A 4-man rotation? Piggyback starters? Cincinnati Reds' Derek Johnson considering all ideas

Bobby Nightengale
Cincinnati Enquirer

When Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson prepares for a 60-game schedule, he looks at the starting rotation and sees endless possibilities.

It could mean piggybacking starters, so one starter pitches three innings and another starter follows for three innings. Another option is treating the staff like it’s a playoff series where guys return on short rest.

Trevor Bauer may receive his wish and start every fourth day, instead of the typical five days. 

“I’ve got that as being 100% on the table, especially in the shortened season, that’s something he really wants to do and thinks he would thrive in that environment,” Johnson said of Bauer. “I know there’s questions behind that. At the same time, I think we’re in the situation to do it. I trust Trevor. I trust what kind of work he puts in, invests in himself and I think if he feels he can do it, I think he can.

“I think it’s a really cool weapon that we have that maybe a lot of other teams don’t have. So, if we can use that to our advantage, I think we will.”

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Trevor Bauer (27) throws long toss during practice, Friday, July 3, 2020, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Reds and Major League Baseball opened a second spring training period ahead of a shortened season due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson was a longtime pitching coach at Vanderbilt, and he showed his creativity with the way he used the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen in the postseason. For the past three months, the coach/mad scientist had time to consider how the pitching staff is built for a short schedule.

In a 60-game season, which is just 37% of a normal regular season, every game is magnified. An expanded 30-man roster provides more flexibility and more opportunities for unorthodox ideas.

“The one thing you can probably count on,” Johnson said, “is the idea that we’ll make adjustments really fast in-game and we’ll make adjustments really fast between games.”

If the Reds use Bauer as a starter every fourth day, which Bauer argues will maximize his production, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Reds will operate with a four-man rotation.

“You can do it in a couple of different ways,” Johnson said. “You can look at it like it’s a piggyback type of situation. You can look at it like there would be a standalone four-man. Trevor would be the only guy doing the four-man rotation, which gives everyone else different types of rest if we were to do it that way.

“The piggyback situation comes to mind as well of ways you could get a little more, a little more often from a guy. Instead of him pitching 5-6 innings, maybe he pitches only three. You feel really good about the piggyback guy that’s coming in behind him to where you feel like you can win games.”

Johnson said there are some other starters, besides Bauer, that he could envision pitching on shorter rest than usual. The concern is it’s hard to train pitchers for a different pitching schedule when preseason camp is just half the length of spring training.

"I’m not just going to throw this out because I hope, or I think, it will work," he said. "I want to make sure I’m doing as much homework as I can to understand what that situation might look like.”

One area of the bullpen that will become much more important is the long man, a guy who can pitch three or four innings. Tyler Mahle, who was the team’s sixth starter, is a top candidate. Several relievers fit the mold including Lucas Sims, Cody Reed, Michael Lorenzen and Robert Stephenson.

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In a 162-game season, teams must think about the long-term ramifications for bullpen management. No reason to burn out the entire bullpen when a starter is rocked in the first inning – Johnson called it “throws a shoe.” That changes in a 60-game season. Teams don’t have the patience to sit through a bad start.

“In our game right now, the way it stands, the long man is kind of a dinosaur. They don’t really exist,” Johnson said. “We were getting ourselves to the fifth inning, we were handing it over to the bullpen one way or the other. There were times in games that you're playing for tomorrow too. Now, I think you’re at a point where the long man becomes really important.”

Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson (36) observes the pitchers stretching during spring practice, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, at the Cincinnati Reds Spring Training Facility in Goodyear, Arizona.

Before Friday’s workout, all Reds players underwent a physical assessment from the team’s health and performance staff. Pitchers are at different stages of their readiness based on what was available to them during the shutdown. Not all pitchers had access to a catcher. A couple of guys built their own mounds at home.

A lot of Johnson’s plans will be determined based on how many innings pitchers can throw at the start of the season. But it’s clear Johnson isn’t ruling out any ideas, especially when each game means so much in a 60-game season.

“I think you’ll see some guys who it’ll feel pretty normal, the way it would feel if we were playing the normal season and it was March 26 and we were playing the game,” Johnson said. “I think it’ll look a lot like that. I think there will be some other circumstances where you’ll see a little bit less from that starter from those first couple of turns. That may be where our flexibility will help us.”

The Reds will begin live batting practice sessions Sunday and it will morph into controlled scrimmages later in the week. Reds manager David Bell said he anticipates playing a few innings of scrimmages by next weekend.

“With this pandemic that we’re going through, if we stay healthy, No. 1, if we’re able to switch gears and be effective, No. 2, I think that team has a really good chance to win,” Johnson said. “I think we’re built for it in some ways. I’m excited about it. I think our guys are, too.”