The Rule of Three applies in comedy, in writing, in argumentation, in oratory, in advertising, in mathematics, in blind mice and little kittens, in all kinds of things — especially baseball. After all, we have three strikes, three outs in an inning, three bases that get numbers, three outfielders, 3x3 innings and players, 3x3x3 outs in a game.
The Rule of Three is a proven winner wherever applied, and it could well be so in one more application — pitching rotation. And, boy, oh boy, are the Chicago White Sox the right team to give it a try.
It’s a basic idea — three pitchers, each pitching three innings, every three games.
This isn’t a new concept. It goes back at least to an article by Dave Fleming in Bill James Online in 2009. But in an industry where until very recently the idea of “change” only applied to bringing in a new pitcher, it has never been attempted.
Enter the South Siders’ opportunity to go from one of the least innovative organizations in baseball — which is itself remarkably devoid of innovation — to the forefront of progress. And maybe climb out of being one of the — if not the — worst pitching staffs in baseball.
Fleming’s argument for the system is well known — pitchers become less effective the second time through the order, much less so the third time. Effectiveness also declines with the number of pitches thrown, especially after about 60. So why put them in a position of increased failure?
Pitching concepts around MLB are mostly ripe for alteration. Look at the success of the Tampa Bay Rays “opener” strategy, a move that should have been obvious long ago, since the top of the order is always up in the first inning, when more runs are scored than any other.
The 3-3-3 attack (a Tripod of Terror?) would be a lot more drastic, but drastic situations call for drastic change. Sure, Sox starters have had a few good games this season, but not nearly enough.
It’s understandable that any team with one or more really good and/or durable starters wouldn’t want to cut that star to three innings a shot. You have a Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom or Justin Verlander or Blake Snell, you take advantage of that. Or if you have mostly pretty good starters, who always go six or more innings, and a shutdown bullpen, why change?
But for the White Sox — why wouldn’t you? The only starter with any consistency — well, good consistency — is Carlos Rodón, and he has a history of wearing down and wearing out.
Enter 3-3-3. Obviously, if you pitch three innings every three games you max out at 162 innings a season, a very reasonable load. Want to limit pitches further for, say, a Dylan Cease or post-TJS Michael Kopech? If you replace one with a reliever every fourth turn, he’s down to 120 innings, the sort of level teams aim for when they’re being careful with a young pitcher.
Worried about just two days’ rest? Pitch counts for youngsters are a big deal these days, and most state athletic associations impose limits for high schools. The most common system says a pitcher — a teenager — must have more than two days rest if he throws more than 75 pitches. Illinois is stricter: Three days’ rest for more than 65 pitches. MLB has guidelines for younger players that are tighter, with more than two days’ rest after 60 pitches, but those apply on down to 15-year-olds. Major league pitchers have to be a lot more durable than that.
In this early season, at the point I looked, even the most inefficient staff (New York Yankees), averaged 18.8 pitches per inning. The Sox were second-worst, at 18.3, down from more than 19 earlier in the year. Sixteen teams were at less than 17. So, on average, even the White Sox staff would be within the strictest guidelines for 15-year-olds.
Also, the 3-3-3 leaves room for several relievers. Fleming used an example of an 11-man staff. With today’s 13-man, you could give constant rotation relief and still have a “closer,” although in this situation he would close an inning when one of the regulars struggled, not necessarily the end of the game. (The whole idea that the ninth is so much harder to throw than other innings is just a self-fulfilling prophecy — the “90% mental” part Yogi cited — with no physical basis, which the game has just talked itself into, but that’s another story.)
Eventually, any team that prepared for 3-3-3 could cut down to a 12-man staff and give themselves better position-player options. The system would put LOOGYs out of work, but, then, should they really be in work instead of someone with more baseball uses? Besides, with the proposed three-batter-minimum rule, they’re gone in the future, anyway.
So, why the White Sox? Because our starting pitching is generally bad — well, all our pitching is generally bad — but we have a bunch of arms with multi-inning experience available.
Start with the current five starters, add Manny Bañuelos, Carson Fulmer, and the Dylan boys (Covey and Cease), and you’ve got your nine. A lot of young arms, and one very old one would throw fewer pitches an outing. A possible rotation would be:
Rodon - Nova - Fulmer
Lopez - Santana - Covey
Giolito - Bañuelos - Cease
Bullpen: Alex Colomé/Kelvin Herrera/Jace Fry/Nate Jones
That’s just one option. It’s an attempt at balance among the units, but there may be very good reasons to go with a different alignment. With nine in the rotation, Renteria could play Sudoku to figure out how it should work.
The middle group has no lefty, but I can’t think of another one who might be able to go three innings regularly. Cease may eventually be one of those stars that keep you from wanting to go 3-3-3, but for now he’s assigned to light duty, so it would work well.
The order within each group should probably rotate, at least at first if only because whoever starts has no chance to get a win under current rules. Mix in the four relievers, making sure at least one (Fry) is capable of multiple innings, to give the rotation a rest for those on innings limits, but relievers should be needed a lot less often under this system.
I know, I know. Your immediate reaction is, “Three innings of (fill in the blank)? You’ve got to be kidding!” But, hey, at least you’ll know it’s not more than three innings.
A good time to change things would be the All-Star break, at which point the Sox should be well out of the competition even in the AL Central. So, nothing to lose.
Is this some sort of foolproof move? Of course not. It’s an experiment, with the same staff, and whole lot of alchemists failed to turn lead into gold. On the other hand, experiments led to electricity, powered flight and chocolate chip cookies.
Besides, Jerry Reinsdorf should love this system. Many pitchers going three innings are basically middle relievers, generally the least expensive on the market. He can pinch those pennies even tighter. while looking like a luminary.
Or a poet and a thief.
Get hip, White Sox, with 3-3-3. It’s the future.