ACE FAVORS SHIFT TO SIX-MAN ROTATIONS
NEW YORK TIMES JULY 22, 2014
Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, old friends and rivals from both the Pacific League in Japan and the American League, met in the tunnel underneath Yankee Stadium on Monday afternoon and chatted.
The men have much in common. Both were highly successful in Japan, and both converted that into success in Major League Baseball. The big difference now, though, is that while Darvish has avoided serious injuries since he came to the United States in 2012, Tanaka’s season is hanging by a fiber as thin as the torn ligament in his right elbow.
Darvish, the Texas Rangers’ ace, did not reveal the topic of their discussion, but perhaps he had time to outline his plan for slowing down the epidemic of elbow injuries that have felled so many pitchers recently, especially this year. Many of them have had Tommy John surgery, and if Tanaka’s elbow does not heal through a program of rest and rehabilitation in the next several weeks, he may join that list.
But Darvish said he believed that a shift to a six-man rotation by major league teams could significantly reduce the stress on all those elbow ligaments by giving pitchers a critical extra day to rest and limiting their starts. Darvish outlined his thoughts on the subject to Japanese news media outlets during the All-Star Game in Minneapolis last week, but he declined to expand on it further on Monday.
“I know if you have six starters, there are going to be other problems that it entails,” Darvish said.
The issues include expanding rosters to accommodate another starter, and resistance from other pitchers who prefer to pitch every fifth game as part of a five-man rotation.
Speaking to Japanese reporters in Minneapolis last week, he said, “If you really want to protect players, we should add one more spot to the starting rotation.”
In Japan, teams play six days a week with every Monday off, and they use six starters. The rosters include 28 players, and managers pick three ineligible players before each game, usually including a starting pitcher who has thrown in recent days. That is the pattern that Tanaka was accustomed to during his seven years with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Pacific League.
When the Yankees committed $175 million to bring Tanaka to the United States this year, they were aware of the difference in work patterns and tried to give him extra days off when possible. Still, although no one knows exactly why, Tanaka tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. If he does have surgery, he will miss at least a calendar year. Before this year, he had never had such a significant injury.
Perhaps a six-man rotation could have helped alleviate the stress, not only on Tanaka, but all the other pitchers in the rotation, and all across baseball.
“I loved pitching once a week,” said Colby Lewis, a Rangers pitcher who played for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 2008 and 2009. “You always felt great, really healthy and strong. Then you come here and pitch every fifth day, and it’s different. Look what happened to Tanaka. I’m not saying that’s the specific reason he got hurt, but it’s worth thinking about.”
Lewis went 26-17 with a 2.82 earned run average in his two years in Japan and made 54 starts.
Bobby Valentine, who managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan in 1995 and from 2004 to 2009, said he agreed with Darvish and Lewis about the benefits of a six-man rotation. He said the team it might help the most was the Mets, who are awaiting the return of their ace, Matt Harvey, from Tommy John surgery.
“When Matt Harvey comes back, why not go to a six-man rotation and take the stress off his elbow?” Valentine said. “You may not have as many starts per season, but you may have more over the length of a career.”
Darvish made 29 starts in 2012 and 32 last year. He was on the disabled list in 2013 with a strained trapezius muscle and was also on the disabled list at the beginning of this season with a strained neck, but he made his first start on April 6 and has been on track since then. His last outing was in the All-Star Game.
“It’s really hard to be consistent, and you have to know your body and know yourself,” Darvish said through his interpreter. “I was able to do that because I studied myself and studied the other guys.”
He is scheduled to make his 19th start Wednesday, and if he beats the Yankees, he will have won at least 10 games in his first three seasons. Over all, he is 38-23 with a 3.24 E.R.A., averaging 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Last year, he led the major leagues with 277 strikeouts.
Until this year, Darvish was on pace to become the best Japanese-born player ever to pitch in the big leagues. Tanaka’s first three months, in which he went 12-4 with a 2.51 E.R.A., briefly changed that perception, but now that Tanaka has a vulnerable elbow, Darvish is back in the leadership role.
If they can stay healthy, their friendly rivalry will be fun to watch over the next several years. On Monday, after he spoke to Tanaka, Darvish was asked his impression of his friend.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “It’s not like he got taller or anything.”
Actually, a lot changed. Darvish is scheduled to pitch Wednesday. No one knows exactly when Tanaka will pitch again.