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James Shields and the Question Marks

The best starting pitcher on the Kansas City roster is obvious. Now, how can the Royals better utilize their best starter?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

We are inching ever closer to actual baseball or at least practice baseball, anyway.   With it will be an increasing level of interest in what 'twenty-five' will travel north come March 31st to take on Justin Verlander and the Tigers.   Foremost among the final roster questions will be the identity of the fifth member of the Royals' rotation.

While a quick look at the early season schedule tells us that the Royals will need a fifth starter no later than for game number six on the first Sunday of the season.  However, if Ned Yost (and Dayton Moore) are willing to juggle their rotation they could create a situation where they start their fifth starter just three times in April.

As I have no interest in or restarting the debate over what statistically defines a number two or number four starter, let's just arbitrarily set the rotation as Shields, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen (that's what Ned said, who are we to doubt?) and an unnamed fifth starter.   The schedule, keeping Shields on normal four days rest throughout the month, would shake out as follows:

  • March 31st - Shields
  • April 2 - Vargas
  • April 3- Guthrie
  • April 4 - Chen
  • April 5 - Shields
  • April 6 - Fifth Starter
  • April 7 - Vargas
  • April 8 - Guthrie
  • April 9 - Chen
  • April 11 - Shields
  • April 12 - Vargas
  • April 13 - Guthrie
  • April 15 - Chen
  • April 16 - Shields
  • April 17 - Vargas
  • April 18 - Guthrie
  • April 19 - Fifth Starter
  • April 20 - Chen
  • April 21 - Shields
  • April 22 - Vargas
  • April 23 - Guthrie
  • April 24 - Fifth Starter
  • April 25 - Chen
  • April 26 - Shields
  • April 27 - Vargas
  • April 29 - Guthrie
  • April 30 - Chen
  • May 1 - Shields

The good news, that is seven Shields' starts through May 1st and just three fifth starter starts.  The bad news (if you are not enamored with the rest of the rotation) is that Vargas, Guthrie and Chen would have six starts each in April.  In fact, if you carry this theory out all the way to the All-Star Break - keeping Shields pitching every fifth day - and the total starts at the break would be:

  • Shields - 20
  • Vargas - 20
  • Guthrie - 20
  • Chen - 19
  • Fifth Starter - 16
After early May, juggling the rotation only serves to keep Shields pitching on the normal four day rest.  Over his career, James has slightly better numbers on the normal rest than he does with five days between starts (3.57 ERA versus 3.89 ERA, 3.84 K/BB on 4 days rest and 3.54 K/BB on 5 days rest).  Those are not great stats, but were easy to find (It's Monday), and probably do not reflect enough of a difference to justify jacking around the rest on all the other members of the rotation for half a season.  Or does it?

Vargas has displayed very little difference between pitching on four or five days and Guthrie has a very similar split as Shields does between his four and five days rest split.  Bruce Chen, however, averages 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings when pitching with an extra day's rest and just 6.1 when pitching on the 'normal' four days.  That is over his career, though, and while a small sample in 2013 shows a similar trend, there was no such trend in 2012, but it was there again in 2011.  Take all that for what it's worth.

Back to April.

Using a normal five man rotation, the Royals would send Shields and Vargas to the mound six times and the the other three starters five time each.  So, Kansas City would not really be 'gaining' a Shields' start, but instead getting an extra start for Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen.  Not so appealing when looked at in that light.

What this early rotation juggling does accomplish is put James Shields on the mound four times in Kansas City's first 14 games.  In a season in which the Royals have little margin for error, maybe getting their best starter on the mound early and often makes sense.

In addition, a lighter workload for the fifth starter would allow the Royals to a) manage Danny Duffy's innings or b) game Yordano Ventura's service time or c) provide less opportunity to start either Wade Davis or Luke Hochevar.  There is value in all three of those options.

In my perfect world, Danny Duffy makes three good April starts, Ventura gets off to a quick start in Omaha and by early May the Royals have Shields, Duffy AND Ventura in the rotation and our debate about who is number five is whether it is Vargas or Guthrie.  That might be a little bit of fun, don't you think?