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Time to apply the Rule of Threes

Mix up the pitching staff and starting rotation? The White Sox are in the perfect position to do it

Given a rotation that could only get more tattered as the trade deadline approaches and the season wears on, it’s time for the White Sox get “radical.”

The Rule of Three is common in many fields, from comedy to debate to music to speechifying or story structure. Recognition of the importance of groups of three and how they impact the mind goes back at least to Aristotle, and was valued by civilizations that followed, from the Romans onward.

One such field is, of course, baseball —three strikes, three outs, 3x3 players, 3x3 innings and distances from base to base and home to mound in multiples of three. The use of so many threes helps make the game perfect.

Back in 2009 Dave Fleming proposed taking the Rule of Three one major step further and applying it to a pitching rotation. Fleming provided googobs of supporting data, but was making a generic case, not a specific one.

I’d proposed the adoption of the concept both at South Side Sox in 2019 and Sports Illustrated in 2020, but the urgent need to use it had not yet come. Now it has. It’s time to advance a step and create a specific case — the second half of the 2023 season for the Chicago White Sox.

It’s the perfect time for an experiment, and the perfect team situation to do it.

There have been pitcher scheduling innovations since Fleming published (such as the concept of the opener), but not this. And the White Sox didn’t even do those at all.

Time for the White Sox to become trendsetters instead of followers
Fleming’s 3-3-3 proposal was simple: Scrap of the usual starter and series of short relievers each game, with the starters on a five-game rotation. Instead, the rotation would consist of three pitchers each game, each pitching three innings, every third game, hence 3-3-3. At the time he wrote, pitching staffs were smaller — the White Sox carried 11 — so the system actually is even more feasible today, with 13 pitchers on each roster, leaving four who aren’t in the rotation to work as current relievers do, in case of pitcher failure or extra innings or injury.

The benefits are many — including the complete avoidance of a third time through the order for a pitcher (and often barely a second one), and forcing opponents to prepare for several pitchers instead of one.

Why the White Sox? Why now?
Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who may be of questionable competence in general but is Jerry Reinsdorf’s typist and thus privy to White Sox thinking, said last week that he would be shocked if any of Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Starter Who Will Not Be Named, Joe Kelly (said before IL trip, so perhaps someone else like Keynan Middleton), Kendall Graveman or Aaron Bummer are still on the Sox come August 1.

That’s a heck of a gutting of a pitching staff, especially for a team with no upper-level farm system pitching talent to speak of. Such gutting would make filling innings under traditional scheduling nigh on impossible. But thanks to a 3-3-3 rotation, all can work out well. Not sensationally, maybe, but at least work out, and at this point it doesn’t really matter how many games the White Sox win from here on out, if any.

Wouldn’t this be increasing workload too much?
Not at all. Three innings every three games is the same as five every five, And even high school players are allowed to carry this load.

The Illinois High School Athletic Association rules, which are typical to other states, mandate four days rest after 76 or more pitches, which is quite similar to what is common in the majors. But for 60 or fewer pitches, only two days of rest are required. Even the notoriously inefficient Sox staff should be under 60 in three innings, and if not, there are relievers. Plus, pros should have more stamina than high-schoolers.

How would this work, specifically?
If we use Nightengale’s theory of who will be gone, the staff still has enough pitchers with multiple-inning experience to carry 3-3-3 out with room to spare:

Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech are starters now, Touki Toussaint sort of one. Reynaldo López has been one in the majors. Jesse Scholtens and Tanner Banks have done several piggy-backed starts. Garrett Crochet is supposed to be getting stretched out as a potential starter. Jimmy Lambert had a couple of starts last year.

That’s seven who have been on the Sox staff this season. Add in Mike Mayers, a starter just acquired from Kansas City, and Jordan Holloway from Charlotte, who had a handful of starts for the Marlins and upper-minors teams.

That gets us to the needed nine without anyone else from Charlotte, like Sean Burke, or any minor-leaguers picked up trading the six current staffers/Tim Anderson/any other position players who go bye-bye. It also leaves a very good traditional reliever core of Liam Hendriks, Middleton, Gregory Santos and Bryan Shaw — perhaps a waste of Hendriks’ talents, but he’s already wasted by being on the Sox.

You could have rotations of:

Cease, Banks, Holloway
Kopech, Scholtens, Lambert
Toussaint, Crochet, Mayers

No reason to carve the schedule in stone — there may be some adjustments needed, especially at first.

If, say, Cease can’t reasonably adjust to pitching every third day, a fourth rotation of him going six innings with three relievers could be added to the mix every fifth day, with the 3-3-3 groups staying intact and even getting an added rest day on occasion. If Crochet needs time once off the IL to get stretched out, he could get reliever help or Burke could fill in on occasion.

When could this start?
How soon is now?

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