Wade Davis

Examining the Royals Pitching

It’s difficult to know the best way to evaluate a pitcher. Some would argue that you look at wins to see who is best. Some would argue ERA is the ultimate indicator. Others might say you look at peripherals like strikeouts and walks. And some might even tell you that no number can tell you how good a pitcher is. You can tell by watching them. For those, I laud you for your commitment to dining at 4:30. Before I get into anything, I want to remind you that no one statistic can tell any story. You might look at Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) and think that tells the story. It tells part of it. That’s true of any stat. It only tells part of the story.

Baseball Prospectus has a fantastic stat called Deserved Run Average (DRA) that does a pretty darn good job of taking everything into consideration. As with every statistic, it’s not the only thing to look at, but I do really like to see how it rates pitchers. In other pitching statistics, I don’t think there’s enough taken into account. For example, some worship at the altar of Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). And I do think FIP tells a story. It looks at strikeouts, walks, HBP, home runs and innings. And that’s all. So if a pitcher goes five innings and gives up eight runs on 12 hits (but no home runs) while striking out six with no walks, he has a FIP for the game of 0.74. Obviously that’s an extreme example, but it shows the limitation of a stat that focuses on only those outcomes.

With DRA, though, it’s different. I’ll let you read all about it here if you want to, but the gist of it is that it takes into account way more potential outcomes and models them in order to give a more accurate number. Some might argue that the only things a pitcher can truly control are what are listed in FIP, but a pitcher is relevant to all events, even if there are some he’s more relevant to than others.

So I wanted to take a look at how Royals pitchers fared by DRA this season to use it as both an evaluation tool for the staff and as potentially a predictor moving forward. I’ve included FIP and WARP as well for reference. Here’s the list of every Royals pitcher from 2016:

Scott Alexander 19.0 3.32 3.91 -0.59 0.2 3.21
Drew Butera 1.1 0.00 3.91 -3.91 0.0 1.61
Wade Davis 43.1 1.87 3.80 -1.93 0.6 2.25
Danny Duffy 179.2 3.51 3.46 +0.05 3.8 3.79
Brian Flynn 55.1 2.60 4.20 -1.60 0.5 3.99
Dillon Gee 125.0 4.68 6.01 +1.33 -1.2 5.21
Kelvin Herrera 72.0 2.75 2.79 -0.04 1.8 2.43
Luke Hochevar 37.1 3.86 3.50 +0.36 0.6 4.02
Ian Kennedy 195.2 3.68 4.71 -1.03 1.5 4.63
Kevin McCarthy 8.1 6.48 4.87 +1.61 0.0 4.79
Kris Medlen 24.1 7.77 5.74 +2.03 -0.1 5.16
Alec Mills 3.1 13.50 4.68 +8.82 0.0 6.11
Peter Moylan 44.2 3.43 3.80 -0.37 0.6 3.96
Brooks Pounders 12.2 9.24 4.94 +4.30 0.0 7.92
Joakim Soria 66.2 4.05 4.08 -0.03 0.7 4.32
Matt Strahm 22.0 1.23 2.91 -1.68 0.5 2.02
Jason Vargas 12.0 2.25 4.54 -2.29 0.1 3.11
Yordano Ventura 186.0 4.45 4.44 +0.01 2.0 4.55
Chien-Ming Wang 53.1 4.22 5.57 -1.35 -0.4 4.57
Chris Young 88.2 6.19 5.05 +1.14 0.2 6.58

I have to admit that when I sat down to write this article, I had no idea what the numbers were, so we’re making conclusions here together. For reference, the Royals, as a team, threw 1,440 innings with a 4.21 ERA. Their DRA was 4.46 and their FIP was 4.38. Their DRA- (DRA relative to the league) was 104, which means they were four percent worse than league average on the mound, which was 22nd in all of baseball. They ranked 17th in ERA and 21st in FIP.

