A few trends have begun to emerge during this young baseball season. Some are good. Some are not so good. All have time to change. But for now, one of the most disturbing trends for the Royals isn’t actually about the sputtering offense but rather the pitching staff and their inability to keep runners off base. They’re limiting hits quite well (they entered play yesterday with the fifth fewest hits allowed in baseball), but they’re walking what seems like the entire ballpark. And it’s a problem.
This didn’t begin during the Royals recent losing streak, but it became more magnified. They walked 30 batters during the six-game road trip. That’s a lot. In four of the six games, they actually walked more batters than they struck out.
This season, the Royals have walked five or more batters in a game 10 times. In those 10 games, they’ve allowed an average of four runs per game. On the surface, it sure seems like they’re finding a way to work around the walks. And they are, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. They’ve allowed three runs per game in games when they walk four or less batters. With a struggling offense, wouldn’t it be nice to have to score one fewer run? I mean, they’ve only scored more than four runs four times this year. Why force them to score five?
Obviously, walking hitters isn’t a good thing for a pitcher. I don’t have to tell you that or explain that giving up more base runners is a bad thing. One more thing that walking hitters tends to do is raise the pitch count. As pitch counts rise, innings decrease. That’s just what happens. With that in mind, here’s what all five Royals starters have done this year:
As you can see, no Royals starter is even close to 15 pitches per inning that you like to see, and only Ian Kennedy is throwing less than 17 per inning. That’s been reflected in the innings they’ve thrown. They’re averaging less than 5 and 2/3 innings per start this season. They’re on pace to actually throw less innings than last year.
So that leads to another season of increased bullpen usage, which could be a problem for the Royals down the stretch. As we all know, they rely heavily on their bullpen and that’s been a big reason why they’ve been able to mow through two straight Octobers and handle their business. The Royals have so much bullpen depth that they can usually work around that, but it would be nice if they didn’t have to rely on their sixth and seventh options too much just in an attempt to keep the big guns fresh.
So I guess the question is, what is causing these control issues. After in-depth research, I’ve concluded that they’re walking more batters due to reaching four balls in the count prior to any other event happening way too often. But seriously folks, it’s kind of hard to say. Dave Eiland is a pitching coach who really preaches throwing strikes and letting the great Royals defense do their work, but this pitching staff just hasn’t been able to practice what he preaches.
My first thought about all the walks was that the pitching staff might just be exhausted. They’ve played 31 extra baseball games over the last two seasons, so maybe they’re just feeling the impact of two straight extra months on their season. Before the season, I mentioned that I wasn’t all that worried because of the limited innings from the pitchers they were counting heavily on, but that I was worried about Volquez. He actually did throw a lot of innings last year and was pitching so many stressful October innings that I thought he could struggle.
Yet the two biggest walk culprits are Ventura and Medlen. Both have had multiple high walk games already this season. Both have also pitched quite well at times, but those walks have already been costly. In the bullpen, the main culprit has been Joakim Soria, but even Wade Davis has struggled a bit with his control this season.
Ventura had somewhat limited innings last year due to his injury. Medlen didn’t even come back until mid-season, so his innings last year likely aren’t the issue. Soria wasn’t overly worked at all. Davis you could maybe argue has some fatigue on him, but he’s really the only one. And he’s also one of the few you don’t really think of as that being a potential problem.
So the only pitcher who really may have had some red flags was Volquez, and he’s clearly not the problem.
A couple things that are worth noting are that the Royals just don’t throw a ton of first pitch strikes. Leading into last night’s game, they ranked 22nd in baseball in first pitch strikes. Falling behind in the count makes it much easier to walk better.
Something else is that they throw an awful lot of non-fastballs. They rank 19th in fastball percentage, but 8th in curve and 6th in changeups. It seems like many Royals pitchers pitch backwards (meaning they lead with their off-speed stuff). Often, these pitches are thrown with an eye on getting swings and misses. I love swings and misses and I love pitching backwards, but I think they might be getting a little too predictable. So they get themselves in a hole and then almost have to throw a fastball, but they also don’t have great fastball command, so you can see where the problems come in.
That’s just throwing a couple ideas out there. There may be other reasons, or it may just be a bad stretch to start the season. I just don’t think the Royals pitching staff actually has control that is this bad, so maybe some simple regression will kill the problem. Hopefully it stops soon, because at some point, it’s going to cause way more problems than it already has. I can almost guarantee that.