For some teams, questing for a World Series trophy requires sticking with whatever’s working.

The Toronto Blue Jays don’t have that luxury.

Things are mostly good for the reigning AL East champs. Their 68-52 record puts them a game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox in this year’s race. They’re 57-38 since opening with a thud in April. Neither the Orioles nor the Red Sox have that kind of momentum.

The prime mover in the Blue Jays’ 2015 success was their offense, which is still going strong with the third-most runs in the American League this season. But with a 3.73 ERA that leads the AL—Cleveland is second at 3.80—Toronto’s starting pitching has been even better. The usual wisdom says not to fix it if it ain’t broke.

The Blue Jays, though, have been determined to try to fix it so that it doesn’t break.

Such is the point of moving from a five-man rotation to a six-man rotation. It was either that or transition Aaron Sanchez, a youngster with a 2.84 ERA, to the bullpen to preserve a right arm that’s already thrown a career-high 152.1 innings.

But since that would have required replacing Sanchez with new arrival Francisco Liriano, a veteran with a 5.46 ERA, it’s understandable that general manager Ross Atkins came down on the side of “nope.”

“The biggest thing is input from different people after something was more concrete, or closer to it, and the fact that Francisco Liriano was so open to everything,” Atkins said, per Gregor Chisholm of “Then the more we thought about the potential of a six-man rotation not just benefiting Aaron but benefiting the others in the rotation at this point in the season.”

Because the comparisons are unavoidable, this is a case of the Blue Jays being more like the 2015 New York Mets with Matt Harvey than the 2012 Washington Nationals with Stephen Strasburg. Rather than let Sanchez pitch until he maxes out his innings and then shut him down, the Blue Jays are spacing out his innings in hopes that he’ll still have some bullets left for the postseason.

To boot, the Blue Jays don’t have to worry about the Tommy John factor. They’re merely cognizant of the fact Sanchez has already pitched 19 more innings than he ever has as a pro. They don’t want to wear him out. The man himself seems to want the same thing.

“You got to look long term with this,” he said in late July, according to Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star. “I’m not just here to pitch in 2016. I’m here to pitch five, six, seven [years], however long it is.”

Nobody’s saying this is a foolproof plan. Not even Atkins, who said “there’s no perfect answer, there’s no absolute” to the Sanchez conundrum, according to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.

The obvious drawback is that a six-man rotation means the Blue Jays will be limiting the exposure of not only Sanchez but also of J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman. Happ also has a 2.96 ERA. Estrada is at 3.20. Stroman has pitched to a 3.27 ERA in eight starts since July 1.

If anyone is wringing his or her hands over how having a wrench thrown into their routines might mess with Toronto’s starters, it’s not just you.

“If you had a bad start, that would be hard to sit on for five days and then go out and pitch on the sixth day,” former Blue Jays All-Star Roy Halladay said, according to Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun. “That, for me, would be the tough part, having a short, two-, three-, four-inning start and then thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to wait this much longer to get out there again.'”

However, any and all hand-wringing may be much ado about nothing. 

It’s not easy to study six-man rotations directly—there haven’t been many of them, and they don’t tend to last—but Russell Carleton investigated the effect of extra rest at Fox Sports.

His findings: “I looked at strikeouts and walks and home runs and singles and a few other outcomes. Pitchers pitching with extra rest don’t actually show any extra ability. They don’t suffer for it either. They just kinda pitch like we would normally expect.”

As long as extra rest doesn’t have a negative effect, that bodes well for Toronto’s six-man rotation. 

And there’s more! Although Carleton posited a six-man rotation “wouldn’t necessarily make pitchers less susceptible to the injury bug,” Rob Arthur suggested otherwise at FiveThirtyEight. From 2006 through 2014, he found that 1.7 percent of pitchers who started on three days’ rest reported an injury within two weeks. On the normal four days’ rest, the rate dropped to 1.0 percent. On five days’ rest, the rate dropped to 0.8 percent.

This bodes even better for the Blue Jays’ experiment. It would be one thing if they were spreading out a collection of starters who were all in their physical prime. Instead, the picture looks like this:

  • Aaron Sanchez: a 24-year-old who is already in uncharted innings territory.
  • Marcus Stroman: an undersized 25-year-old who is on track to exceed his high of 166.1 innings.
  • J.A. Happ: a 33-year-old who has never topped 172 innings.
  • Marco Estrada: a 33-year-old who’s maxed out at 181 innings and who’s been limited to 132.1 innings this season by a bad back.
  • Francisco Liriano: a 32-year-old who hasn’t topped 190 innings since 2010, in part because of occasional health woes.
  • R.A. Dickey: a knuckleballer who has been durable but who is also 41 years old.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect test subject for a six-man rotation. These guys have gotten the Blue Jays this far. But for that to last, they may need the breather they’re getting.

Whether this experiment will work is still a matter of “if.” Hence the use of the word “experiment.” If each team had enough talented pitchers for a six-man rotation and there was tried-and-true evidence of its effectiveness, they’d be the norm. Until then, six-man rotations will remain oddities that inspire more curiosity than conclusions.

But there isn’t much to suggest six-man rotations are inherently dangerous. And in the case of the Blue Jays, it could be just the thing to preserve not only their best pitcher but also all of their pitchers. If it works, they’ll waltz into the postseason with a strong offense and strong pitching.

It never hurts to have either of those things in October. Having both can only help.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. All stats and records up to date heading into Wednesday’s games. 

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