The biggest question surrounding the Royals pitching staff has been the identity of the fifth starter. Yet, for all the discussion about that role, it is expected that whoever wins that spot coming out of Spring Training will not be in the rotation all year. With Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy in need of a spot, and relatively soon, it is thought that the fifth starter and Bruce Chen will lose their places once Ventura and Duffy are ready.
If there is one thing about Chen, it is his ability to perform better than expected. Including a difficult 2014 season, the Panamanian version of Jamie Moyer has produced a 44-33 record with a 4.17 ERA, striking out just over six batters per nine innings while walking less than three batters per nine. Those numbers, while not outstanding, are quite solid for a back of the rotation starter.
Meanwhile, taking a look at Jeremy Guthrie, we see that his numbers are similar to Chen. In the year and a half that he was been a member of the Royals, Guthrie has posted a 20-15 record with a 3.78 ERA, striking out five batters per nine innings and walking 2.3 batters per nine. Over their respective careers, both pitchers have been relatively similar as well, with similar numbers across the board.
Yet, it is expected that Bruce Chen will lose his spot in the rotation once Ventura and Duffy are ready. Perhaps this is due to Chen having experience as the Royals long reliever/spot starter, a role that he excelled in last season. Guthrie, however, has also been used in that role, as recently as 2012 for the Rockies. It is a position that both pitchers are familiar with.
Of the two pitchers, it is seemingly more likely that Jeremy Guthrie regresses. Guthrie had an insanely high strand rate last season, leaving baserunners on 78.2% of the time; the major league average is approximately 72%. He also led the league in hits allowed, giving up 236 hits. Despite pitching half of his games in Kauffman Stadium, Guthrie allowed 30 home runs. These numbers mean that Guthrie had an expected ERA of 4.79, nearly a run higher, based on normal results.
Chen, meanwhile, had a similar strand rate of 78.3%. However, he only allowed 107 hits over his 121 innings of work, or eight hits per nine innings. Guthrie came in at ten hits per nine. Chen allowed 13 home runs, which came out to approximately one home run per nine innings. Guthrie allowed 1.3 per nine. Chen, with his slightly better performance last season, was expected to post a 4.12 ERA in 2013.
What this shows is that Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie are essentially the same pitcher. Both are solid back of the rotation starters, yet would seemingly be replaceable if a better option came along. So why is it automatically assumed that Chen would be the one to lose his spot in the rotation?
It may well come down to salary. Guthrie is making $8 Million this year, with another $9 Million due in 2015 and a team option in 2016 for $10 Million, with a $3.2 Million buyout. Chen, on the other hand, is making a $3 Million base salary this season, although incentives can increase that to $4.5 Million. He also has a mutual option for $5.5 Million in 2015, with a $1.25 Million buyout. It may be felt that it is easier to justify Chen as a long reliever/spot starter since he is making far less than Guthrie.
Should that be the actuality of the situation, that logic is entirely flawed. The amount that the player is making should not matter – their performance should be the determining factor as to who remains in the starting rotation. If it winds up where Chen is performing better than Guthrie, yet is the one sent to the bullpen, we know that it is David Glass’ pocketbook making the decisions, not the actual performance on the field.
If all things are considered equal, then it should not be automatically expected that Bruce Chen loses his spot in the rotation. Jeremy Guthrie is a very similar pitcher, and could potentially function in that swing role as well.