On Wednesday night, Royals starter Jason Vargas threw five innings, gave up three runs and took the loss; the Baltimore Orioles completed a sweep of the three-game series.
The Royals starting pitchers are now 34-34 with an ERA of 4.43; the seventh-highest ERA in the American League.
If the season ended today, the division winners would be the Red Sox, Indians and Astros; the Royals would face the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.
So far, the starting pitching has been good enough to compete for a spot in the playoffs, but if the Royals made it to the postseason, is the starting pitching good enough to stay a while?
The Wild Card Game
As long as we’re speculating about games that will take place months from now, let’s say the Royals and Yankees meet in the Wild Card Game. Now let’s say the Yankees start Luis Severino, currently 8-4 with a 2.98 ERA, and the Royals counter with Danny Duffy, currently 7-6 with an ERA of 3.42.
Severino has started one game against the Royals this year, won it, threw eight innings, and allowed no earned runs; Duffy has started two games against the Yankees this year, won both, threw 14 innings and allowed two earned runs.
So, at least hypothetically, in a one-game matchup, the Royals would seem to be in good shape.
But if the Royals survive the Wild Card Game and go on to play a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, then what?
The Royals postseason pitching rotation
If the Royals made it past the imaginary Wild Card Game, their imaginary playoff rotation might look like this: Jason Vargas (13-5, 3.10 ERA), Danny Duffy (7-6 3.42 ERA), Ian Kennedy (4-7, 4.60 ERA) and Jason Hammel (5-8, 4.75 ERA).
Obviously, those numbers will change by the end of the season, but that’s what we’re looking at right now.
If you’re not impressed with that rotation, here’s something to keep in mind: in the 2015 postseason the Royals’ starting pitching was 3-5 with an ERA of 4.97, but their bullpen was 8-0 with an ERA of 2.51.
In 2015, the Royals’ starting pitching did not have to be out of this world because their bullpen was.
Other ways to win
Focusing on any one number is a mistake; a team can scuffle in one area if it excels in another.
In 2015, the Royals got away with being 12th in starting pitching because their bullpen was number one. The 2015 Royals got away with being sixth in runs scored, because only two teams allowed fewer runs.
So asking if this year’s starting rotation is good enough to go deep in the playoffs (I wonder what dope thought up that question) ignores all the other parts of the Royals’ game.
The starting rotation is an obvious concern, but it does not need to be great if the offense scores enough runs and the bullpen can hold onto any lead the Royals manage to grab.
Now here’s some bad news: in 2017 the Royals bullpen is still very good, with the fourth-best ERA in the AL, but it’s not what it was in 2015.
In that championship season, if the Royals had a lead after five innings, they won 94 percent of the time; this season, if the Royals have a lead after five innings, they win 85 percent of the time.
If the Royals make the playoffs and want to play a while, some part of the team — starting rotation, bullpen or offense — needs to get hot.
And that brings us to the most important factor of all.
It’s not who you play, it’s when you play them
One of the reasons predictions go haywire is the tendency to believe in averages and assume whatever has happened will continue to happen. The Royals are currently 55-51 and that’s a .519 winning percentage, but that doesn’t mean that the Royals have a 52 percent chance of winning every game they play.
Within their overall averages, teams — and players — fluctuate. The Royals have lost four out of their last five, but before that, won nine straight. It’s true that the Royals beat up on the White Sox and the Tigers during that winning streak, but earlier in the season the White Sox and Tigers were beating up on them.
Ballplayers have a saying: it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them.
In 2014, the best team in the American League was the Los Angeles Angels with 98 wins; the second-best team was the Baltimore Orioles with 96.
That year the Royals got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, but once they got there went on a roll. The team with the fourth-best record in the league swept the two best teams in the AL and made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
The trophy doesn’t go to the best team; it goes to the hottest team.
What happened in 2015 suggests that the Royals’ current starting rotation is good enough to go deep in the playoffs if it, or the offense or the bullpen or preferably all three, gets hot at the right time.
But first, the Royals have to get to the playoffs and getting swept in Baltimore didn’t help.