By the time Torey Lovullo emerged from the Diamondbacks dugout Sunday night, walking steadily towards Ryne Nelson and taking the ball from his young starter’s hand, it did not come as a surprise.
Nelson had pitched reasonably well, working around damage to limit the Cubs to just two runs. And he had only worked a paltry 3 1/3 innings, with 75 pitches scattered among them. The lack of surprise was not because of any of that. It was because of how Lovullo has used his starting pitchers in recent weeks.
One set of rules applies for Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. They pitch as deep as they can, ideally lifting the Diamondbacks for seven or eight innings. That did not come to pass in their most recent turn through the rotation against the Mets, but it has more often than not.
Another set of rules applies for everyone else, a group that currently includes Brandon Pfaadt, Zach Davies and Nelson — although Lovullo said he is considering dropping to a four-man rotation, a move that would be possible the rest of the way because of a trio of off days.
Since the start of September, that group (including one start from Slade Cecconi before he was optioned) has started 11 games. They have not once been allowed to throw 85 pitches or dip into an order for the fourth time. Only on three occasions has Lovullo even allowed them to face an opponent’s “3” hole hitter for a third time. The average outing: 76 pitches, 20 batters.
Part of the equation is that those pitchers have mostly struggled, as they have all season long. Their collective ERA in September is 6.29. But the hook has been quicker than before even when they pitch well. On Friday, Pfaadt was through 5 1/3 scoreless when the Diamondbacks manager came to pull him at just 73 pitches.
“I am doing things with our starting pitchers that I haven’t done ever,” Lovullo said. “I’m clipping guys at 65, 75 pitches. I feel like there’s a script in my head that I’m comfortable with.”
That script often goes something like this: Lovullo will let his starter face an opponent’s lineup twice and then let them start with the third time through. But as soon as they run into trouble, as unassuming as a walk or single, he’ll come to get them. The logic is that batting averages and slugging percentages skyrocket when a batter is seeing a pitcher for the third time — a realization that has revolutionized starting pitchers’ usage across baseball.
“My biggest fear as a manager is that I get stuck in like 1997 or 2005,” Lovullo said. “I’ve gotta figure out how to move myself forward and learn about the game.”
So is there a scenario in which Lovullo could let his back-end starters pitch longer?
“If we have a nine-run lead and they’re cruising, I’m gonna make an adjustment on that,” he said.
In other words, not if the outcome is in any sort of doubt.
So far, Lovullo’s strategy is working. When Pfaadt, Davies, Nelson or Cecconi pitched in September, the Diamondbacks are 7-4 — despite that aforementioned inflated ERA. In August, they were 4-8 when those pitchers started, even as they pitched to a collective 5.03 ERA.
The underlying mechanism making that difference possible is the Diamondbacks’ bullpen. In August, that unit ranked 24th with a 5.61 ERA. In September, it ranks third at 2.54.
After pulling Pfaadt early on Friday, Lovullo admitted it was not a move he would have felt comfortable making two months ago given the relievers available. Now, he has more maneuverability. That, in part, spurred the conversations he and the club’s front office had a few weeks back, when they decided to shift the usage of their pitchers.
There’s also this: Each of the Diamondbacks’ struggling back-end starters have one main pitch that stands out: Pfaadt’s sweeper, Davies’ changeup, Nelson’s four-seam fastball. Often, they’ll have a second pitch working in a given outing, like Nelson’s slider was Sunday. But unlike Gallen and Kelly, they rarely have the type of full repertoire that allows them to successfully pitch deep into games. For Pfaadt, in particular, the numbers are jarring. The third time through the order, opponents hit .390 off him with a 1.155 OPS.
So combine an improved bullpen with flawed starting pitching and, for a team that needs to win every margin to reach the playoffs, the decision to change philosophies followed naturally.
“Starting pitcher’s gonna get chapped a little bit by what I’m doing but at the end of it, we all want to win,” Lovullo said. “That’s all I have in mind. I want to win a baseball game, do the best thing for this team.”
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: DBacks back-end starting pitchers given less error room in playoff race