It's time for the Pirates to make Arquimedes Caminero a starter. Yep. Give him the ball every fifth day. But no, I'm not suggesting the Bucs make him a starter in the conventional way that you're envisioning. I've got a different idea, and It might not be one that you've ever considered.
We are seeing more creative thinking in baseball than ever before, and pitcher usage is at the forefront of much of it. How teams use starting pitchers, particularly back-of-the rotation starters, is changing. Two teams blazing the trail are the Rays and the Royals.
[U]nlike the trend in recent decades of using starting pitchers less in an attempt to avoid injuries, the Rays and Royals are not limiting the number of pitches being thrown, but rather, they are limiting the number of batters the starting pitchers are facing to in order to increase their effectiveness.
The idea is pretty straightforward. As USA Today's Ted Berg notes, the more times a batter sees a pitcher in a game, the more familiar he becomes with the pitcher's repertoire and therefore the more likely he is to have success.
In 2015, hitters have a collective .696 OPS in their first time to the plate, a .728 mark in their second time facing a starter, and a .760 OPS whenever they see a starter for the third time. In 2014, those marks were .681, .708 and .749, respectively.
Limiting a marginal starter would seem, then, to make perfect sense. But if a team is going to adopt this strategy, it needs to have a strong bullpen with relievers capable of working multiple innings.
Taking it a step further, the Rays have employed an even more unconventional approach on two separate occasions this season. Two weeks ago in a game against the Nationals, a game that Rays manager Kevin Cash said was going to be a "bullpen game," he aligned his pitchers in a very interesting way. From Joe Sheehan's excellent newsletter:
Instead of starting the pitcher likely to go the longest -- Matt Andriese, who started 89% of his minor-league games -- he started a reliever in Steve Geltz and then went to Andriese. It was an application of a table-game idea that's been around for a while, starting a good relief pitcher against the top of the lineup, then bringing in the nominal starting pitcher to continue the game after an inning or two. Starting the game with Geltz just ensures that he gets to use a good reliever in a reasonably leveraged situation -- facing the top of the lineup in a tied game. It's a twist on the "bullpen game" that I like a lot. (Cash has actually done this twice, both times with Geltz.) That it was a no-DH game also meant that Cash would be free to hit for his pitcher in the top of the third without taking someone out of the game from whom he expected innings.
The idea here is to limit Andriese to facing 15 to 20 batters to increase his effectiveness. Also, by bringing him in in the third inning there is a decent chance that he is going to start by facing the bottom of the opposing lineup.
So what does this have to do with the Pirates and Arquimedes Caminero?
Jeff Locke gave the Pirates a typical Locke start (if there is such a thing) on Sunday against the Braves. He went five innings, gave up five hits, one run, and three walks, and had five strikeouts. He threw 94 pitches. Inefficient as usual, but he kept the Pirates in the game. Locke has now started 76 games in his career and he's averaging 5.2 innings per start. As you might expect, Locke has performed better against the bottom of the opposing order, and opposing teams have tended to do better the more often he has to go through their lineup, registering a .687 OPS the first time through, .761 the second, .723 the third and 1.146 the fourth.
Maybe it's time for the Pirates to get creative. In 15 starts this year, Locke has pitched seven or more innings exactly two times, none in his last 10. In fact, Locke has failed to go more than five innings four of his last nine starts. When Locke goes to the mound, the bullpen is going to pitch multiple innings. That's a fact. Why not try what Kevin Cash has done on a few occasions and start a reliever like Caminero?
Here's the thinking. Caminero would start the game against the top of the order in a mildly leveraged situation. He would pitch two innings against the better part of the opponent's batting order, then give way to Locke, who would likely face the bottom of the order in the third. (And if Locke did see some of the lineup again a third time, it would be the bottom.) Clint Hurdle could decide whether to pinch hit for Caminero when his spot in the order came up, depending on whether he wanted to burn a position player at that point in the game or just have Caminero or Locke bat.
Sheehan and I discussed the pros and cons of this approach on my show last week and I also discussed the all-bullpen model of building a staff with Brian Kenny of the MLB Network on Friday.
I'd be shocked if the Pirates actually did something like this. First they would need buy-in from Locke. Suggesting this approach to him isn't exactly going to be a confidence-builder for a "demoted" starter. Second, you probably wouldn't want to tie one particular reliever like Caminero into the piggy-backing role. It would likely mean that you couldn't use the designated reliever the day before or probably the day after and that could really hamper decision-making in other games. If you had three different guys you felt comfortable using based on availability (perhaps Caminero, Jared Hughes and, down the road, John Holdzkom), maybe you could pull it off. But if you had one game you had to win and Locke was the guy who was going to be the guy to go to the mound, this is definitely the approach I would take.