Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pitching Optimism in Kansas City

Going into the season, fresh off the loss of Zack Greinke, things did not look positive for the Kansas City Royals pitching staff. Indeed, before the season started, I would have called a rotation featuring Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies and Sean O’Sullivan easily the worst rotation in the American League just based on the eye test. After all, Kansas City did have the worst pitching staff ERA of any AL team last season and the worst starter ERA by almost .6 runs per game WITH Zack Greinke giving the club 200+ innings.

The numbers give a decent indication as to why the Royals were so bad. They were 10th in K/9 with 6.5 K/9, 12th in BB/9 with 3.5 BB/9, and tied for 13th in HR/9 with 1.1 HR/9. I picked these stats to look at because they are fielder independent and therefore give the best assessment of the pitching staff’s actual performance. If you will notice the Royals had the lowest ERA by a considerable margin despite not finishing last in any category. As you might suspect, their defense was rated among the worst by a few different measures. With the absence of Zach Greinke, one would probably suspect that the Royals staff would not need the help of the defense to finish last in staff ERA once again while bringing up the rear in almost all fielding independent pitching statistics. After all, their only significant addition in the off-season was to sign the recovering Jeff Francis.

However, currently the Royals sit 12th in K/9 at 6 K/9, tied for last in HR/9 with 1.3 HR/9, and 6th in BB/9 with 3.3 BB/9. Now, most of these numbers are still subject to small sample size problems at this point in the season. However, while it would be expected that the Royals would K fewer batters and give up more home runs without Greinke, the decrease in walk rate is both surprising and encouraging.

Somehow, the Royals staff is walking fewer batters so far this season than they did last season despite the fact that Tim Collins and Jeremy Jeffress walk everybody and their brother coming out of the bullpen. Collins in particular, leads the team in walks with 15 in only 15 innings. The Royals starters walked 3.33 BB/9 last season with Greinke, this season, the starters have a 2.37 BB/9 rate, almost a full walk lower per 9 innings. That kind of improvement is astounding.

History suggests this improvement might be sustainable. Jeff Francis is continuing a trend of limiting his walks, going from 3.07 BB/9 to 1.98 BB/9 to 1.06 BB/9 this season. Despite a K rate that has dropped all the way to 4.5 K/9 this season, he still induces 50% ground balls and has a very average 11.4% HR/FB rate. As a result, if Francis can stay healthy he figures to be a serviceable if unspectacular pitcher. Furthermore, Luke Hochevar has dropped from 3.23 BB/9 to 1.89 BB/9. While it is unlikely that margin of difference will continue, it is not unthinkable that a pitcher in his prime at 27 would improve his control. Similarly, Kyle Davies improvement in walks this season is probably exaggerated but he is also a 27 year old that could have simply improved. Bruce Chen has enjoyed a negligible improvement in BB/9 that probably not a significant indicator of improvement meanwhile Sean O’Sullivan has a higher than normal walk rate that is somewhat likely to come down over the course of the year.

As you can see, when considering each of the five pitchers that make up the starting staff individually there is reason to believe that some significant level of walk rate improvement for the team as a whole is sustainable even when considering certain relievers high walk totals.

Now, it should be noted while the staff ERA as a whole is down from last season, the starters ERA is actually slightly higher, no doubt fueled by a decrease in K/9 and more significantly by an increase in HR/9. The Royals starters have given up a league leading 25 home runs, 5 more than the next club. The home run total can probably be mostly explained by Luke Hochevar’s 20% HR/FB rate, a rate nearly double his career average. The remaining staff has HR/FB rates fairly close to normal levels. As a result, the current home run rate of the Royals starters, Hochevar in particular, is likely somewhat overstated.

The Royals staff contains more than a few fly ball pitchers prone to give up home runs at a high rate. In fact, even though Hochevar’s rate in particular is a bit flukey, it would still not be surprising for the staff to lead the AL in home runs given up. That said, the change in walk rate for the staff appears very real. And while the group as a whole might not be much if any better than they were last season when you consider Zack Greinke gave the club 200+ innings, just producing at a level equivalent to last season is a big victory for a group that lost a Cy Young caliber pitcher.

This Royals staff has given every indication that they can at least hold down the fort until the talented reinforcements from the minors arrive.

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