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Lift Off

If you can squint, you can see the lone bright spot of the Royals season thus far. It’s the starting pitching.

It’s what kept them in games (they eventually lost) in April. And while it’s regressed a bit in May, the rotation is still helping them out for the most part. Sure, there are clunkers here and there, but that’s the case with any rotation. As we’ve written in this space a number of times since last winter, this isn’t a starting staff that will blow you away, but it’s loaded with “number three” types that should be steady enough to keep the team competitive.

Big picture, they’ve probably been better than that. Even with the regression we’ve seen the last several weeks, the Royals starting rotation still sports a 3.87 ERA, which is fourth best in the AL.  Their average Game Score (as calculated by Baseball Reference) sits at 52, which is above average Here are their basic stats sorted by innings pitched through Monday’s game.

Kansas City Royals Player Splits: as Starter
Rk Name W L W-L% ERA G GS IP
H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BF WHIP SO9 SO/W
1 Danny Duffy 3 3 .500 2.97 9 9 57.2 54 19 19 2 19 0 45 3 236 1.266 7.0 2.37
2 Jason Vargas 5 3 .625 2.30 9 9 54.2 44 15 14 4 13 0 49 1 216 1.043 8.1 3.77
3 Nate Karns 2 2 .500 3.43 8 8 44.2 39 17 17 9 11 1 49 2 182 1.119 9.9 4.45
4 Jason Hammel 1 5 .167 6.20 8 8 40.2 54 29 28 6 17 1 31 3 193 1.746 6.9 1.82
5 Ian Kennedy 0 4 .000 4.06 7 7 37.2 26 18 17 7 18 0 32 1 154 1.168 7.6 1.78
6 Chris Young 0 0 12.15 2 2 6.2 13 9 9 3 5 1 5 0 36 2.700 6.8 1.00
7 Jake Junis 0 0 3.86 1 1 4.2 5 2 2 0 3 0 4 0 21 1.714 7.7 1.33
Team Total 11 17 .393 3.87 44 44 246.2 235 109 106 31 86 3 215 10 1038 1.301 7.8 2.50
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/23/2017.

Ahhh, Monday’s game. New Yankee Stadium. Same as old Yankee Stadium, but with more home runs.

That’s one thing the Royals starters have been able to avoid this year. Collectively, they have allowed 48 dingers, That’s tied with Tampa for the second lowest total in the AL and just one off the bottom. Before last night…before Monday night in New Yankee Stadium, the Royals rotation had the lowest home run allowed total in the American League.

Despite the low home run number, what happened on Monday shouldn’t have been a surprise.

When a strong thunderstorm rolls through the plains, the weather forecasters will usually acknowledge the recipe that set up such a storm. The cool air blowing in from the north. The warm air full of moisture from the south. These two pockets of air collide and sometimes, when the atmosphere is feeling right, produce spectacular storms. (Thank you for sticking with this metaphor. That meteorology class sophomore year finally paid dividends.)

Let’s pump the brake on the hyperbole train for a moment. What happened on Monday in New Yankee Stadium wasn’t a spectacular storm. Not by any stretch of the imagination. The Royals lost 4-2 in a game that wasn’t especially notable.

However, all four Yankee runs scored via the home run. They hit three.

It was a solo shot by Brett Gardner in the third off Jason Vargas.

Followed by a two-run home run by Didi Gregorius off Vargas in the fourth.

And finally, for insurance, a solo bomb by Chris Carter in the seventh from Seth Maness.

Sometimes baseball really is that simple.

How does this relate to the Royals starting rotation? Well, let’s just say the results we saw on Monday shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Royals starters give up a lot of fly balls. A lot. As in, the they have the highest fly ball rate in the majors through the first quarter of the season. Here are the top five rotations for fly ball rate.

Royals – 42.4%
Twins – 42.3%
White Sox – 42.0%
Marlins – 40.3%
Red Sox 39.9%

The top three teams in baseball come from the AL Central. That probably doesn’t matter so much, but as it currently stands it looks like those three will be fighting for air supremacy all summer. There’s quite a gap between the third place White Sox and the fourth place Marlins.

With fly balls come home runs. That’s how it works, right? Generally. Except these Royals starters have been fairly decent at keeping the ball in the yard. As in, they own the lowest HR/FB rate in baseball. Here are the bottom five rotations for HR/FB rate.

White Sox – 12.0%
Giants – 11.1%
Athletics – 10.5%
Tigers – 10.4%
Royals – 10.2%

That’s really something. These rates are completely unrelated – there’s no correlation to be found between fly ball rate and HR/FB rate – but it’s interesting nevertheless. Give thanks to Kauffman Stadium or something. Who cares if the Royals starters allow so many fly balls if they stay in the park. Keep rolling. Especially with a defense that includes Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. Most of those fly balls will go for outs. This is basically a rotation constructed with the home park in mind. Fly ball pitchers at The K? Let’s roll.

Fly ball pitchers at New Yankee Stadium? Not so much.

The Royals bats can pack a wallop of their own. Fight fire with fire and all that. But these games in the Bronx were always going to be difficult. So far, it’s just one loss with three to play, but with the team already in possession of the worst record in the AL, this series comes at the worst possible time. The HR/FB rate isn’t exactly a good predictor of future results, and in the case of the Royals because of that ball park, it’s generally going to be below the normal rate of around 12 percent. That’s in the overall snapshot of a full season. There are always going to be places where that makeup doesn’t fare as well.

The Royals arrive in New York at the wrong time. They desperately need to get their season turned around (if that’s even possible, which is looking more and more unlikely) and they need to do it today. If they’re going to continue to have difficulties against the Twins, traveling to New Yankee Stadium now seems like the cruelest cut from the schedule makers.

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