Getting Creative With the Royals Fifth Starter Spot


There aren’t a lot of big position battles in Royals camp, but the looming decision about the fifth starter in the rotation is one of them. In a way, it’s a mere formality, as the three primary candidates are all but assured to make the team out of spring training, so even the “loser” of the competition will still land on the team’s opening day roster (barring injuries).

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at how best to leverage that fifth spot.

September 14, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Bruce Chen (52) delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Chen has put in some decent years as a starter for the Royals, getting by on guile and finesse. Luke Hochevar is the well-documented enigma, but the good games are usually really good (although the bad ones are really bad). Luis Mendoza is on the outside looking in. None of the three are ideal fits for a rotation spot.

So what’s a team to do?

I have to give credit to someone else for this potential solution. Last weekend, the Kansas City Baseball Vault helped present a showing of Major League at the Screenland Armour. Before we started the movie, though, we threw it out to the attendees who might have questions about the Royals. One gentleman pitched this idea:

Platoon Chen and Hochevar.

Aside from the handedness advantages, the idea is that there are enough splits and metrics to figure out where a pitcher could have an advantage – which stadiums, against which types of hitters –  so why sit on one guy as your main option every fifth game when you can swap them out?

It’s unconventional, which is likely why it’ll never happen. Baseball is much more old-fashioned than most other major sports. If the baseball thought process was applied to basketball, Magic Johnson never runs the point for the Lakers (nor does Lebron James). Football offenses would be trapped in the “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality rather than the open, spread offenses of today. While pitch counts are limited and innings are monitored, that’s hardly a radical step in baseball evolution. That’s just protecting the business investment and not necessarily something that benefits performance on the field.

Like any different idea, there are benefits and downsides.

September 24, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) pitches during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

One benefit is that rather than sitting on 30 starts from Hochevar, he might instead make 15 or 10. Less times on the mound should mean that Hochevar has less chances to hurt the team with bad starts (and even if all 10 are bad, well, at least it’s just those 10). Team less likely to hit homers? Maybe you put Chen out there. Are they a team prone to striking out? Hochevar has better swing and miss stuff. If they’re a ground ball hitting team, Mendoza’s a good fit for that matchup.

It could even go so far as digging into which home plate umpires have tendency to call a game more towards a pitcher’s strengths.

If a pitcher is cruising, they can go deeper into the game on the idea that they can be skipped the next time out. Each of the three will throw less innings and won’t be overworked, so depth remains intact. The Royals seem committed to opening the season with Mendoza and one of Chen or Hochevar as long relief options as it is, so why not just rotate them? Any of the three can start a game and the other two can be the long relief options behind them. If there’s a meltdown in progress, they can change gears right away rather than fight through.

Pitchers knowing they don’t have to try to stretch out to seven innings may throw harder, get a little more out of their stuff. They just go out and throw, rather than trying to ration their pitch counts. They can use all of their weapons because they only face a lineup twice and don’t have to hold something back for that third time through. In 2012, Hochevar and Mendoza followed the pattern of the rest of the league by performing better the first two times through the lineup than the third. Chen was worse against a lineup the first time through in 2012 but over the course of his career, he’s in the same boat as the others.

In a way, this three-headed monster approach isn’t much different than what the Colorado Rockies tried to do last season. With difficulties from their starters, they switched to a four man rotation and set 75 pitch limits on all starters. They also applied a piggy-backing element so that after the pitch limit, they’d shift to the next reliever who would be on a similar pitch count. The idea is to have pitchers face batters twice through the lineup and then switch to a new arm.

August 6, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luis Mendoza (39) delivers a pitch during the fifth inning against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

League-wide, pitchers generally do better the first two times through a lineup (and relievers especially the first time they face a team). This takes advantage of that fact. Then again, you have to consider that a team trying such approach probably doesn’t have the starters who can mow through a lineup three or four times, and the pitchers who can’t supplant the sub-par starters are probably not great either. So piggy-backing isn’t something you’ll see often unless the teams are very bad.

In the Royals case, they’re comfortable with their top four starters. That means it could only be a modified piggy-back approach. Rather than lining up a full staff of long relief guys who happen to start, it’s really just tweaking the last spot in the rotation. For the Royals, perhaps that would be beneficial considering they have Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland at their disposal as well. If they can get to the seventh inning with a lead, they should be okay. If it takes choosing the right starter and following them up with a long reliever, maybe that can work.

Theoretically, it’s an interesting solution. It turns a negative (Hochevar has his meltdown inning, Chen doesn’t have the stuff to dominate most nights, Mendoza’s not a control or strikeout specialist) into a positive. Limit the exposure of your worst starters and get the most out of their skills when the situation calls for it. Keep it fluid and allow for an escape anytime someone gets on a roll, of course. No need to be a slave to the idea if someone breaks out.

Of course, there are the downsides. First, if there’s no clear winner of a fifth spot, then nobody’s risen to the top and none of the three are strong options. It’s still marching out Chen, Hochevar or Mendoza. The cast of characters is the same, just used in different ways.

More variables come up. If the rest of the rotation doesn’t need a long reliever, you might go 8-10 days between starts for somebody and the disruption of a program may limit their effectiveness. We’ve all seen pitchers who have extended rest and come back too strong and don’t have the command.

Some additional problems arise. Will a pitcher be able to prepare properly by shifting roles so often? They should be able to, but many need the routine. There’s also the human element. Everyone has to buy in. Mendoza is approaching arbitration and Chen and Hochevar should be free agents next winter. They’ll want the innings and wins to show up on their resumes.

Now, if the Royals do nothing, some of these issues may still apply. They’re professionals and they’ll say the right things, but none of them will be happy being the long relief options when the season starts. Moving in and out of that role shouldn’t please them either. They could still find themselves with long stretches without getting into a game, depending on when a long reliever is necessary (or not). Theoretically, though, the Royals expect James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Santana and Wade Davis to be solid in their starting roles, so one can assume that they expect about six innings a start from the quartet. That leaves the Royals with that fifth spot reserved for long relief help as it is, so they’re in the same kind of situation.

I should be clear – I don’t think the Royals will try this idea out and I don’t know how well it would work, but the ideas seems like something that could be worth attempting. If there’s a team that will try it, though, it’s probably not the Royals. Ned Yost isn’t opposed to new ideas. He’s stated that using a closer more as a fireman makes sense. He’s also said that, while it makes sense, he’s not going to be the guy to try the theory out.