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.
Neither team used a six-man rotation, but as pitchers throw harder and injuries rise, more teams are spreading around their innings. Six-man rotations could be a more structured way to do it.
“That’s been the way the game’s been trending, historically, if you look back,” Eppler said. “I’ve spoken with some other clubs about that concept, and there’s some other clubs that are considering it. If it can help keep guys healthy and you’re able to get a little bit more reliability out of your pitchers because of it, I’m all for it.”
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.”
Ohtani’s unusual status as a hybrid player, Green said, could ease the roster crunch that a six-man rotation would create. Teams are still limited to 25-man rosters until September, and for teams that carry 13 pitchers, managers have little flexibility to substitute position players.
Even the Angels, Eppler said, are emphasizing flexibility as they try to bolster an offense that ranked last in the American League in slugging percentage. They have re-signed outfielder Justin Upton — acquired in a trade with Detroit last August — and traded prospects to the Tigers on Wednesday for Ian Kinsler, a veteran second baseman with power.
“There’s some more boxes to check, if possible, perhaps in the outfield,” Eppler said. “It just depends. We’re trying to stay so open-minded with the position players we add to the roster right now and really put a premium on flexibility. If we were able to acquire a guy that could play infield and outfield, that would be nice.”
Ohtani offers a different kind of flexibility, and the Angels are open to adjusting their rotation to get the best from him. Other teams will be similarly creative as pitching continues to evolve. Every team wants an edge, and one size no longer fits all.
“What I think we are going to see is the specific way a team uses pitchers is going to be geared a lot more to their personnel,” said Chaim Bloom, the Tampa Bay Rays’ senior vice president for baseball operations. “As opposed to trying to squeeze your players into a set mold that everybody’s using, you might see some teams now start to take a look at their players and say, ‘Given these individual players, what’s the best way that we can use them?’ The six-man is one example of that.”