How Badly Do the Royals Really Need a Starting Pitcher?

You remember how the last year went, and ended. It was devastating — not only because the Royals came so close, but because no one could be sure when the Royals would have another opportunity. The following season didn’t appear so bright; while the team could survive losing, say, Nori Aoki and Billy Butler, it would be tougher to lose James Shields. The guy the Royals signed to replace Shields was Edinson Volquez, which is to say the Royals didn’t really get around to replacing Shields at all. Preseason opinions of the team were mixed, but everyone agreed it would be a struggle to get back to the playoffs.

Now, almost halfway through, the Royals have the best record in the American League. Practically their entire lineup is in position to be voted into the All-Star Game, and only a few of those selections would be terrible ones. The team’s done well to shake off last year’s defeat, and with their eyes set ahead, the future will soon bring the exhibition, and the trade deadline. Like every team, the Royals could stand to be better. Like every team, the Royals could use another one or two arms. Without question, the starting rotation is far from a strength. But as the Royals gauge the market, it’s worth asking — how bad is their need for another starter, really?

At first glance, it looks like a pretty bad need. Eyeball the names, and you don’t see one of those classic shutdown workhorses. On performance, the Royals have been relatively weak. To this point, the rotation ranks tied for 25th in WAR. It’s last in innings pitched, and almost last in strikeout rate. The group has a 110 FIP-, and if you normalize a few fly balls, it could be even worse. I know that Chris Young messes with these numbers to some extent. Doesn’t change the overall message.

And if you don’t want to look back, you can look ahead. We have team projections and team depth charts. From this point forward, the Royals are projected to get 3.6 WAR from the starting rotation — tied with the Rockies for worst in baseball. Maybe that seems overly pessimistic, but only four other teams are within a win of the Royals’ projection. Again, you don’t need to buy into all the specifics to understand that the rotation is a problem, as far as the Royals go.

So it seems like a need. Seems like it could use an upgrade. It could use an upgrade, in that it would be possible to make room. But now let’s talk about the other stuff.

The Royals lead their division. They lead their division by three games. The rest-of-season projections don’t love the Royals, but the team in second place at the moment is the Twins, and the projections like them even less. The Tigers are a full five games back. The Indians are eight and a half games back. There’s a little more than half the season to go, and the Royals so far have over-achieved what was expected of them. Their playoff odds are at 61%; their division odds are at 48%. Just before the season began, the Royals had odds of 17% and 10%, respectively.

By no means is making the playoffs a foregone conclusion, but the Royals are in a very strong place. They’re in the strongest place of anyone in the division. And if the Royals were to get to the playoffs, the formulas would change. No longer would they need the things a team usually needs to survive the summer. Consider, as an example: last year’s Royals.

That team, of course, closed out games with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. For simplicity, let’s refer to them as the Big Three. Here are some splits, showing percent of innings pitched.

Regular Season

Big Three: 14% of team innings
Bullpen: 32%


Big Three: 29% of team innings
Bullpen: 44%

It felt like the Big Three worked in every single game, and it was practically true. Relative to the regular season, the big-name relievers had their usage rates doubled, and the bullpen overall saw a workload increase, toward throwing half the team innings. The starting rotation became less of a factor. The job of the Royals’ starters was basically to hand a winnable game over to the bullpen. It doesn’t have to be different this time around.

Because, you know, the Big Three are still present. Maybe Holland is a little less dominant than before, but he’s got a long track record of success. The Royals decided against trading a reliever, and they’ve ended up in this position. Even more, there’s something of an embarrassment of riches. Even if you aren’t yet buying Franklin Morales, the Royals now have a healthy Ryan Madson, and it doesn’t look like he’s lost much of anything from his good days. And the Royals also have a healthy Luke Hochevar, and while he’s looking to settle in, his stuff is still better than average, and the last time he pitched in a season, he was amazing.

As further depth, Jason Frasor is still around, though he might’ve gotten worse. There’s still Brandon Finnegan, who’s been bumped between the majors and Triple-A. Danny Duffy could be a bullpen option, depending on how he does as a starter, now that he’s healthy. You never want to assume reliever consistency, but we knew from the start the Royals could have an unusually deep pen, and now that Madson and Hochevar are throwing pretty well, this could conceivably jell into a postseason terror.

The better the bullpen, the less the starters have to throw. The less the starters have to throw, the better they could be, because they get to put a little more onto every pitch, and because they don’t have to go through the order three or four times. No team wants to have a shaky starting rotation, but the Royals have the parts in place to give theirs the necessary support. The outstanding team defense gobbles up extra batted balls, and relievers could be made available early enough no one has to pitch beyond his capability.

A healthy Yordano Ventura is fine. No one could ever rely on Volquez, but he could probably make two turns through the order. The same could be said of Chris Young, and the huge wild card is the pending return of Kris Medlen. Medlen was awesome in 2012 and good enough the next year, and though you take nothing about injury rehab for granted, Medlen might be the starter the Royals want. He’s getting closer to returning to the majors.

Let’s be honest: the Royals just started Joe Blanton. Their rotation isn’t where they want it to be. But the team overall is sitting pretty, and though it could use rotation depth, you could make a convincing argument it would be just as well off further adding bullpen arms. Pieces to keep the bullpen fresh down the stretch. You can’t assume they’ll make the playoffs, but they’ll probably make the playoffs, and then starters could be limited to as few as four innings. If any team is built for that, it’s Kansas City.

The point of everything: the Royals have options. Yeah, they’d be better with a better starter. They don’t need to develop tunnel vision. They could try to make the bullpen even deeper. Or they could focus on that Omar Infante problem. As is the case for so many teams, the Royals could really use Ben Zobrist, if the A’s elect to sell him. Zobrist could help at second base and in the outfield, and then he’d be gone, and the Royals could try to salvage Infante again the next time around. Maybe Dayton Moore wouldn’t want to pay the Zobrist price, but then, maybe he wouldn’t want to pay the Johnny Cueto price, either. He doesn’t need to.

Without a good starting rotation, the Royals have achieved the best record in their own league. They’re about halfway to the point where the starting rotation doesn’t have to matter as much anymore. They’re an unconventional team, but unconventional teams don’t have to think about conventional upgrades.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Maybe it’s time to give up on the Alex Rios experiment. Sure, we’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but in 105 PAs, he’s sitting at -0.4 WAR. By contrast, Jarrod Dyson has a 0.6 WAR in only 84 PAs. Dyson is hitting .256/.284/.372, which is actually better than Rios’ .220/.248/.280, plus he’s worth far more defensively and on the basepaths than Rios. Every projection system likes Dyson to be worth around twice what Rios is worth the rest of the season in about half as many PAs.

Regarding the starting pitching issue, even a mildly competent starter would be better than Guthrie at this point.

But I think the bigger problem the Royals are going to face is Dayton Moore admitting a mistake and eating salary. Although Guthrie should be cut and Rios should be benched, I don’t think Moore and the Royals are willing to do that.

Sarcasm, Thy Name is Commenter
8 years ago
Reply to  TangoAlphaLima

How can they get rid of Rios when he’s probably going to be an All-Star?