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Cardinals find success with eight man rotation

Brandon Dickson

Palm Beach's Brandon Dickson first experience the "piggy back" rotation last season with Quad Cities. Front: Cardinals pitcher Tyler Herron. Courtesy Quad Cities.

By Chuck King

Brandon Dickson was cruising.

The Palm Beach starter’s pitch count was still relatively low as he walked off the mound after five hitless innings against Daytona. It was the best start of his career. And it was over.

“I was happy to have thrown five innings with no hits, but I didn’t really like the fact that I had to come out,” said Dickson, who knew it would be futile to argue with manager Gaylen Pitts.

Truth is, the decision was out of Pitts’ hands, too.

As part of an organizational decision intended to develop starting pitchers, the Palm Beach began the season using an eight-man rotation.

The Cardinals have four tandems of starters. The first pitcher in the tandem starts the game and the other enters around the fifth inning. Four days later when the tandem is scheduled to pitch again, the player who relieved previously becomes the starter.

The system is new to Palm Beach, but not to many of the Cardinals pitchers. Last year the Cardinals employed a similar rotation at low-Class A Quad Cites, and at short-season Batavia. Quad Cities is using the formula again this season.

“I think the organization felt that we kept guys injury free and we got guys some work who wouldn’t have got work, so we are going to try it again,” St. Louis pitching coordinator Dyar Miller said.

There is reason to believe idea is working. Three weeks into the season the Florida State League-leading Cardinals boasted a league-best 2.54 team ERA. Sporting a 4.53 team ERA, Quad Cities isn’t having the same success.

Despite the positive results in Palm Beach, not every pitcher embraces the modified rotation. Most pitchers, however, have somewhat grudgingly accepted it.

“We’re doing what we can with it,” said Tyler Herron, who experienced the same rotation last year at Quad Cities. “Obviously, everybody is not happy with it. It’s not our decision, so we just do what we can.”

In the “piggyback rotation” the first starter throws a maximum of 75 pitches or five innings. Should the starter pitch all five innings, the second “starter” enters at the top of the sixth.

“I’m not a huge fan of it,” Dickson said. “You can’t really get consistent. A starter has a different mentality than a reliever. Each outing you have something different you have to get ready for. I don’t really like that.”

If the original starter needs to be lifted in the middle of an inning, Pitts can choose from four relievers in the bullpen. To simulate the starting pitching experience, the second “starter” will only enter at the beginning of an inning.

“It kind of takes the managing out of the game, but as long as it works, that’s the main thing,” Pitts said.

Earlier in the season Pitts wondered what it would be like to remove a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. When the time came to pull Dickson, Pitts didn’t hesitate.

“They know what the guidelines are,” Pitts said. “There’s no gray area. If he gets one more inning, it wouldn’t make a difference. The second guy has got to pitch.”

The eight-man rotation isn’t used at Double-A Springfield or Triple-A Memphis, and Miller says there are no plans for the current Palm Beach starters to remain in the piggy back rotation above this level.

Miller scoffs at the idea that using two starters will undermine the development of Cardinals middle relievers, saying in effect that no one tries to develop middle relief. He even suggests that being around at the end of games, as the second starter is prone to do, could help the organization identify potential closers.

“The main ingredient is that we are not overusing guys,” Miller said, “and then when you have eight guys who are pretty darn good – all of them could probably start – it gives them a little taste of starting and a few more innings.”

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