Two days before welcoming the Yankees to Kansas City, Royals manager Ned Yost sat in his office in Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday morning and rolled his eyes.
His team possessed the worst ERA in baseball. All three of his veteran starters, who are owed a combined $39 million this year, had each allowed nine runs in the last week.
A shift had taken place: A bad month for his bullpen gave way to a bad May for the starting pitchers the Royals counted on to stabilize their rotation.
But, no, Yost said. It is not time to scrap the plan.
“It’s nothing that doesn’t happen every year,” Yost said.
The scene took place hours before Jason Hammel allowed three runs in the first inning of a 5-3 loss to the Rays and underscored the Royals’ recent ineptitude: The pitching staff’s 5.47 ERA is the highest in the majors. Entering Thursday, the starting rotation’s 5.44 ERA was tied for third-highest.
The carnage allowed by only Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and Hammel — 97 runs in 147 innings — has yielded an even more staggering 5.94 ERA and 2-14 record.
But with the contracts they’re tied to — Hammel is in his final year of a two-year contract, while Kennedy’s deal runs through 2020 — there is no feasible way for the Royals to make a cosmetic improvement.
The Royals earlier this month released veteran starter Clay Buchholz from a minor-league contract. He might have provided a patchwork solution at the back-end of the rotation had rookie Eric Skoglund not handled his opening day assignment well. But Skoglund has posted a 3.86 ERA in his last four starts and given the Royals reason to allow him to continue eating innings at the major-league level.
Jakob Junis, whose 3.53 ERA is the best in the rotation by more than one run, is in only his second major-league season.
This summer, rookie reliever Brad Keller seems poised to get a chance to extend his workload and return to starting, which he did in the Diamondbacks’ organization and in the long run will do for the Royals.
Trevor Oaks and Scott Barlow, both at Class AAA Omaha and on the Royals’ 40-man roster, are possible options to help shore up the rotation in the future.
For now, the only practical solution is to let Duffy, Hammel and Kennedy work out the kinks.
“(Hammel) put together a four- or five-game stretch that was pretty (darn) good, going deep into games," Yost said. "ERA is deceiving. Don’t throw that at me like we ought to just light a bomb underneath his chair.”
Duffy, 29, presents a bigger challenge. He’s lost confidence in his fastball and is not inducing as many whiffs with his slider. He’s allowing his mental in-game rut to groove so deep that in Cleveland he slammed his glove into a wall as he disappeared into Progressive Field’s dugout tunnels. In a brief postgame interview, he called himself “not good” eight different ways.
But there’s still time to reverse his 6.51 ERA, which is second-worst among all qualified starters. His coaching staff believes his stuff is good. The velocity on his four-seam fastball has climbed to 96 mph. His slider shouldn’t remain the pitch opponents put in play most — historically, it’s the pitch least put in play against him, according to Brooks Baseball.
In a sense, outside of repeating his delivery consistently, all Duffy needs to recapture his form is the ability to not let each outing — or even each bad pitch — snowball into the next.
“It’s hard for him to stay positive, but that’s the most important thing for him to do,” Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred said. “He’s had a lot of success. He needs to dig deep and really lean on that.”
Every pitcher on the staff, really, has to do the same thing.
The Royals cannot start over. This 2018 season is 43 games in, and they are 17 games under .500, languishing in baseball’s cellar with the Orioles (13-29) and White Sox (10-29). The Royals (13-30) are off to their worst start since 2006, when they went 10-33 in the same stretch and lost 100 games for the last time this century.
To avoid matching the franchise-worst 5.67 ERA amassed 12 years ago, these Royals can’t lick their wounds.
“The ability to bounce back is just the knowledge you’re going to get out of it,” Yost said. “Staying calm and working your way out of it. When you’re a rookie and have never been through it before, you don’t know if you’re ever getting out of it. They (all) will.”