Royals starting pitchers never struck out many batters. Get this. Until Zack Greinke‘s Cy Young-winning 2009 season, the Kansas City Royals had never, ever had a starting pitcher (20+ starts) with nine strikeouts per inning. Ever.
In just the American League Central, in just 2013, the Tigers had Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez with over ten strikeouts per inning (honorable mention to Justin Verlander with 8.9 K/9); the Indians had Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir with more than 9 K/9 (Also the combined efforts of Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar resulted in 9+ K/9); and the White Sox, of course, had Chris Sale with 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. That is three teams in the same division, in only one season, that have one or more pitchers with nine strikeouts per nine innings, something the Royals had not had in 40 years–and something they haven’t had since.
Even lowering the bar doesn’t help much. Since 1996, only two other times has a Royals starting pitcher even reached eight K/9–Zack Greinke again in 2008 and Felipe Paulino in 2011. That’s it. The list of starting pitchers in the American League Central to have achieved 8 K/9 in 2013 is obviously even lengthier.
This comes at a time when starting pitchers are striking out more and more batters per nine innings. The Royals’ strikeout rates have stagnated and continue to fall farther below league average. The Royals have fallen a full strikeout per nine below their baseline of +.3 K/9 above average in 2008 to -.7 K/9 below average in 2013.
Starting pitchers K/9:
AL 2008 – 6.2; Royals – 6.5 = +.3
AL 2009 – 6.5; Royals – 7.0 = +.5
AL 2010 – 6.6; Royals – 6.3 = -.3
AL 2011 – 6.6; Royals – 5.9 = -.7
AL 2012 – 7.0; Royals – 6.5 = -.5
AL 2013 – 7.2; Royals – 6.5 = -.7
Just by sheer luck, one would think the Royals would have stumbled upon a successful strikeout pitcher by now. Well, it looks like luck might actually be on their side for a change. For the first time in years and years…and years, the Royals have multiple power pitchers on the front lines, or in reserves, for the starting rotation. Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer are all in the mix for the rotation at some point in 2014, each earning an invite to Spring Training. All three pitchers have high strikeout rates in the minors and enough octane to keep those rates high at the Major League level.
Surrounding Danny Duffy’s time on the disabled list for Tommy John surgery rehab, he has thrown 52 innings in eleven starts and struck out 50 for a K/9 of 8.7. Throughout his time in the minor leagues, he averaged over 10 K/9. His four-seam fastball can touch 98 mph and he combines an 82-85 mph changeup and a 75-78 mph curve to keep hitters swinging way ahead or way behind.
It was fun seeing Yordano Ventura in the futures game in 2012 at the K. He came out and did exactly what everyone wanted him to: throw 100 mph over and over. When he joined the Royals in September 2013, he averaged 98.56 mph with his four-seam fastball. As Ventura climbed the ranks through the minor leagues, his K/9 improved. It was 9.9 in 2010, when he was in rookie league at 19 years old. It increased to 10.4 combined between AA and AAA in 2013. He gets a little wild as his pitch count climbs, but, like Duffy, he has a curveball with 16 mph of separation from his fastball.
Kyle Zimmer will probably not break camp in the starting rotation, but he could work his way to the majors by mid-season. Zimmer has been working on getting more movement on his fastball and trying to give away fewer free glances at his grip on delivery since he was drafted. When looking at his statistics, his ERA and peripherals don’t really jump off the page because his coaches haven’t really cared about his numbers. They’re trying to make him Major League ready by preparing him for what’s coming. That means eliminating tells, repeating delivery, adding life to a fastball, in his case, by knocking off a couple miles per hour. They’re not trying to pump his stats. They’re forging him into a weapon for the highest level. Numbers don’t matter.
Although, one of Zimmer’s numbers sure catches the eye. He has struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings in the minors so far. Like Ventura, he seems to improve with each new level. The lower levels couldn’t contain him. Between rookie-ball and low-A, he only threw 39.2 innings and had a 2.04 ERA. When he was finally challenged in high-A, he still had an 11.3 K/9.
One day in June 2013, everything clicked for Zimmer and high-A ball was suddenly no match. The Royals had to promote him to AA, where he continued to annihilate the competition. In his final eight appearances of the year (combined before and after his promotion), Zimmer threw 44 innings, had a 1.84 ERA, only walked eight and struck out 63 for a 12.89 K/9.
These types of strikeout numbers don’t disappear in the Major Leagues. They lower, but generally, dominant strikeout pitchers in the minors still strikeout eight to nine batters per nine innings. Pitchers like this don’t suddenly turn into Kevin Correia once they hit the bigs.
Even with Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas in the rotation, the Royals have the potential for three spots in the rotation to turn in power performances. Until last season, James Shields had more than 8 K/9 (and his 7.7 last season wasn’t too shabby). The Royals haven’t had three power pitchers in a rotation ever.
Of course there is the possibility that nothing will work out. This is the Royals after all. Fans have been immune to optimism for nearly two decades now. So, sure, maybe Duffy remains too wild for him to have a good year. Maybe Ventura fatigues in every sixth inning and gets blasted. Maybe Zimmer suffers a setback and languishes in AAA for the full year. These are all possibilities. It just seems more likely that one or more of them will continue to blow batters away. That puts opposing offenses in quite a corner.
We’ve already established that Kauffman Stadium does, in fact, suppress walks. It’s also difficult to hit home runs in (if not for the Royals’ HORRIBLE pitching over the years, the park factors for the K would probably indicate that it’s even harder to hit home runs in). That leaves the batter with two likely possibilities. They will either have to hit it into the Royals’ steel curtain defense or strikeout against the Royals’ new-found power-pitching. Even if opponents get a walk, the next batter has a decent chance of grounding into a double play against the Royals infield. Teams already have a tough time stealing bases against Salvador Perez and they sure can’t advance extra bases against the outfield arms.
Power pitching is the last piece of the run-prevention puzzle for the Kansas City Royals. For the first time ever, it looks like it’s on its way.