Ian Kennedy, Kansas City Royals

Royals’ Rotation Should Pile Up The Strikeouts

If you’ve paid any attention at all to the Royals’ spring training games, you’ve probably noticed that this team appears to have more power hitters than any recent edition we’ve seen here in Kansas City. Our own Craig Brown discussed that even before the start of spring training, and the numbers so far bear it out. With the additions of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler, the Royals now have seven guys who could (and should, assuming they stay healthy) hit at least 15 home runs each (those two, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez). The Royals have never had seven players do that in one season. Not-so-fun fact, they’ve had six players do it in one season just three times: 1977, 1987, and 2003. If six or all seven of that group can do it this year, that’s a good sign for this team’s chances.

But today I would like to focus on a different kind of power: power pitching.

I think the Royals’ rotation is not getting enough credit generally, and specifically not enough credit for the strikeouts they could pile up. Four of the five starters in the Opening Day rotation have the potential to average over a strikeout per inning. That could be a big difference between last year’s disappointing performance and a much more enjoyable summer in 2017.

Throwing hard isn’t the end-all, be-all of pitching (without control and command, the ball just ends up out of the strike zone faster). Accumulating strikeouts isn’t necessarily a sign of success for a pitcher (if they’re offset with walks and homers). But it can’t hurt.

Danny Duffy last year averaged 94.9 mph on his fastball. That was good for sixth-highest in the majors among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Certainly, he was helped by starting the season in the bullpen, allowing him to air it out. But even after he was back in the rotation and stretched out a bit, he still was over 94 mph on average. Ian Kennedy came in 28th on the list, averaging 92.0 mph. Jason Hammel was right there with him, and Nate Karns didn’t pitch enough innings to be on the list, but averaged 92.9 mph. Four of the Royals’ five starters throw very hard, and we can expect strikeouts to follow because they have shown an ability to strike out lots of batters in the past.

It appears Duffy and Kennedy will be good bets to lead the team in strikeouts again. Duffy had 188 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings in 2016. Kennedy had 184 in 195 2/3 innings. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to pencil them both in for around 200 innings and 200 strikeouts this year. Kennedy averaged more than one strikeout per inning in 2014 and 2015 before moving to the American League knocked his number down a bit.

The middle of the rotation includes Hammel and Jason Vargas, who is the outlier here. Hammel struck out 144 hitters in 166 2/3 innings last year but had 172 in 170 2/3 in 2015. Since he escaped the pitcher’s hell of Coors Field after 2011, Hammel has averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings. So let’s mark him down for 162 innings (for easy math) and 144 strikeouts. Vargas has never been a big strikeout guy, so let’s give him his career average of six strikeouts per nine innings over 144 innings (as he returns from Tommy John surgery, there is a good chance Vargas will not be in the rotation all year). There are 96 strikeouts. We’re up to 640 strikeouts for this rotation.

Karns averaged 9.3 Ks per nine innings as a starter last year, which is even better than the 8.9 K/9 he posted in his only year as a full-time starter, in 2015. Let’s be optimists and give him his innings from that season, round up a bit for 150 and give him that many strikeouts. Now we’ve got a rotation that totaled 850 innings or so and almost 800 strikeouts.

Of course, there will be more innings from starting pitchers than that, ideally approaching 1,000 (just about six innings per start), but that seems to be the basis for a pretty good rotation. Keep in mind that in 2015 the Royals’ starters threw just over 900 innings and collected 778 strikeouts. This group has a good chance to exceed that latter number in fewer innings. Throw in Kelvin Herrera and Matt Strahm at the back end of the bullpen for more whiffs, and you’re looking at a valuable decrease in balls in play.

Then consider that these pitchers will be working in front of a defense with above-average or very good defenders in eight of the nine positions. Only right field, with Soler/Moss/Paulo Orlando, is a problem spot.

Last year’s Royals team allowed a BABIP of .301. That’s about what you’d expect the league average to be, so it’s not exceptionally high. But in 2015, the Royals allowed a BABIP of just .288. Then there are the home runs, which of course don’t count in BABIP. In 2015, the Royals allowed 155 dingers. That number rocketed up to 206 last year. Go back to 2014 and those numbers are a .294 BABIP and 128 homers.

The funny thing is that the Royals’ strikeouts were very consistent from 2014 to 2015: 1,168 and 1,160, respectively. And then last year they struck out 1,287 hitters. The difference is mainly due to replacing Jeremy Guthrie with Kennedy, and Duffy turning into a very good starter. Not surprisingly, those two were the most effective starters the Royals had last year. The other two rotation mainstays last year, Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura, saw their strikeout rates drop and, probably not coincidentally, gave up more hits and home runs than they had in 2015. Volquez went from a 7.0 K/9 to a 6.6; Ventura went from 8.6 to 7.0.

Given that, the Royals were probably wise to let Volquez leave as a free agent and bring in Karns to replace him. The Royals will certainly miss Ventura, who easily could have bounced back to his 2015 form—his velocity was still good last year, he just wasn’t making batters miss the ball. But Hammel ought to be able to mitigate the loss of Ventura somewhat.

I grant you that a lot of this scenario depends on health. But right now this looks like it the Royals could have a better rotation than they did in 2014 and 2015. The bullpen might not be as strong as it was those two seasons, but perhaps a more solid rotation can cover that up, much as a strong bullpen papered over those rotations’ flaws.

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