Quality pitching might be the greatest necessity throughout the game of baseball. You could ask 100 baseball executives, scouts or analysts, and I’m sure almost all of them would point to quality starting pitching as a constant need for every team. Point blank, you can never have enough pitching. The Kansas City Royals can be counted as one of those teams, as evident by the way their starting rotation has performed this year. It has been so vital for Kansas City that I wrote about it here and here…and here. If there ever was a season where the Royals fate would be determined by their rotation, this would be the year. In fact, you could almost say that as their starters go, so go the Royals. When they struggle, the Royals struggle. When they are glorious, the team strives. Kansas City is currently riding a hot streak and while you will hear names like Gordon, Hosmer and Orlando linked to this streak, the biggest reason for their success can be attributed to the improvement of the starting pitching.
Lets start by discussing the Royals pitchers and the quality start. For those that don’t know, a quality start is considered any start where the pitcher goes at least 6 innings while allowing 3 runs or less. It’s shouldn’t be a hard standard to meet, but occasionally it is an issue and has been for Kansas City this year. Obviously leading the way is Danny Duffy and his amazing season. Duffy has reeled off six straight quality starts and has 12 overall in his 18 starts this year. Ian Kennedy has spun four straight quality starts and Yordano Ventura has three straight. Even Dillon Gee got into the act on Thursday night, spinning his best start of the season and only his second quality start of the year. The starters seem to be working deeper into the game as of late, allowing the bullpen to not log as many innings as they have been and giving them a chance to be a bit sharper. This is big, because if the Royals pitching holds the other team’s offense, there is a good chance that the bullpen will also hold them in check. The Kansas City offense has a tendency to erupt late in the game, and the starting pitching as of late has given them the opportunity to do just that.
During the month of July, the Royals scuffled and while the offense sputtered, the starting pitching wasn’t much better. For most of the year, the rotation has been near the bottom of most categories in the American League, but that has changed. The Kansas City starters have climbed up from last in innings pitched to 11th, next to last in starters WAR and FIP, and 10th in ERA. The starters have still given up the most home runs in the league and the 3rd highest walk percentage, but you can see some definite progression in the numbers. Teams are only batting .255 against Kansas City’s starters, 4th best in the league and they have the third best LOB(Left on Base) percentage of 74.7%. Their strike out numbers have risen as well, as they have the third best K rate in the league at 20.7%. There are still some flaws with the starters, as expected, but when you see the team has the second best Clutch statistic in the league(Kansas City is at 3.26 this year, with 2.00 considered an excellent number) it makes it appear as if the rotation is moving in the correct direction.
The interesting part is that the Royals have not relied as heavily on their starters the last few years and it has seen them make back to back World Series appearances. The team was actually last in the American League last year in innings pitched, 4th highest ERA and FIP, 2nd lowest starters WAR and the highest walk rate in the league(7.6%). When digesting the 2016 numbers compared to last year, it appears the only big glaring difference would be the home runs allowed by the starters. Last year they allowed 107 home runs for the entire year, 6th lowest in the league. This year they have allowed 121 homers, 14 more in 232 less innings. The long ball has hurt the team this year and can be attributed as the big difference in the rotation this year. Luckily, they have only allowed 13 home runs over the last two weeks in 85 innings, which gives them a HR/9 ratio of 1.38. That is quite a bit better than the 1.60 ratio they have for the entire season. This team is never going to be quite like the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s but there is notable improvement over the last few weeks and some of the same competitiveness seen by Atlanta back in the day.
With just forty games remaining in this 2016 season, the Royals are sitting at 62-60, 9 games out of the American League Central lead and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card. This latest hot streak has soared them back into the race and the starting pitching should get a lot of the praise for that. If this team wants to play in the postseason for the third consecutive year, they need the rotation to keep doing what they have been doing these last couple weeks. What was considered a lost cause just a few weeks ago now seems a distinct possibility for the team that has ‘been there, done that’. If the rest of the rotation follows Danny Duffy’s lead, there will be a fun comeback story to dwell on when October rolls around.