In Major League Baseball, the standard pitching rotation consists of five pitchers. Too few pitchers and you won’t have enough rest, leading to injury and underperformance. Too many pitchers and you end up giving starts that would have gone to your best pitchers to your worst.
With that being said, there are two factors that complicate the five-man rotation. First, that every team in baseball uses more than five starting pitchers in the course of a full season. In 2019, 10 different pitchers started a game for the Royals, and seven of whom made at least nine starts; lest you think that figure was marred by the Royals being awful, the 2015 Royals also used 10 different starters, seven of whom made at least nine starts.
Second, that five-man rotations are not set in stone. They are not required by the rulebook. As such, teams can and do deviate from the five-man standard, using four or six starters for an extended period of time for one reason or another.
The 2021 Royals will likely use a five-man rotation for much of the year. But for multiple reasons, they are more likely than your average team to carry a six-man rotation for a not insignificant amount of time. Here’s why.
There are a lot of arms that will need innings
After years—decades, really—of thin pitching, the Royals are entering 2021 with the deepest collection of arms that they’ve perhaps ever had. It’s a low bar, as Royals fans who watched Sidney Ponson starting on Kauffman Stadium’s opening day in 2009 can attest. But while the Royals probably don’t have an ace up their sleeve in 2021, they have quality depth, with 12 guys who are ready or will be ready to start a game this year:
- Brady Singer
- Brad Keller
- Kris Bubic
- Danny Duffy
- Mike Minor
- Jake Junis
- Daniel Lynch
- Jackson Kowar
- Ervin Santana
- Asa Lacy
- Ronald Bolanos
- Carlos Hernandez
And, of course, all these pitchers will need innings. Some will go to the minor leagues, but even then they’ll have to content with other guys who legitimately need innings, guys like Jonathan Bowlan, Alec Marsh, and others. A six-man rotation is an easy way to get more players more big league experience.
Now, these things tend to work themselves out. Pitching is brutal on the human body, and pitchers get injured all the time. Additionally, pitching is a brutal activity with little margin for error, and pitchers struggle or underperform all the time. The Royals are not going to have a dozen healthy, league average or better big league starting pitchers in 2021.
With that being said, the Royals don’t just have depth—they have young depth. It’s not inconceivable that Lynch, Kowar, or Lacy tear up the upper minors and force themselves onto the roster. And as it is with the signing of Minor, they have six guys already (Singer, Keller, Bubic, Duffy, Minor, and Junis) for five rotation spots, and seven if you include Ervin Santana. And if the alternative is preventing a guy who is clearly ready from making an impact with the club, that sixth rotation slot could look nice.
It will be hard ramping up from a shortened 2020
One of the under-recognized impacts of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season was the pitcher injuries that dropped pitchers known and unknown like flies. The Royals saw this with poor Foster Griffin, who tore his UCL in his first big league appearance (and on his birthday, no less). Another big name that suffered the biggest of elbow injuries was Justin Verlander, who will not pitch until 2022.
Indeed, the number of pitcher injuries last year was unnerving, and while there’s no scientifically impenetrable reason why this was the case, the halting, stop-and-start nature of the offseason seems a likely candidate. But even the pitchers who managed to stay healthy have a big hurdle to jump over: a full season. Even if the season is shortened, pitchers across the league will need to navigate from 60 games to two and a half times that.
What does this mean? Well, it means that the Royals’ starters will have to pitch significantly more innings as a group, as well as individually. Many of them will end up pitching 100 or more innings in 2021 than they did in 2020. And with so many young arms, it’s possible that the Royals mitigate that by spreading out the innings increase over more arms.
There are still pandemic-related unknowns
In a normal year, Spring Training would start in February and continue through March. With nearly two months of prep time, pitchers would build stamina, work with coaches, and deliberately prepare for the long, grueling baseball season.
That is in jeopardy this year. It’s all but assured that the minor leagues will be delayed to start the year. We also don’t know when Spring Training will start, and we don’t know how many games we’re gonna get this year. We know that the COVID vaccine will help, but that is simply not enough at this juncture.
And so we could be entering the 2021 season with a double jeopardy situation: an uneven Spring Training with potential delays and a need for more innings than last year. Again, a solution to these unknowns could be caution and a six-man rotation.
I do not know if there will be a six-man rotation. Furthermore, I don’t necessarily think it’s likely to help keep players from injury, nor do I think that it’s necessarily going to help the team win baseball games. But I also don’t know that it won’t do those things. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.