At the end of this article, I'm going to tell you how 'Project 5183', the Colorado Rockies' much-maligned 'paired pitching system,' can work. In the meantime, though, let's come to what I feel is an obvious consensus on the subject: Dan O'Dowd's grand experiment hasn't set the baseball world aflame, but it also hasn't made what was already a lost season any worse.
When the Rockies decided to begin utilizing a four-man pitching rotation adhering to a 75-pitch limit with three 'piggyback' middle relievers eating the middle innings as necessary, the Rockies were 25-40 and done like dinner in the National League playoff picture. It was June 20. The four men in the rotation were Josh Outman, Alex White, Jeff Francis and Christian Friedrich. Josh Roenicke, Guillermo Moscoso, and Jeremy Guthrie were the 'piggyback' guys. The Rockies played the Phillies that night in Philadelphia. Outman was mostly lousy, and the Rockies lost.
The experiment has evolved, as any pitching rotation of any shape does, thanks to trades, injuries, and ineffectiveness. Guthrie is gone, to Kansas City. Outman is gone, to AA Tulsa. Friedrich is gone, to the disabled list with a freak back injury. Moscoso is constantly here today and gone tomorrow, getting familiar with I-25 thanks to his lack of familiarity with the strike zone. The four-man rotation is now something like a five-man rotation again, with Drew Pomeranz having his innings carefully monitored and Jhoulys Chacin finally, blessedly, back from the disabled list. The pitch count and 'piggyback' men remain - Roenicke, Adam Ottavino, and Carlos Torres. The Rockies entered play on Monday with a 51-75 record. That's not very good. But it's a 26-35 record since the project was put in place, which is a .426 winning percentage that ... well, it still makes the Rockies the third-worst team in the National League since its inception. But it's better than playing .385 baseball, which the Rockies were before Dan O'Dowd took a stick of dynamite to what we've come to understand as the modern pitching rotation.
I wrote in this space back in June that, in failure or success, 'Project 5183' would at least be something compelling to track in a season that was rapidly running short on compelling aspects. And I meant that in a positive and negative way. And it's easy to point to negatives. You can point to the Little League-esque restriction of a 75-pitch limit that arguably stunts the growth of Colorado's young pitchers by not giving them the experience of working deep into games and working out of jams. You can point to the numbers, where no Rockies starting pitcher has more than Friedrich's five wins and where the twin gems of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, White and Pomeranz, have combined for three wins in 31 starts, and argue that pitchers won't want any part of a system where they lose the opportunity to rack up a stat that means something to them, if nothing at all to the baseball cognoscenti.
But Dan O'Dowd didn't implement this system with those factors in mind. Project 5183 was implemented out of desperation, but it wasn't entirely born out of it. The Rockies have had a very real problem developing and maintaining league average starting pitching. Starting pitchers markedly decline in performance from the first trip through the lineup to the second, from the second time through to the third, and so on. Young pitchers are often put on pitch or inning limits to maintain their arms for longer. These are the foundation upon which Project 5183 was built - keep young guys fresh, limit their exposure to the opposition's hitters, and see if it keeps them effective longer and if the middle relievers can deliver some more zeroes.
So, ultimately, while O'Dowd's plan was easy to criticize and ridicule as the last stand of a GM under siege, there were also some very real reasons to observe its progress with interest. And even outside of the slight improvement in winning percentage, there are signs that the project just might have some merits.
Consider these numbers:
Carlos Torres: 30 IP, 3.90 ERA, 22 H, 21/13 K/BB
Adam Ottavino: 40.2 IP, 3.98 ERA, 30 H, 37/20 K/BB
Josh Roenicke: 34.1 IP, 2.88 ERA, 33 H, 19/12 K/BB
Those are the three primary 'piggyback' men, and those are their numbers since June 20. They haven't always pitched in the 'piggyback' role, but when they have, as the numbers show, they've been at least halfway decent. And you have to feel fortunate to get 'at least halfway decent' out of minor league refugees like Torres and Roenicke, and an ex-prospect who was jettisoned from his team late in spring training like Ottavino. The role has suited these men and they've done well to keep the team in games.
Is it helping the starting pitchers? For every quote you hear from Rockies hurlers talking about how the 75-pitch limit keeps them focused and makes them go after hitters, you've got hard evidence of younger guys like White, Pomeranz and Tyler Chatwood leaving games after three or four innings because of their inability to stay under the count. So it's hard to say definitively, with either side of the argument having anecdotal evidence to support themselves. Personally, I'd support a looser pitch count restriction, maybe out to 85-95 and even further when off days provide an extra day of rest.
Ultimately, starting pitching sunk the Rockies' 2012 campaign, and the switch to Project 5183 didn't exactly transform the Rockies arms into Cy Young candidates. But the Rockies have gotten virtually nothing from the two best starting pitchers on their roster - Jorge de la Rosa's comeback from Tommy John surgery remains stuck in neutral, and Jhoulys Chacin just got back after missing three months. Their third best pitcher entering this season, Juan Nicasio, only pitched for a month and a half before getting hurt. Their best pitchers after that are either really young and have gone through expected growing pains, or are Jeff Francis.
So it'd be unfair to write off the Project after three months, because a lot more has gone into the struggles of this staff than the restrictions placed upon it by the Project. But the Rockies have a group of eight guys who could slot into either starter or 'piggyback' roles next year - Chacin, de la Rosa, Pomeranz, Nicasio, White, Friedrich, Chatwood and Francis - and could reasonably be expected to pitch better than they did in 2012.
So the question of whether there's real merit to Project 5183 may have to wait until next year. Ultimately, though, the success or failure of this system will rest on the same factor that determines the success of the traditional rotation - having enough real live pitching talent on hand. The Rockies aren't just betting that they might have that eventually, they're betting on their formula being the right way to manage said talent. Whether they're right or not, though, there's the solution, plain as can be - get good pitchers. If Chacin can stay healthy, if de la Rosa can look something like his former self, if Nicasio and Chatwood can harness their big heat, if Pomeranz and White can be more efficient, then the Rockies aren't as far away from that as you might think. Which would mean Project 5183 isn't far away from actually working.