It is well known that pitchers are less effective the third time through the order. And if you know it and I know it, you can be sure that major league managers know it, as well.
The numbers speak for themselves. As the lineup turns over, a typical starting pitcher’s OPS-against climbs from .705 to .731 to .771. Going strictly by those stats, lifting your starter when he reaches less-effective territory makes sense. But if it’s the middle innings and he’s pitching well, is automatically turning to the bullpen prudent, or is it an overreaction?
At the Winter Meetings, I asked a cross section of managers for their opinions on the third-time-through dilemma. Here are their responses, edited for clarity and concision.
Brad Ausmus, Tigers: “The problem is the balance. I don’t disagree. I think the numbers show that the more times a hitter sees a pitcher, the more success that hitter is going to have. I don’t think it’s a secret. Before the numbers showed it, we knew that was the case. The balance is allowing the starters to go deep enough to not overuse your bullpen.
“I think there’s a little bit of a shift. Some teams maybe overstock their bullpen and leave some in Triple-A that have options, and they can shift guys up and down. But if you have a pitcher who is an effective top-of-the line No. 1, No. 2, and he can go through three times and get you deeper in the game, that is a tremendous benefit to your bullpen, especially the last month and a half.”
Jeff Banister, Rangers: “There are certain times that third time through does get problematic. I wouldn’t say [there is] a set standard. I think you take each individual starter — each game is its own game. When you start to comprehensively look at a game, or a situation, and say ‘This is how you play it out,’ I think you back yourself into a situation. [It] doesn’t always work out that way.”
Bruce Bochy, Giants: “I don’t quite agree with that. But the numbers are what they are. If they are that consistent, I think you have to be aware of them, which we are. We have a tremendous group of guys, our baseball ops, and they keep up with that.
“The problem you run into is that you’ve got to have somebody getting you deep in the game, because that bullpen is going to get worn down, too. I know there are clubs trying to shorten things up and go to the bullpen a little quicker, but at some point you’re going to need a couple guys to eat those innings.”
Kevin Cash, Rays: “I pulled them quicker than anybody and probably took a lot of heat for it. Coming into the season, we felt that was the best chance for us to win. Looking back, when it works it works, and everybody is happy. When it doesn’t work, there are people who want to ask questions, which we understand.
“Times through the order, we value that — not to the extent of maybe what is brought up, but we do value it. We also value the eye test and how our pitchers are doing in that given start. We let Chris Archer stay out there plenty of times late in ballgames, and along with [Jake] Odorizzi, had we had Alex Cobb, had we had Drew Smyly, we probably would have been talking about different situations.“
Craig Counsell, Brewers: “The numbers are pretty… I don’t argue with the numbers, certainly. I think the real trick is trying to figure out every other decision that’s impacted by that decision. The first pitching decision you make in a game lays out a whole other tree of decisions that might come the rest of the game.
“It’s certainly something we’ve talked about. We talked about it yesterday for quite a while, and it’s something we’ll continue to talk about. You’re definitely cognizant of it, and for every team, I think more and more they’ll be cognizant of it.”
Andy Green, Padres: “I think there is a lot to factor in. Sitting here in December, and talking about if I’m going to allow a starter to go through the order the third time… I need to know the state of my bullpen. I need to know the health of my bullpen. I need to know the health of my starter. I need to know how far we’ve pushed him in the past and how hard it’s been over the last inning or two.
“There are an innumerable amount of things you factor in. Each single day, one of them screams louder than the others, and you listen to it at that point in time. There is an innate feel for the game that I hope I display, and I think it [will be] a conversation with Mark McGwire and Darren Balsley, and understanding what they see and kind of collaboratively attacking the game.”
A.J. Hinch, Astros: “I can tell you, the sixth inning is never comfortable. That’s usually when it starts to roll around. Every pitcher is different. I think every game is different. In a vacuum, the third time through is very difficult for a certain caliber of pitchers to get through.
“I note the context of the game, how ready our bullpen is, how rested our bullpen is. It’s not always easy simply to pull a starter early. There are so many factors that go in as to how to get your 27 outs. In a perfect world, you’d line up every pitcher you can in the most opportune time to get their guys out. But as I’ve found, in a lot of ways it’s not a perfect science.”
Pete Mackanin, Phillies: “That might appear to be a new concept, but over the years that I’ve managed, starting in 1985, you’re always tentative when you get into that sixth inning. It always seems to happen late in the fifth or sixth inning where you have to keep your eye on your starter.
“It wasn’t really one of those things that was written down or talked about, but there was always the time, as a manager, I would start getting a little nervous and watch my starter a little closer and maybe get a guy up throwing. So it makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t mean you’ll never let your guy face the lineup three times or four times.”
Paul Molitor, Twins: “I’m aware there’s some weight to the theory of how to handle the pitching staff. I know some clubs, maybe more than others, tried to begin to see how that would play out in terms of how taxing it would be on a bullpen over a long season, and how many people you actually had to have to try to make that work.
“[If] someone continually shows you he will put up five good innings, and you keep saying, ‘Well, maybe today he’s going to give me six or seven,’ and it comes back to bite you, that eventually will help you figure it out — it’s possibly a trend for certain guys, especially bottom-end-of-the-rotation guys.”
Mike Scioscia, Angels: “I think the macro link you’re talking about is nice. We look at the micro. I want to see how Jered Weaver is the third time through in the order — a specific grouping. C.J. Wilson. All our pitchers.
“You see a variance — last year, the third time around, some guys were effective and some guys weren’t. To build a staff and arbitrarily say the third time around is off limits, I think is dysfunctional. I don’t know if you’re going to be able to have… you’re going to have to go to a 14- or 15-man staff to be able to do that, and I think you’re just too short on the offensive end.
“I think there is more specialized data that helps you [with] the decision-making process, when a pitcher it finished. I think as a rule, in the macro, you’re right about the third time around being more of an offensive match-up for hitters. But there are some specific things within pitchers that show maybe it’s not every pitcher, or maybe it’s not to the degree that is going to be impactful to where you’re not going to let that guy go out there and get those five or six more outs that the team needs.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.