Reds' pitching coach has ability to get creative

Johnson considering tandem starters, modified 4-man rotation

July 4th, 2020

CINCINNATI -- Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson has over 25 years of experience coaching in college baseball -- including 10 with a successful program at Vanderbilt. That knowledge of preparing pitchers during a short season is about to come in handy.

Major League Baseball will open an abbreviated 60-game season on July 23 or 24 after a three-week Summer Camp.

“I think the one thing you can probably count on is the idea that we'll make adjustments really fast in-game, and we'll make adjustments really fast between games,” Johnson said on Saturday. “If you look at it like that, you'll maintain a creativeness to what you're going to do -- just optimizing the idea of winning as much as you possibly can in this really short amount of time.”

During Spring Training, the Reds were viewed as a postseason contender based largely on the strength of their rotation. The club has All-Stars like Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer with Anthony DeSclafani and free-agent addition Wade Miley, also a former All-Star.

However, there’s a good chance that Cincinnati’s depth will be tapped even further with the need for starting pitchers outside the rotation, like Tyler Mahle and Lucas Sims.

The way the rotation operates could also be different. It’s possible some starters are more stretched out than others, with Johnson noting, “I think it’ll be a little bit all over the map.”

“To me, there's an infinite number of ways you can chop this thing up and try to make it work,” Johnson said.

Here are a couple of options that Johnson and manager David Bell could utilize:

Tandem starters
Depending on the game and how stretched out a starter is, the Reds could use tandems with two prepared starting pitchers.

“Instead of him pitching 5-6 innings, maybe he pitches only three,” Johnson said. “You feel really good about the piggyback guy that’s coming in behind him to where you feel like you can win games.”

In recent seasons, Johnson thought of the long reliever or mop-up pitcher as being a “dinosaur” of the pitching staff. Now, they become critical.

“I think middle guys or long guys -- if we’re playing the game right now -- they’re not really a factor,” he said. “And if they’re a factor, a lot of times it’s that we’re losing. It’s like the starter throws a shoe [struggles], gives up a few and we’re just trying to get through the game. We have to have someone who eats those innings or eats those outs.

“I think you’re going to be in an environment now where you’re not going to let the starter throw the shoe, and you’ll put the other guy in quicker to eat really important innings and important outs to get you into the sixth or seventh innings -- where you can get to your bullpen and we’re still tied or down one or up one. We still have plenty of chances to win that game. I think those kinds of guys make a lot of sense, especially in this environment.”

Modified four-man rotation
Bauer has long made his preference known that he would like to pitch every fourth day rather than the standard every fifth day. Johnson might give him that opportunity.

“I've got that as being 100 percent on the table, especially in the shortened season,” Johnson said. “That's something he really wants to do, and he thinks he would thrive in that environment. 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.

"From what I see, and the things that he and I have talked about, 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.”

How would that work if the other starters still work every fifth day?

“You can look at it like there would be a standalone four-man,” Johnson said. “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.”

Castillo, who was the Opening Day starter in 2019, is prepared for flexibility.

“Back when I was in the Minors, I was actually a closer and a relief pitcher,” Castillo said. “So, I’m really up for anything and will pitch where I need to. You have to adjust and get ready for whenever you get the call.”

Johnson has concerns about the adjustments to a unique rotation and 60-game schedule.

“One of my big fears in anything like that would be, ‘What are we training them for?’ These guys have been trained on a five-man rotation,” he said. “We have 20 days to train them right now. It would be awfully tough to train them any differently right now. … I’m not just going to throw this out because I hope, or I think, it will work. I want to make sure I’m doing as much homework as I can to understand what that situation might look like.”