Was Adon's 6 1/3-inning start a sign of things to come?

Davey Martinez’s last season as a big league player came in 2001, when he hit .287 for the Braves. Atlanta’s rotation, the backbone of a team that won 88 games to capture a division title, averaged 6.2 innings per start, tops in the National League. Even the worst rotation in the league that year, the Reds, averaged 5.4 innings per start.

On Tuesday night, Martinez watched Joan Adon become the first member of the Nationals rotation to complete six innings this season, then even record an out in the seventh before he was pulled. Not that they were alone in that regard: Ten other major league clubs had yet to get a six-inning start in 2022 as of Tuesday.

“The game has definitely changed,” Martinez said. “I look around at what’s going around the league. There’s only been like 10 or 11 games where starters have gone six innings. For someone that’s been doing this for three decades, the game has changed a lot.”

There are valid reasons for this. The condensed, three-week spring training is chief among them. Pitchers simply didn’t have the usual amount of time to build their arms up like they would during a camp that normally would’ve been twice as long.

But this is also a reflection of Major League Baseball in 2022, where length from starters simply isn’t viewed as the priority it once was. With teams having seen the data on starters facing a lineup three times a night, and with most bullpens featuring a bounty of big arms, front offices and field managers simply don’t believe it’s prudent to push most starters the way they used to.

That’s not necessarily the Nationals’ overriding philosophy, or their plan for the remainder of this season. General manager Mike Rizzo owns two World Series rings, and both were made possible by dominant rotations (2001 Diamondbacks, 2019 Nationals) and he still believes that’s the best path toward long-term success.

Martinez also believes in the idea of innings from his rotation.

“We want to build these starters up,” he said. “What I mean by that is, if they give us six innings, you can cover (the rest with the bullpen). To continue going four innings, five innings, and hoping that our bullpen can maintain what they’re doing now throughout the whole year is tough. It’s really tough. So we want these guys to give us six, seven innings plus and have days where we can give our bullpen a breather or not use so many guys. We’ll see.”

It’s going to take efficiency to make it happen. Adon did it Tuesday night, getting through his 6 1/3 innings on only 88 pitches. Others haven’t done themselves any favors. Patrick Corbin threw 92 pitches in 5 1/3 innings Sunday. Erick Fedde threw 96 pitches in five innings Friday. In his previous start, Corbin needed a whopping 83 pitches to record only eight outs.

The Nationals also have been careful with young starters like Adon and Josiah Gray, who was pulled Tuesday afternoon after 87 pitches in 5 1/3 innings. But as the season moves along, the weather warms up and arms get stronger, the reins should loosen a bit.

“As this thing progresses, there’s going to be no limitations for him,” Martinez said of Gray. “If I feel like he’s doing well and he’s in it, he’s going to get a chance to go seven innings and 110 pitches. That’s the only way he’s going to learn: By getting there and doing it. And knowing what he needs to do to get there. When that day comes, we feel like he’s ready for that next step, we’ll definitely keep him out there.”

Until then, get ready to continue celebrating the previously mundane sight of a starting pitcher taking the mound for the sixth inning.

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