The Royals, as we all know, are still uncertain as to who their fifth starter will be come Opening Day. At this point, it appears that Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are the primary contenders for the role. Both pitchers, however, are not necessarily guaranteed to be in the rotation at the start of the year. Duffy has had injury issues over the past two seasons, and the Royals have stated a desire to keep him between 150 to 175 innings this season. Ventura may end up starting the season in Omaha, not because of anything he did or did not do during Spring Training, but due to the Royals being able to move back his arbitration clock.
In that case, the fifth spot in the rotation may end up coming down to two pitchers who have had a less than stellar track record as starters in Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar. Both pitchers have performed much better as relievers, so the idea of inserting either into the rotation may seem to be a rather foolish proposition. Yet, there could be a way to make that situation work.
The Houston Astros had experimented with the idea of piggybacking starters at the minor league level, with the nominal starter lasting either five innings or 75 pitches, whichever came first. Then, the second pitcher would enter, and either pitch four innings or 60 pitches. Then, if needed, the bullpen would finish up the rest of the game. The Colorado Rockies infamously attempted to get by with their starters only lasting 75 pitches before handing the game to the bullpen. However, what if the Royals employ that type of strategy with Davis and Hochevar?
Both Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar have been generally effective through their first 50 pitches. When Davis has struggled it has typically been in the third inning, where he has allowed a 6.51 ERA. Hochevar, meanwhile, gradually becomes less effective once he gets beyond the 50 pitch mark as well, with his struggles typically beginning at the same third inning. Over his first 50 pitches, Davis has given up a .250/.312/.395 batting line over his career. Hochevar, meanwhile, has given up a .246/.296/.411 batting line over his first 50 pitches.
Since Davis and Hochevar have both been more effective at the beginning of the game, it may make sense for the Royals to attempt to employ the Astros strategy of piggybacking starters at the major league level. Ned Yost could start either pitcher, bringing in the other once the starter begins to struggle after hitting the 50 pitch threshold. By utilizing both pitchers in this manner, the Royals may be able to cobble together six or seven innings of solid pitching before turning the game over to the bullpen. If it turns out that either Davis or Hochevar are looking particularly dominant, then they could remain in the game with the other held in reserve just in case.
It may be an unconventional way of handling the fifth starter spot, but if the Royals are set on either having Wade Davis or Luke Hochevar fill that role, it may be the best strategy to use. With the Royals having a trio of innings eating pitchers at the top of the rotation, the bullpen is likely to be fresh even if the Davis/Hochevar combination is unable to last into the sixth inning or beyond.
In reality, the Royals using such a strategy is probably as unlikely as having me ever throw a pitch at Kauffman Stadium. However, it is a strategy that the Royals should at least consider.