Before the 2013 season, the Kansas City Royals made drastic changes to their starting pitching. As a result, Royals starters finished the season with a 3.87 ERA, up from the 5.01 they posted last year. In addition to this, Royals starters pitched 96 2/3 more innings than last year. This allowed an excellent Royals bullpen to have plenty of rest.
In general, the starting pitching was better than it has been in many years, but how did the Royals rotation perform individually? This segment features a man the Royals gave a three year contract extension to in the offseason, Jeremy Guthrie.
When the Royals signed Guthrie to his contract, they were probably expecting something similar to his career ERA of 4.24. Guthrie gave the Royals 211 2/3 innings of 4.04 ERA ball. He did this despite poor strikeout numbers and here’s why:
For one, Guthrie induced more ground balls than he usually does, his 42.9% from this year being better than his 41% career line. This is especially helpful given the Royals excellent defense.
Another thing Guthrie did well was strand runners. The ability to leave runners on base is a point of contention among certain members of the baseball community. While strand numbers may not correlate very well from year to year, there’s certainly a skill involved with stranding runners.
There’s a reason the Mariano Rivera‘s career strand rate is over 80% and it’s not luck. Three main components are involved when determining a pitcher’s ability to strand runners. The first is an ability to strike batters out. Seeing that Guthrie isn’t very proficient (relative to Major League average) at that, it’s strange that he’d strand a lot of runners.
However, Guthrie does very well in the other two categories relating to stranding runners, limiting walks and hits. This year, Guthrie walked 6.5% of the batters he faced. For his career, Guthrie has walked 6.9%, which means that he’s pretty good at not walking people. In fact, Guthrie’s 6.5% ranked 14th this year among qualified AL starters.
Additionally, since breaking into the Orioles rotation in 2007, Guthrie’s walk rate is seventh in the AL among pitchers with 1000 innings (Fun fact: James Shields is #2 on that list and Ervin Santana is #9.) For additional context, a league average walk percentage is around 8.5%.
So, Guthrie doesn’t allow baserunners to reach via a walk, which is great for leaving runners on base. What’s also great for leaving runners on base is the ability to limit hits. Using a lower innings threshold of 300 and given the same time frame, Guthrie’s BABIP of .274 is tied for seventh best among 109 AL starters. Given a sample size as large as Guthrie’s career, it’s likely the this hit prevention is a skill drawn out of inducing weak contact.
Despite historically being able to prevent batted balls, Guthrie’s BABIP this year was around league average at .296. While it would be reasonable to assume that Guthrie would bounce back to career norms, this is the second strait season of pedestrian hit prevention.
Part of the reason for this could be due to ballparks. Last year, Guthrie spent the first half of the season in the pitcher’s graveyard known as Coors Field. According to MLB park factor numbers acquired from ESPN, Coors Field allowed the most hits of any park in the majors last season and it wasn’t even close. The park factor estimates say that a batter was approximately 28% more likely to get a hit at Coors than an average ballpark.
So, moving to the K would seem like a really great thing for Guthrie, which it was. The problem is that Kauffman allowed 3% more hits on average in 2013 compared with 2% fewer hits than average allowed this year at Camden Yards. This may not seem like a big number, especially when compared to Coors, but those percentages add up over the course of a season.
For the Royals this wouldn’t be so much of a problem if hit prevention wasn’t so largely ingrained into Guthrie’s game. Because of this, Guthrie’s strand skills will probably not be sustainable going forward.
Jeremy Guthrie is a hard pitcher to quantify using advanced statistics because his performance hand defied them over the course of his career. Having pitched below his peripheral indicators during every season that he’s been a starter, it’s probably safe to say that Guthrie will continue to do so.
On the other hand, it’s concerning trotting out a guy who hardly strikes out anyone and gave up 30 home runs this year. As Royals fans, we can only watch and see if Guthrie can continue to utilize a very good walk rate and find his hit prevention skills once more.