starts, for 30 minutes at a time. "Tell a pitcher to do that today," says Los Angeles Dodger scout Mel Didier, "and you'll get sued." Twenty years ago starting pitchers often threw batting practice during the season. "When was the last time you saw that?" asks Toronto G.M. Pat Gillick.
The pampering of pitchers is traceable partly to their agents. "When a pitcher is in the last year of his contract," says Miller, "his agent tells him after midseason, 'Don't push yourself.' The agent is essentially telling him, 'Screw them, they're not going to be paying you next year anyway.' "
Yet despite all this protection, there seem to be more arm injuries than ever. Two of the most injury-free pitching staffs—and two of the best—over the last few years have been the Braves' and the Pirates'. "The secret of these clubs is that the pitchers throw every day," says Miller. "Look at teams with gimmicks—like using weights instead of throwing between starts—and you see pitchers go out there full bore and go straight to the Mayo Clinic."
Many pitchers have done better in a four-man rotation than in a five-man. "In '87 I went on three days' rest about 11 times," says Blue Jay starter Dave Stewart, who was then with the A's. "I enjoyed it, and I was a better pitcher. It gave me better body awareness. In a four-man, it's more about finesse than power. That's pitching."
Says Toronto's Jack Morris, "I always felt I had better control in a four-man. The more you pitch, the stronger your arm becomes, and the better you become. It's a skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it." Kansas City pitcher Mike Boddicker says, "I believe in the four-man. When we did it [in Baltimore], we got locked in. Now, in a five-man rotation, maybe you can get locked in, but with a rainout or an off day, you can end up pitching with seven days' rest. That's tough."
Isn't the four-man at least worth a try, if the circumstances are right? Consider the current Blue Jays. They spent much of the spring trying to find a No. 5 man because they had only four proven starters: two workhorses (albeit aging ones) in Morris and Stewart, and two young, strong-armed guys in Juan Guzman and Todd Stottlemyre. Wouldn't the Blue Jays be candidates for a four-man rotation? "I think we could do it," says Gillick. "I'd consider it."
Morris isn't counting on it. "I don't think we'll see a four-man again," he says. "You need four guys who can do it. You need pitchers who are willing to do it. You need a manager who believes in it. You need management that believes in it."
And so, the search for No. 5 goes on.