With Schilling—who signed a one-year deal Tuesday—back in the fold after a brief foray into free agency, the Sox have seven starters under contract. The only one among the top six (seventh starter Julian Tavarez, who made 23 starts for the Sox this season, is a candidate to get traded after he didn't make any of the postseason rosters) they can expect to pitch effectively every fifth day next season is potential Cy Young Award winner Josh Beckett, who turns 28 in May and is coming off his second straight 200-inning season.
Daisuke Matsuzaka exceeded 200 innings in his rookie year, but Matsuzaka, who typically pitched on five days rest in Japan, wore down in the second half (3.84 ERA before the All-Star Break, 5.19 after it). Jon Lester and rookie Clay Buchholz, meanwhile, are projected to spend their first full season in the majors next season. Neither pitcher has yet to throw 160 innings in a season.
And Father Time certainly seems to be gaining on 41-year-old Tim Wakefield, who missed nearly two months due to a stress fracture in his rib cage in 2006 and made just one playoff start this fall due to a partial tear of the labrum in his right shoulder, and Schilling, who turns 41 next week, missed seven weeks this season with a sore shoulder and has lost several mph off his fastball.
The six-man rotation is a taboo topic for traditionalists who pine for the days of the four-man rotation and are disgusted with a game in which teams are content to get six innings out of a starter. Only one pitcher—the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis—made 35 starts in 2007, the first time in a non-strike season that multiple pitchers did not make at least 35 starts. C.C. Sabathia led the majors with 241 innings.
A generation ago, such milestones were routine. Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven exceeded 35 starts in a season nine times and threw more than 241 innings 11 times—yet led the league in innings just twice and in starts only once.
"Kids in the minor leagues need to throw more complete games," Blyleven said when the Twins visited Fenway Park during the final weekend of the regular season. "They need to know what it feels like to walk off the field with your teammates, rather than just having to pitch five or six innings every five or six days in the minor leagues. They need to be stretched out more."
For the Sox, though, limiting the innings of their big league starters could help them massage one more productive season out of Schilling and Wakefield, each of whom will be 41 come Opening Day, while monitoring the workload of Lester and Buchholz, each of whom are viewed as potential top-of-the-staff starters inside and outside the organization.
"We've discussed that concept, the concept of a six-man rotation," Epstein said during a conference call announcing Schilling's return Tuesday. "I think it's premature to commit to any usage pattern, but certainly we're in a little bit of a unique situation where you could say a number of our starters might benefit from something like that one way or the other.
"I'm sure that topic will come up a lot in our internal discussions between now and spring training. It's an interesting concept given the personnel that we have, but it's not something that we've fully explored yet."
Diehard explored it last week, when we used the 2007 schedule (the 2008 schedule has yet to be released) as a basis for the six-man rotation. The results are as follows:
The Sox would make just 28 starts on four days rest. The back three starters in the rotation would pitch on four days rest just four times. For a further breakdown of the workload—including how many days rest each pitcher would get for each start under our plan—please CLICK HERE to see the premium-only sidebar.
"We have a very unique situation with regards to personnel," Schilling wrote in his email. "With Dice being from a six-man rotation, Wake and I being ok with the extra day, the kids not being able to go over their IP limit you only have one guy you want to push out there every 5th day and that's Josh.
"I think if it were to happen you build the rotation schedule around Josh going out every fifth day."
One hundred and fifty innings is a reasonable expectation out of Schilling, who threw 151 innings this year at age 40, and Wakefield, who has averaged 165 innings the last two seasons. Beckett threw 200 2/3 innings this season in just 30 starts, so 32 starts could mean 215 innings out of one of the best pitchers on the planet. And maybe Matsuzaka, who threw 204 2/3 innings over 32 starts this year, could approach or reach that figure next year if he was on a more familiar schedule.
Still, the plan isn't perfect by any stretch. For instance, we've probably allotted too few starts for Lester and Buchholz. There's a general belief that teams can safely increase a pitcher's workload by 25 innings per season. Presuming each hurler averages six innings per start, Lester would throw 162 innings, slightly more than the 155 2/3 innings he threw this year, while Buchholz would throw 144 innings under our plan—four fewer than he threw this season.
Nor is there any way to predict where the Sox will be in September and how they'll set up their starters over the final month. Will they be in first place again and aligning the rotation for the postseason? Or will they be in a frantic race for a playoff spot and pulling out all the stops?
Nor, too, do we account for how the Sox will keep sharp those who are skipped frequently. Could Lester, Schilling, Wakefield or Buchholz occasionally pitch the seventh inning during their rotation sabbaticals?
And, of course, it does not account for what the Sox would do if someone was forced to the disabled list: Stay with the six-man rotation or revert back to the familiar five-man staff?
"The bottom line is it will always depend on the health of the guys in question," Schilling wrote.
Who knows? It may not work out. But next year provides the Sox a neat opportunity to experiment. If it fails, chalk it up to a rare misfire by an organization unafraid to shake things up. But perhaps Lester and Buchholz prove ready for a bigger workload in 2009, when the Sox can try to work a new starter into the rotation—perhaps Justin Masterson or Michael Bowden—in similarly regimented fashion.
And maybe other teams are following suit, too.
Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE