The first time Mike Scioscia caught a full season in the major leagues, he guided a pitching staff that modern fans would not recognize.
Scioscia’s 1982 Los Angeles Dodgers, the reigning World Series champions, used three pitchers for at least 36 starts each. Those pitchers — Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch — all worked at least 235 innings that season. They all lasted into the 1990s and combined for nearly 10,000 career innings.
“There’s a lot of pitchers that have handled 200 innings a year, 33 starts, and never looked back,” Scioscia said at the winter meetings this week. “They’re fine with it. And there are some pitchers that have a problem getting to 170 innings.”
These days, as manager of the Los Angeles Angels, Scioscia deals with a lot more pitchers like that. Of the top seven starting candidates on his roster, only one, Garrett Richards, has ever pitched more than 160 innings in a major league season. And injuries have limited Richards to 12 starts, total, in the two years since he did it.
The solution, for the Angels, could be a six-man rotation, a device that teams have tried periodically, though rarely for long. In the Angels’ case, the idea could help them smooth Shohei Ohtani’s heralded entry to the major leagues.
Ohtani, the pitching and slugging phenom, chose the Angels last week after leaving the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. He has been dominant on the mound, with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, and a 2.52 earned run average. But he has never made more than 24 starts in a season in Japan, where teams use six-man rotations.
Scioscia has said only that he is considering a six-man arrangement, without committing to it. But General Manager Billy Eppler sees the way baseball is heading. The Houston Astros won the World Series last season and used no pitcher for more than 153⅓ innings. The team they beat, the Dodgers, had just one pitcher who crossed that threshold.
Ohtani received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow in October, and Yahoo! Sports reported this week that a medical report in Japan last month had revealed a first-degree sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament. Teams knew this information during the recruiting process for Ohtani, and his ligament injury is said to be the least severe of its type.
Eppler said Ohtani’s injection was preventive, and that doctors had assured him Ohtani’s elbow showed normal wear for a 23-year-old pitcher. Ohtani is now playing catch at 180 to 200 feet, and the Angels do not sound worried about arm problems.
“I think that’s past him, and our understanding is there are no restrictions at all going into spring training,” Scioscia said. “He’ll get down there in plenty of time and be ready to go.”
Nearly every major league team pursued Ohtani, many with elaborate recruiting pitches. The San Diego general manager, A.J. Preller, spoke in Japanese for three minutes during the Padres’ presentation. They told Ohtani they were contemplating a six-man rotation with or without him.
“Most of our young guys that we’re going to rely on to be big-time starters for us in the future, they’re coming up in a six-man rotation system,” Padres Manager Andy Green said. “We introduced it in September last year, which is probably common for a lot of clubs that aren’t in contention to do that. If there’s not a disparity between your 1 and 6 at the level there is with most teams, there’s reason to do it, because the rest is probably really good for guys.”
Another rebuilding team, the Cincinnati Reds, also made a slick presentation for Ohtani, whom they had hoped would become their first Japanese player. (The Reds are the only team that has never had a player from Japan.) If the Reds had signed Ohtani, said Manager Bryan Price, they likely would have a six-man rotation at the beginning, but not for good.
“We looked at like a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, once-a-week scenario, and felt that with the pitchers we have coming off injury and the youth in our system — and the desire to maybe limit innings for some of our young pitching prospects — that it would work in our particular scenario,” Price said.
“To me, it’s not ideal, because it’s going to affect everybody’s ability to pitch on turn or in a more traditional setting. But we were willing to take that shot. I would think long term the desire would be to get Ohtani eventually to that position where he was pitching every fifth day, so not everyone in your rotation is affected.”