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OC Register: Angels starters flourishing with six-man rotation

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ANAHEIM — So far, the Angels rotation experiment seems to be working.

General manager Billy Eppler’s idea of using a six-man rotation — more accurately, of giving pitchers an extra day of rest whenever possible — has not only received the stamp of approval from the pitchers, but the results have been undeniable.

With the season just past its one-third point, the Angels’ rotation ERA (3.58) ranks third in the league, behind only the Houston Astros (2.83) and Cleveland Indians (3.54). Since May 1, the Angels starters have a 2.61 ERA, which is best in the league.

“I don’t think you could look at this last month and think we could pitch any better from the starting rotation,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “Some of these guys are getting a little more rest. At times they are going on normal rest. I think it’s going to be a bigger plus as we move deeper into the season.”

The Angels are the only team in the majors with five starters who have made seven starts with an ERA of 3.50 or better.

Shohei Ohtani (3.10), Andrew Heaney (3.12), Garrett Richards (3.25) and Tyler Skaggs (3.27) are fixtures, with 21-year-old rookie Jaime Barría (2.48) flourishing in his role shuttling between Triple-A and the majors. Nick Tropeano (4.35) has the highest ERA, but the Angels have still won five of his nine starts.

Skaggs, who leads the Angels with 66 innings, said he’s a fan of the six-day rotation: “It’s nice to get an extra day in between to recover. I see a lot of pluses and not many minuses.”

Added Richards: “The guys seem to like it.”

The point of the switch, as Eppler described it over the winter, was really to keep the pitchers healthy. It didn’t work for JC Ramírez or Matt Shoemaker, but their injuries both lingered from last year.

Although the addition of Ohtani was the impetus for the Angels to make the change, Ohtani has actually been on a schedule independent of the other starters. Ohtani has been working on at least six days’ rest, just like he did in Japan.

For the other starters, the Angels have set five days’ rest to be the default, rather than the traditional four. Often they’ve accomplished this simply by using the off days in the schedule as the extra day, which is something most teams do.

When the schedule doesn’t provide an off day, they have used Barría as their sixth starter.  He’s gone back to Triple-A immediately after a start four times, and the first three he returned after exactly 10 days, the minimum time a player can be down when he’s optioned. Barría is likely to be back again to start Tuesday in Seattle, after another 10-day trip to Triple-A. Another time the Angels put Tropeano on the disabled list and then returned him to the rotation after the minimum 10 days.

The shuffling has allowed the Angels to keep only five starters on the roster for most of the season, which is more manageable in terms of the bullpen and bench composition.

Although there has been some juggling, the pitchers say they usually know immediately after one start when they’ll make their next start, so they can plan accordingly. When they have five days between starts, the extra day provides either extra rest or, in some cases, extra work.

In a traditional four days of rest between starts, pitchers throw their bullpen on the second or third day, depending on their preference. Either way, that means there’s only a one-day gap between the bullpen and a game. With five days’ rest, the bullpen is normally on the third day, so there are two days on both sides.

“I feel extremely fresh for my bullpen, which is nice,” Skaggs said. “You can get a lot of work into it. You don’t want to overdo it, but it’s been great so far.”

Tropeano said if there’s something you need to work on, the extra day of rest allows that. For example, after giving up five runs in his last start, Tropeano said he planned to do more work on his splitter in his next bullpen.

“You can get a little more intent into it,” he said. “On a five-day rotation, you don’t have that luxury. You want to stay with your routine. You throw 25-30 pitches. Now you can go maybe 35 or 40-plus with the six-day.”

Richards said his bullpens are “definitely more crispy” with the extra day. Pitching coach Charlie Nagy said he and Richards “get after it” in their bullpens.

It’s worth noting Richards followed his two worst starts of the year with his two best starts, each time with five days’ rest. Only once all season have the Angels had a starter allow four or more runs in back-to-back starts.

Could it be because they’re better able to fix what’s wrong with the extra day in between?

“I like that theory,” Nagy said with a smile. “I can’t confirm or deny it.”

Richards said it’s more that the pitchers are good at diagnosing and fixing their problems. They’ve also been together long enough to help each other.

Heaney’s theory is the success of the rotation isn’t about the schedule. It’s about the pitchers actually … pitching.

“For me, the difference is… I don’t even want to say it,” Heaney said. “Knock on wood, we’ve all been healthy.”

You can’t compare last year’s 4.38 rotation ERA with a five-man rotation to this year’s performance with a six-man rotation because they are different pitchers. Ricky Nolasco led the Angels in starts last year. So far this year, the Angels’ most talented starters have been able to stay in the rotation. Whether that’s mostly, partly or slightly attributable to the extra day of rest is impossible to know.

“Maybe we’re on to something,” Heaney said. “Revolutionizing the game.”


Angels (Garrett Richards, 4-4, 3.25) at Twins (Lance Lynn, 4-4, 5.46), Friday, 5 p.m., Fox Sports West, KLAA (830 AM)

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