At The Break: The Royals Rotation

At the beginning of the season, I examined the Royals revamped starting rotation with the goal of seeing how they performed throughout the season.  With the All-Star break here, it’s a good time to look at our pitchers’ performances with relatively large sample sizes.  For simplicity, I will just use Mendoza’s stats for the fifth starter because of his extended time in that role.  Without further ado, here is a table.

Royals Innings K% BB% GB% FB% ERA Home Runs
Shields 134 2/3 20.9 7.2 44.2 33.5 3.21 12
Santana 123 19.7 5.4 48.5 32.7 3.37 16
Guthrie 120 2/3 11.2 8.3 42.7 37.5 4.25 22
Davis 94 2/3 19.9 9.4 38.3 31.7 5.89 13
Mendoza 81 2/3 14.4 10 48.9 29.7 4.87 8

The Royals top two starters this year have been excellent this year.  After that, the Royals have had mixed results.

Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

James Shields

Causes for Concern

After posting a ground ball rate over 50% in Tampa Bay last year, Shields’ rate has decreased to 44.2% for the Royals.  His ground ball rate from last year may have been an anomaly, however, given that it was a career high by a large margin.  The percentage of batters Shields has struck out has also decreased after striking out 23.1% in 2011 and 23.6% in 2012.  Also, his walks are up a little

Causes for Optimism

Despite not posting peripheral numbers quite as excellent as in years past, Shields is still a bona fide #1 starter.  All his stats are around career norms and recent history suggests that his stats might even improve over the second half, as Shields posted a 2.34 ERA after his first 20 starts last year (Shields has 20 so far this year).  In 2011, Shields posted a 3.13 ERA after his first 20 starts.  Whether or not there is any statistical evidence to support whether or not certain pitchers perform better down the stretch, it’s good to know that Shields will continue to pitch well despite his heavy workload.

Ervin Santana

Causes for Concern

With Santana, it’s all about the home runs.  As you can see, Santana has already given up 16 this season.  His home run numbers aren’t nearly as horrific as a year ago, but he still has the 20th highest HR/FB ratio among all qualified starters in baseball.  Also, Santana’s BABIP will probably not stay in the .260 range.  He has a career BABIP of .283, so his current luck on batted balls isn’t too out of the ordinary, especially given the Royals excellent defense.  However, expect a few more base hits to drop while Santana is on the mound.

Causes for Optimism

So far, Santana has been having his best season since his spectacular 2008.  In fact, Santana would be more than worth what the Royals paid for him if the season ended today.  Anything he gives the Royals from this point out is surplus.  Part of this is due to a career high ground ball rate.  Santana’s 48.5% GB% is almost 9% higher than his career average and is one of the big reasons that Santana has been so good.

Jeremy Guthrie

Causes for Concern

Just like with Santana, Guthrie has had problems with the long ball this season.  In fact, Guthrie has allowed the second most homers of any major leaguer with 22.  In addition to the home run problems, Guthrie has struck out fewer batters and walked more than he ever has at any point in his career.  If these problems continue, expect Guthrie’s ERA to climb much higher than the 4.25 it sits at right now.

Causes for Optimism

Guthrie continues to eat innings as he always has.  The ZIPS projection system has Guthrie finishing the season with 196 IP, which would be the second highest total for a Royal since Zack Greinke was traded. Guthrie also has the good fortune of playing in front of the Royals excellent defense.  All of the Royals major offensive pieces are signed through 2015 which is when Guthrie’s contract expires.  This means that he’ll probably be pitching in front of good defense for the rest of his time with the Royals.

Wade Davis

Causes for Concern

Davis appears to suffer from Luke Hochevar syndrome.  His peripheral statistics are solid, but his ERA doesn’t come close to matching them.  Some of this is due to a .381 BABIP and some is due to leaving only 66.3% of runners on base.  Davis has also surrendered more home runs than he should if he’s going to be successful.

Causes for Optimism

Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no reason to believe that Wade Davis is as bad as his ERA indicates.  For one, his career ERA matches up well with his career peripheral stats such as FIP and xFIP.  Davis has also struck out many more batters than in the past.  His 19.9 K% represents his highest mark as a starter in the Majors.  This increase in strikeouts hasn’t caused a loss in control either as his 9.4 BB% is right around his career mark.  In fact, his K%-BB%, a more effective way of measuring the ratio of strikeouts to walks than K/BB, is 10.5%, his highest mark as a starter.

Luis Mendoza

Although Mendoza was just moved to the bullpen, he was the Royals fifth starter for most of the first half and so his sample size provides the best room for evaluation

Causes for Concern

Mendoza’s walks are up from where they used to be.  Like Guthrie, Mendoza cannot afford to walk too many people simply because he doesn’t strike out very often.

Causes for Optimism

Mendoza’s redeeming quality is a very big one.  He induces a lot of ground balls.  Though not quite as high as last year, Mendoza’s GB% is still superb and helps him overcome his deficiencies.  High ground ball rates are more important for pitchers who:

  1. Don’t strike out a lot of batters
  2. Don’t compensate for their lack of strike outs with elite walk rates
  3. Induce a lot of ground balls

That’s right, ground balls are important for pitchers who induce a lot of ground balls.  Sounds redundant, right?  Well, the difference between inducing a lot of ground balls and an obscenely large amount of ground balls is significant.  This is because pitchers with high ground ball rates will often have a runner on first.  The same thing applies to pitchers who walk batters.  Mendoza’s lack of strikeouts means more balls put in play, more balls put in play means more hits, and these hits are likely to be grounders.  Ground ball base hits are usually singles and a walk will only put a batter on first.  When there are runners on first and a ground ball is hit, there’s a chance for a double play.  This is especially true with the Royals infield defense.  In short, ground balls are VERY important to Mendoza which is good because he seems to get plenty of them.  Overall, Mendoza is pretty good for a fifth starter which is probably the biggest reason for optimism.

So far, the Royals rotation has been pretty good.  Shields has lived up to expectations and Santana has been a very pleasant surprise.  While it’s true that Guthrie has probably been very lucky, it’s also true that Davis has been equally, if not more, unlucky.  Though Mendoza recently lost his rotation spot, he was a good fifth starter and Chen has been reliable enough in a starting role to be considered a good fifth starter as well.  The second half of the season will be interesting as Danny Duffy continues to pitch in Omaha and Filipe Paulino hopefully recovers from his injury.  With an offensive turnaround, expect the Royals to be much better in the second half of the season.

Topics: Ervin Santana, James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Kansas City Royals, Luis Mendoza, Wade Davis

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