At the beginning of a baseball season ask any manager how he thinks his team will do and don’t be surprised if he mentions starting pitching. Having starting pitchers dominate is a great way to win games.
Right now the top three American League teams in wins — Boston, Cleveland and Houston — also have the top three starting rotations.
So, considering its importance, what do you do if you can’t afford top-of-the-line starting pitching?
You might do what the Royals did in 2015; try to minimize the starting rotation’s importance by building an outstanding bullpen.
In 2015, the Royals starting rotation was ranked 12th in the American League according to their collective ERA; the Royals got away with that because their bullpen was ranked No. 1.
If the Royals could grab a lead at any point in a ballgame, they had a great chance of making that lead stand up. In 2015 if the Royals had a lead after five innings they won 94 percent of the time.
This season, the Royals bullpen ranks eighth and if they have a lead after five innings they win 82 percent of the time.
Back in 2015, Royals coach Rusty Kuntz asked why any opposing team would want to get the Royals’ starting pitcher out of a game early; do that and the opposing team would face the best set of relievers in the league.
This season, with a middle-of-the-pack bullpen, getting the Royals starting pitcher out early is a better bet.
Quality starts in August
Just in case you don’t already know, a quality start is a game in which the starting pitcher pitches a minimum of six innings and gives up no more than three earned runs.
Going six innings probably means the middle relievers — often the weakest part of any bullpen — don’t have to pitch. And allowing no more than three earned runs means the offense probably doesn’t have to light up the scoreboard to win a game.
If I counted right, always a dubious proposition, before August 1 the Royals were 55-49 and got quality starts in 47 percent of their games. Since August 1, the Royals are 9-15 and have quality starts in 29 percent of their games.
This month, when the Royals got a quality start, they were 6-1; when the Royals did not get a quality start they were 3-14.
People have asked what happened to the Royals bullpen in August — the bullpen ERA went from 2.00 in July to 5.42 this month — and at least part of the answer lies in some short outing by Royals starters. In seven starts this month, Royals starting pitchers failed to complete five innings and in those games the Royals were 2-5.
If a starter has a short outing it’s probably because he’s giving up runs and if the starter’s giving up runs his team is probably behind and if his team is behind his manager probably isn’t going to use his best relievers in a game his team is already losing.
One thing leads to another and a bad start tends to lead to losses.
In 2015 the Royals bullpen had an ERA of 2.72; this season the bullpen’s ERA is currently 4.05.
If the bullpen isn’t what it was, the Royals need more out of their starting pitchers and so far this August, they haven’t been getting it.