Shohei Ohtani and the Angels’ Six-Man Rotation

The Los Angeles Angels struck gold this offseason. The addition of Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler to a core that already included Justin Upton (re-signed to a five-year deal in November), Andrelton Simmons, and the incomparable Mike Trout has created a collection of position players few other clubs can rival. Nor does this even acknowledge the club’s greatest stroke of fortune this winter — namely, the signing of coveted two-way player Shohei Ohtani.

Understandably, the team wants to protect its new 23-year-old star. Ohtani joins a rotation composed mostly of damaged limbs. Because of the fragility present here, the Angels are going to try something novel — namely, to employ a six-man rotation. Unfortunately, it probably won’t work.

There are good reasons for a six-man rotation, and Angels’ starters meet several of the relevant criteria for experimenting with one. First of all, the club lacks a true ace. Despite having never faced a major-league batter, Ohtani is probably the club’s best pitcher. Given his unique position, however, it makes sense that the Angels wouldn’t expect him to carry the load of a No. 1 starter.

Beyond Ohtani, the Angels don’t possess a pitcher who needs to start every fifth day. Allocating five of Clayton Kershaw‘s or Corey Kluber‘s or Max Scherzer’s to another pitcher would be bad for a team trying to win baseball games. The Angels don’t have a pitcher of that class, though. That makes a six-man rotation more feasible from a competitive standpoint.

Another argument for the six-man rotation — one particularly relevant to Los Angeles — is its capacity to protect the health and innings of pitchers. Ohtani is only 23 and moving from a league where starters make just one appearance per week. He didn’t play a full season last year, and he seems like the most sure thing on the Angels staff.

Consider the following starters and their recent maladies:

  • Tyler Skaggs pitched just 85 innings last season due to a strained oblique that kept him out from May through July. This came after missing all of 2015 and most of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
  • Garrett Richards has 12 total starts the last two seasons due to a torn ligament in his elbow and a strained right biceps.
  • Andrew Heaney started just six games over the last two seasons due to a strained left flexor, surgery on his left elbow, and a shoulder injury at the end of last season.
  • Matt Shoemaker hit the disabled list last June with a strained right forearm and missed the rest of the season.
  • JC Ramirez was shut down last August with a strained right forearm after attempting a transition to a starting role on the heels of five previous seasons as a reliever.
  • Nick Tropeano missed all of last season and much of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The only other legitimate candidate to start is Parker Bridwell, and he is projected to be a replacement-level pitcher both by Steamer and ZiPS. Attempting to lighten the load on Ohtani and the rest of the injury-riddled Angels staff is a reasonable goal — and replicating the schedule of Japanese starters for Ohtani could help ease his transition to the majors and prevent injury. Unfortunately, it might not be realistic. The Angels don’t have enough starting depth to make the six-man rotation work.

Under optimal conditions, the six-man rotation requires not six starters but seven. In this arrangement, the sixth starter begins the season in the minors, with a reliever taking his place on the 25-man roster. Once needed, that sixth starter comes up, makes his start, and then returns to the minors in exchange for another bullpen arm. The next time the sixth starter’s turn comes up, the actual seventh starter is summoned — because the original sixth starter is required to stay in the minors for 10 days by rule. In this system, the sixth and seventh starters alternate starts all season long, gaining a full season of service time. Such a configuration also gives a club a full bullpen all season.

This would be useful arrangement for the Angels, except they can’t employ it, as J.C. Ramirez (the presumptive sixth or seventh starter) is out of options and can’t be sent to the minors.

There are other options, of course. The Angels could either go down a man in the bullpen and let Ramirez serve as the club’s sixth starter, or put Ramirez back in the bullpen use the replacement-level Bridwell for a dozen starts. Heaney, Shoemaker, and Skaggs all have minor-league options, but they are likely better than Ramirez and shouldn’t lose out on starts. The Angels could choose to manipulate the disabled list like the Dodgers did last season, but their better pitchers might end up taking too many days off.

Of course, none of these scenarios account for the Ohtani factor. Because Ohtani the Pitcher can also be Ohtani the Hitter, the Angels could still utilize six starters, field a full bullpen, and retain several bench options, as well. Having a pitcher who can also play the field — or at least be counted on as a pinch-hitter — expands the potential of the roster. Ohtani is not just the reason for the six-man rotation, he is the player who makes it work.

So there is some kind of road map for a six-man rotation in Anaheim. Probability still suggests, however, that the experiment is doomed to fail. The Angels have only seven decent starting pitching options in their organization, and all of them have injury concerns. The odds that the Angels even make it to Opening Day with six MLB-caliber starting pitchers isn’t great. Once the ravages of hurling an object at high speed over and over take their toll, the team will be forced to use replacement-level pitchers.

If that were the case, the potential value of the six-man rotation would then be mooted. Whatever slight increase health is gained by deploying a sixth starter would likely be offset by losses on the field. With more off-days built into the schedule this season, roughly two-thirds of Ohtani’s starts can be made with an extra day of rest even with only five starters in the rotation. If the Angels are serious about the six-man rotation, they need more starting pitchers. It’s a fun February experiment, but it is hard to see it lasting through April, let alone all season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

Otheni is not their best pitcher…they still have Shoemaker and Richards…there is gonna be an adjustment period which will take most of this year. Look for him to be MLB “good” in 2-3 years, also around the time this old guy experiment with the Angels will fail and they will rebuild…all while never making the postseason. Sorry Trout, the ineptitude is not on your end.

6 years ago
Reply to  JUICEMANE1

You realize this goes against the entire history of starters coming over from Japan? Pretty much all of them have been good right away, and their 1st or 2nd season has been their best.

6 years ago
Reply to  snapper

I mean, JUICEMANE1 is still wrong, but part of the reason why Japanese starters were best in their 1st or 2nd season was because they came over at their peak. For example, Hideo Nomo was (I think) 27 when he came over, Darvish and Tanaka came over when they were about 26, etc. Others, like Iwakuma, came just after their peak (age 31).

What this means is that Japanese pitchers that do well in NPB also do well in MLB, and that Ohtani still has room to get better simply because he’s young.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Partially true. But, pitchers don’t follow standard aging curves like batters. Lots of guys are as good as they’re going to get at 21 or 22. Others don’t get good until they hit 30.

6 years ago
Reply to  snapper

This is the problem with broad statements. Not all have succeed immediately or even at all, but you dont hear about or remember the failures as vividly.