The Royals have been bad more than a month into the 2022 season. That starts with the hitting, but the starting rotation has been suspect as well. Even the two strong performers, Zack Greinke and Brad Keller, have a lot of questions surrounding how long they can keep it up given that their peripherals are not amazing. That’s the bad news.
The good news is: I have a solution.
Stop using traditional starting pitchers.
You may think this is inspired by the Royals’ latest win from Wednesday night when they defeated the Rangers thanks in part to a strong pitching performance from a series of relievers. But I’ve actually had this plan in mind ever since the 2014 World Series when, in Game Seven, the Royals leaned on their bullpen for 5.2 innings in a narrow 3-2 loss. All three runs were allowed by the “starter,” Jeremy Guthrie. And, I say leaned on their bullpen, but specifically, they leaned on three guys - Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland.
If that doesn’t highlight the dichotomy that has been Royals pitching over the past near-decade, I don’t know what does. A mediocre, aging starting pitcher from another organization followed by two fireballers developed entirely by the Royals organization and a failed starter that the Royals successfully converted into a shutdown reliever. The Royals are bad at developing starting pitchers, and they won’t pay the large amounts demanded by aces who reach free agency. What the Royals can do is develop relievers. And they can do it in a variety of ways!
This year’s bullpen has been mediocre in a lot of ways, and part of that is that - same as last year - they’ve been asked to cover too many innings for a starting rotation that cannot get deep into games. But you know what would immediately bolster that bullpen? Converting all of the starters into relievers!
Here’s how it works
Instead of having a starting rotation, you have a bullpen full of 13 pitchers. Most nights you have three guys prepared to go with one or two more for emergencies such as injury, ineffectiveness, or extra innings. The reasoning for this is multi-fold. If you’re aiming to use three pitchers, that means each pitcher should go about three innings.
Only completing three innings means they only have to get through the lineup about once. Because they are no longer concerned with getting deep into the game or getting a batter out more than once they can unleash their full velocity from the start, eliminate pitches from their arsenal which never worked or which are not working that night, and generally focus down on the here and now of each at-bat because there is no future.
When pitchers go three innings they generally only need a day or two of rest in-between. This means that they can go every second or third day instead of every fifth. That helps prevent them from getting in their own heads about a bad appearance because the next one is coming up fast. Pitchers also tend to do better when they don’t have to pitch back-to-back nights and they will no longer do so under this system. It also means potentially more pitchers available every night. Currently, the four starters are unavailable every night plus any relievers that worked consecutive nights, so a maximum of nine out of thirteen are available. But with this system, if everything went perfectly the night before, you could have up to ten available.
Opposing teams would have to do a lot more scouting work because now instead of approximately half of your at-bats in a series being against only three pitchers, you’d have a new pitcher for practically every at-bat. But the strain on the Royals shouldn’t be increased because the catchers and coaches already have to prepare for all of their own pitchers to appear anyway. You could also arrange it so that pitchers who pitch similarly to each other don’t appear on the same night in order to maximize opponent discomfort.
This is all primed to help the Royals the most, given their issues. Brady Singer would no longer need a change-up to be effective. Kris Bubic could use whichever pitches were working that night instead of trying to force them all. Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow, two of the Royals’ most electric relievers who have both struggled when asked to go back-to-back nights or had to wait three or more days in between appearances, could find the sweet spot more consistently.
Will the Royals do this? Absolutely not. It’s the sort of thing that’s probably too out there for even the Rays to consider. You’d also have to get buy-in from all of the pitchers; that would be difficult because the defined roles of starter, setup man, and closer help them earn more money. If and when they went to other teams they’d have to revert to more traditional roles and would likely suffer a pay cut compared to what they could otherwise have made if they had more evidence of success in those roles.
Still, I’m pretty sure it would work.