Judging the Royals

Royals’ starting rotation is struggling, but it doesn’t need to be great for team to win

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Chris Young pitched 2  2/3 innings Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays and got dinged for six runs. And, as you might expect, the Royals lost their third game in a row.

This season the Royals starting pitching ranks 12th in the American League in ERA which sound pretty bad. On the other hand, last season — a year that ended with a World Series win — the Royals starting pitching ranked (drumroll please) 12th in the American League.

Top-of-the-line starting pitchers are expensive, and by loading up their bullpen the Royals have done what they could to help their starting rotation. If your bullpen is stacked you might need just five innings from your starter instead of seven.

That’s one of the reasons Kansas City ranked 24th in quality starts (at least six innings pitched while giving up no more than three earned runs), but still won the American League championship in 2015.

Because of their bullpen (ranked first both this year and last year), quality starts matter less for the Royals than some other teams — but they still matter. On this latest road trip the Royals are 3-4 with two quality starts; they won both those games. But far too often the Royals’ starter isn’t going deep enough or keeping the score low enough and then the best bullpen in the league doesn’t matter; they have no lead to protect.

The Royals starting pitching does not need to be great, but it does need to be better.

Royals lead the AL in fewest unearned runs allowed

Nobody in the American League has scored fewer runs than the Royals and yet they still have a winning record. How does a team do that?

Pitching and defense.

The Royals might be last in runs scored, but they’re also 13th in runs allowed. And no American League team has allowed fewer unearned runs to score; the Royals have given up 17 unearned runs and for comparison’s sake, Boston has given up 40.

It’s easy to get caught up in offensive numbers, but defense matters, too. It’s simple: you don’t have to put so many runs on the board if you can keep the other team off the board.

You have to be quick to hit a knuckleball

Back in 2011 the Royals were getting ready to face a knuckleballer (if memory serves it was Tim Wakefield) and I made the mistake of saying I ought to be in the lineup that night. After all, Wakefield threw his knuckleball about 72 mph and I figured that would match up well with my bat speed.

Jeff Francoeur set me straight; he said you have to wait as long as you can on a knuckleball so you have some idea of where it’s going and then be very quick to hit it.

Another surprising thing about knuckleballers is they can be tough to steal on. True, the ball is dancing all over the place, so that’s in the runner’s favor, but guys who throw a knuckleball don’t have much windup; they’re basically playing catch and are very quick to the plate. The bad part about a knuckleball pitcher is you never know what you’re going to get; if the ball doesn’t move, he’s throwing batting practice.

On Tuesday night, the Royals got the good version of R.A. Dickey and only managed four hits and two runs in seven innings.

On Wednesday night, the Royals face Marcus Stroman and his overall ERA of 5.08 would indicate they have a chance, but in Stroman’s last start he threw 6  2/3 innings while giving up just one run.

Royals fans had better hope that was an aberration.