When it was announced weeks before the season that the Houston Astros would employ a "piggyback" pitching approach throughout their minor-league system, pundits wondered if the move would produce positive results.|
One month into the Quad Cities River Bandits' season, the sample size says yes.
Incorporated to develop depth within the organization, the "piggyback" system seems to be doing that within the club's Midwest League affiliate. Given a month to adjust as a staff, the Bandits' pitchers appear to have traded their initial apprehension for total approval.
"It was tough getting used to a five-man rotation in college, just like this is a little tough, too," Bandits pitcher Joe Bircher said. "But we're battling through it. And I think we're getting more consistent on the back end. It's strange because a lot of guys in the tandem were just straight starters before. But as we're going on, we're getting better at it.
"I know I'm more comfortable."
Using four tandems, the Bandits rotate the starter and reliever each start with maximums set for innings or pitches per start. Through Sunday's win at West Michigan, 12 pitchers have been used in the eight spots this season as it reached its sixth turn.
With pitchers throwing every fourth day instead of the traditional fifth, there was an adjustment period. Each pitcher involved in the system also had to embrace a new routine, whether it was a starter being used as a reliever or vice versa.
Now one-fifth of the way through the regular season, routines are set and roles seem to be getting defined.
"There's some of that going on," Bandits pitching coach Dave Borkowski said. "Guys are pitching to let us know who could be the five or six starters."
Asked how much longer the "piggyback" system remains, Borkowski said "your guess is as good as mine." However, its current use still is something the Bandits are embracing.
"It's nice to know that I'm guaranteed outings," said Bandits pitcher Mike Hauschild, brought up through the organization as a reliever. " ... Now I know what I need to do to get my work in consistently, I can throw my side (sessions) when I need to throw them and I don't need to second-guess myself if I'm going to pitch today. It's nice having that mindset."
Besides putting the pitchers at ease mentally since they know when their outings will take place, this also seems to be the best way to develop arms in a pitching-rich organization.
"There are a ton of arms, and they're trying to get as many innings as they can," Hauschild said. "It's a good plan."
The health benefits make it that as well. Borkowski said the organization examined pitch counts and injuries, revealing a correlation between the two. With starters getting no more than 75 pitches and the relievers getting 60 per outing, the pitchers do feel stronger one month into the season.
No fatigue or "dead-arm'' period. Just results.
"That's a huge factor in why they did this," Borkowski said. "There's some definite health benefits."
Combining all those factors, the Astros have a system in place that will expedite their rebuilding process and develop pitchers at every level. As of now, the Bandits pitchers agree with the organization's philosophy on the "piggyback" system.
Although unorthodox, it is producing depth.
"It's obviously going to be a work in progress," Bircher said, "but it's working."
A numbers game
One month into the "piggyback" pitching season, here are the ERAs in starts and relief appearances for the Quad Cities River Bandits.
Pitcher Starts Relief
Vincent Velasquez 2.84 3.52
Joe Bircher 5.45 0.64
Lance McCullers 1.05 2.97
Daniel Minor 4.26 2.25
Colton Cain 11.35 12.12
Mike Hauschild 2.57 32.73
Brian Holmes 3.72 5.40
Jordan Jankowski 4.47 1.25
Team 4.46 3.07
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