Shortly before the confounding Royals were about to embark Friday on a late-June homestand that actually matters for the first time in years, pitching coach Dave Eiland cautioned against any assumptions that could be made about what had been the best pitching staff in the American League to date, anyway.
Given that 70 games into the season might make for a statistically significant sample size, Eiland was asked, might it be expected that this group would sustain a pace atop the AL in earned-run average, among other measures, and stay on trajectory for its best team ERA in three decades?
“You would hope so,” Eiland said, “but I don’t look too far ahead.”
He might have flinched if he’d seen what was ahead that night, a 9-1 clobbering by the White Sox.
But that by all indications was a blip, and the punchless Royals reverted to their more typical formula for exasperation on Saturday when they fell 3-2 to the Chicago White Sox to lose their fourth in a row since Monday, when they ascended to .500 (34-34) as late as this month for the first time in a decade.
So despite Jeremy Guthrie being jettisoned in the third inning Friday for the team’s briefest starting stint of the season, the pitching largely has been something of a revelation and a breakthrough to build on.
“I think the only way to tilt the field in our favor night-in and night-out is the matchup on the mound,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Friday afternoon. “That’s the way you tilt the field in your favor over 162 games, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
And on the maybe-generous premise of extending mulligans for their first three misadventures in this losing streak, in which the Royals gave up as many runs (19) as in their previous nine games combined, that tilting of the field very much leaves gives the Royals with a chance to make good yet on what widely had been anticipated as a tone-changing season — which .500 or better would be.
The pitching “is better than I had hoped,” Moore said. “I didn’t anticipate it being this successful right now.”
Not that he hasn’t been thinking that way. Pitching has been a priority to Moore since he took over as GM in mid-2006, and the emphasis has been gradually showing up in the simplest of numbers.
Since inheriting a franchise whose team ERA had ballooned over 5.00 in eight of nine seasons (including 2006), the Royals were closer to 4.00 than 5.00 in four of the last six seasons.
And that priority perhaps never was more clearly asserted than in the monster trade last December in which the essential core of the matter was the Royals surrendering hotshot outfield prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay as part of a trade for ace starter James Shields.
Asked if that basically was a matter of choosing pitching over hitting, Moore said, “I think you’re right,” noting the deal also had been informed by his belief in the nucleus of regulars in their 20s including DH Billy Butler, outfielder Alex Gordon, shortstop Alcides Escobar, catcher Salvador Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas.
And Shields has provided virtually everything the Royals might have hoped, a missing piece that helped snap other components into place.
“He’s a legitimate, top-of-the-rotation guy,” Eiland said. “And he’s pitched that way, and everybody else has fallen in line.”
At least when it comes to the pitching staff, which entering the game Friday had been dominant in June. Starting pitchers had a 2.14 ERA, and the seldom-seen bullpen was at 1.80 for the month. The team’s ERA of 3.48 is the franchise’s best since a 3.44 mark in 1978.
The bats, alas, aren’t keeping up, coming through with just 278 runs in 72 games, an exasperating co-signature of the season.
That’s why the Royals record can be broken down so simply: They are 23-5 when they score four or more runs and 11-33 when they muster three or fewer.
“You’ve got to expect the bats to trend upward,” Moore said. “There’s too much talent here, and history tells us it’s two to four years of playing every day at the major-league level to become a consistent producer.
“Hopefully, the timeline is shorter with our guys, but there’s a lot of talent and I’m going to continue to trust in the talent and believe in our players.”
Which may well be warranted.
But the “when” and “if” of that beg other questions.
To what degree do starting pitchers begin to stress more or feel resentment or just emotionally wear down when they can’t expect runs to be scored behind them?
While acknowledging he’s spoken with his staff about it, Eiland perhaps spoke to the emotional paradox by adding, “We can’t concern ourselves with how many runs are being scored or not being scored. You can’t pitch to where you’re afraid if you give up a run you’re going to get beat. If you do that, you start falling behind in the count and bad things are going to happen.”
There’s no one answer to when the absence of offense starts to gnaw into a pitcher, of course, and no real way to measure it. Every pitcher is different, and each might handle it in a different way, Moore said.
But there’s little doubt that it is, in fact, something to have to handle.
“It can be hard,” said veteran reliever Bruce Chen, who has made 203 career starts. “A lot of pitchers say, ‘I’m not worried about that, but ultimately, you don’t want to lose the game.’ But these guys are very strong in their mind, and they are very professional and so far it hasn’t shown.”
Shields’ season is a microcosm of the issue. Entering his start against the White Sox on Sunday, he’s just 2-6 despite a 2.72 ERA in great part because the Royals are scraping up just 3.4 runs a game for him.
Ask him if that’s ever on his mind, or if he might press because of it, though, and he smiles and says, “No, no, no. I go out there every five days with the same attitude, every single five days. It doesn’t matter if I won my last game, lost my last game, I don’t get any runs, I get a ton of runs. I don’t really care. Every five days, I’m going to go out there and pitch my game and hopefully I can get a win.
“You only can control the control-ables. I can’t control what’s not in my hand.”
Besides, he added, the Royals have won his last four starts — just not with his name on it.
“As long as we win the games,” he said, “that’s all that really matters.”
Pitch like they have most of the season, and the laws of baseball averages and axioms favor winning plenty. But how much that can be expected to continue is no sure thing, as Friday night reminded, and it might also hinge on a morale boost from the plate.Best team ERAs in Royals’ franchise history
*won division; **won World Series; ^162-game projection