Sometimes things are not as complicated as we make them. We’ve complained endlessly about decisions and issues with the team: Chris Getz over Johnny Giavottella, Jeff Francoeur, Luke Hochevar being tendered and so on. While all of these things are valid when it comes to trying to make the best decisions, it doesn’t mean the season is doomed because the wrong decisions were made – we occasionally over-think the importance of these decisions and miss the basics of winning baseball.
The Royals were 48-34 last season in games in which the starting pitcher lasted six innings. Simply getting through six innings, no other qualifiers just getting into the seventh inning, meant the Royals would win the game .585 percent of the time. This for a team who scored the third fewest runs in the American League last season and declared Bruce Chen and Hochevar their aces.
Further, the Royals were 47-19 when they got a quality start (at least six innings pitched allowing three or fewer runs), a .712 winning percentage. Yes, I was stunned to see the Royals had a quality start last season, too, let alone 66 of them. Still… 47-19. One more reminder, the Royals scored the third fewest runs in the American League last year.
This says a lot about the bullpen as much as it does the value of starting pitching. Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Greg Holland, and Tim Collins know how to lock down the back end of the game, and if the Royals could come up with enough runs and the starters can get through six innings then Kansas City normally won. If Kansas City can get their starters to go six innings on 162 times, a .585 winning percentage would translate into 95 wins, a number that would very much put the Royals in any pennant race.
This sounds wonderful until one considers the other 80 games the Royals didn’t get their starter through six innings, and even the best pitching staffs in the league couldn’t do get through six innings more than 105 times. Kansas City was 23-57 in games where starters couldn’t go six innings. Generally this was because starters were giving up tons of runs, but in many of those games the Royals simply couldn’t score very many runs.
The Oakland Athletics are a good model of a team that couldn’t score but got good, consistent starting pitching. Everything about Oakland last season was about quality start. Oakland was 70-20 last season when they got a quality start from their starting pitchers, 24-28 when they didn’t. The A’s capitalized on their quality starts and stole what games they could when they couldn’t get their quality starts.
This is a method the Royals could make work potentially. The Royals have two quality starts this season (1-1 record) in their first three games. If the Royals can average 18 quality starts each from each of their five starters, things could get very interesting for the Royals. The question is can they get that?
James Shields had 18 quality starts last season. Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana had 14. Luis Mendoza had 12. Wade Davis didn’t even start last year. If you’re counting at home, that’s only 58 quality starts which is well short of the 90 goal.
But, again, Davis didn’t start a game last year because of Tampa Bay’s loaded rotation. Guthrie spent time in the bullpen last year in Colorado and averaged two quality starts per every three starts in Kansas City. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino will be ready by midseason to replace anyone in the rotation who may bomb, or give up too many bombs in Santana’s case, so the idea of having black hole in the rotation is significantly diminished this season. So there is that optimism. The idea that the Royals could get 100 starts of six innings or more, with 80-90 of them being quality starts isn’t too far fetched.
The point of this isn’t to say the Royals are going to win the World Series as it is to remind everyone the success and failure of the Royals season isn’t going to land on one decision. As much as we’re freaking out about Hochevar in the bullpen, Francoeur’s existence, and Getz not being Gio, everything is going to ride on what Shields, Santana, Guthrie, Davis, and Mendoza can do in the rotation this season. And if they can be “quality” enough, maybe the Royals achieve more than just a winning season.