Let’s take a look at how the Royals have fared since 2013, just to set a baseline:

2016 4.21 4.46 4.38
2015 3.74 4.52 4.01
2014 3.51 4.10 3.72
2013 3.45 4.11 3.85

The Royals defense was one of the best defenses I’d ever seen from 2013-2015 and it tailed off a bit in 2016. Part of that was due to injuries to key players and part of it was random variance while another part yet is probably guys simply getting older. While FIP has the word “fielding” in the name, I think DRA actually rates staffs that field so well better since it takes everything into account. The defensive aspect can get lost in FIP a bit while DRA tracks everything.

So anyway, what does it all mean? That’s what you’re here for, right?

Moving forward, I think it means good things for the Royals, if they have health in their side in 2017. Mike Moustakas at third base should upgrade that part of the defense. An extra 35-40 games of Lorenzo Cain should upgrade that part of the defense. Second base seems likely to be better on the whole with Whit Merrifield the favorite for that job (I think he’s the clear favorite at this point). A full season of Alex Gordon makes that part of the defense better. So that right there should help to bridge the gap and get the 2017 defense closer to the 2013-2015 unit. Though all of that is obviously no guarantee.

Some thoughts on individuals:

I worry about Davis. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the top three or four relievers in all about baseball. He went on the disabled list twice in 2016. His strikeouts were down. His walks were up. He was more hittable. The ERA of 1.87 is still very shiny and that FIP looked awfully nice because he continued to not allow home runs, but that 3.80 DRA is scary to me. I think he’s a prime candidate to be moved and the Royals would be wise to extract all the value they can out of him.

I certainly wouldn’t spend $3.6 million on Gee as is his estimated arbitration salary. I think there’s value in innings pitched, so if they can bring him back for far less than that with incentives, I wouldn’t be opposed, but between the DRA being so drastically high and his health issues, I’m not so sure there’s a good spot for him on the 2017 roster.

As much as I like Brian Flynn, maybe I’m wrong to just assume he has a spot on the 2017 team out of the gates. He didn’t strike out that many and he walked a fair amount. His 38 hits allowed in 55.1 innings tell a story that may not be able to be told by ERA indicators, so I still like him, but that’s at least somewhat eye opening to see.

I still don’t buy it on Kennedy. Maybe I’m biased because I liked the signing at the time and the back of the baseball card numbers proved me right this past year, but I just think a guy like him fits well both in Kauffman Stadium and with that defense behind him and he will always outperform his ERA indicators as long as he has himself in the right situation like he does. As long as he can continue to get weak contact on his fastball and limit extra base hits other than the home run ball, I think he can be a very solid middle of the rotation guy, just as he has been and just he was in 2016.

Strahm allowed two extra base hits in 75 at bats. That’s incredible. That’s a pace for 20 in 733 at bats. Why 733? That’s the number of at bats against Kennedy, who was basically the average starter with 33 starts and nearly 200 innings. I know the difference between DRA and ERA is stark, but I think any system has trouble with freaks like Strahm. If he starts, I obviously wouldn’t expect numbers like that, but I could see him maintaining his dominance if he’s in the bullpen next season with those kind of numbers.

As long as health is there, I’d bring Hochevar back. Before the injury, he was the most important piece in that Royals bullpen. I think that injury caused his struggles as his season wound down, and he looks like a pretty good bet to bounce back. Again, this is assuming he’s healthy. I still think the mutual option might actually make sense for basically the first time ever.

I also find it interesting that DRA was basically dead on Herrera, Ventura and Soria. I’m not sure it means anything, but I found it interesting.

Oh, and don’t expect Butera to keep up that shiny 0.00 ERA. DRA doesn’t buy it and you shouldn’t either.

It’s kind of funny. I’m still not sure if I’m more or less worried about the 2017 pitching staff than I was when I began this exercise. On one hand, their DRA was basically identical to the 2015 staff that was a champion, in case you forgot. On the other hand, the ERA rose by nearly half a run while their FIP jumped by 0.37. I think it’s safe to say that jump was due to the environment where home runs are king again, but I think I’m actually fairly encouraged for next year in looking at this. I’m making the assumption (yes, I know what happens when you assume) that the defense is better next season and the pitching staff doesn’t take so long to find its roles. Even if the DRA remains roughly the same for a third straight year, I think the pitching staff gets better in 2017. I hope.

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