1) There aren’t nearly as many holes that need to be filled as there are on offense.
2) Precisely because of 1), it’s a lot harder to make dramatic improvements simply by replacing dead weight.
For 2009 and 2010, at least, the pitching staff starts with The Epic and The Baseball Jonah. Gil Meche and Zack Greinke each have reached 10 wins, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except that they’re the first teammates to reach double-digits in wins for the Royals since 1999, which is one of the saddest stats I’ve seen all year. (The Royals didn’t have a single pitcher reach 10 wins in 2004 and 2005. In 2003, they somehow won 83 games with just a single 10-game winner (Darrell May), a single 9-game winner (Chris George, with a 7.11 ERA), and a single 8-game winner (Jose Lima). Sad. Just sad.)
More important than their win totals, which of course are subject to the efforts of their mates on offense and in the pen, are their strikeout totals, which are subject to little other than their own talent. And that talent is quite formidable. Last year, Meche struck out 156 batters in 216 innings. This was easily the most strikeouts by any Royals pitcher since Kevin Appier got hurt after the 1997 season. No other pitcher this decade had been with 20 whiffs of Meche. (Mac Suzuki, of all people, had held the team mark for the decade with 135 Ks in 2000.)
This year, Meche is doing even better, with 158 strikeouts in just 186 innings so far. In 30 fewer innings, he has two more strikeouts. He also has two more walks, but the emphasis on power pitching has paid dividends overall, as his batting average against has dropped from .263 to .250. His ERA has crept up slightly, from 3.67 to 3.96, because he was uncharacteristically (and unsustainably) good with runners in scoring position last year. But as an overall body of performance, Meche has been a tick better in 2008 than in 2007. That’s even more true when you consider his trendline: last season, Meche had a 1.91 ERA in his first nine starts and a 4.36 ERA after that, whereas this year he had an 8.00 ERA in his first five starts, but since then has a 3.28 ERA.
There are still analysts who argue that, however well Meche has pitched, it was a mistake for the Royals to spend 55 million dollars for a free agent that wasn’t going to put them over the top. If you believe in the cold, hard calculus that states that any season that ends before the playoffs is a failure, then that may be true. If Meche is only the difference between 65 wins and 70 wins, then he’s not worth the money.
But at some point, you have to spend money on talent, and trust that eventually you’ll have enough talent to make a playoff run. And as a fan, there’s value in knowing that tonight’s starter is capable of completely shutting down the opposition, no matter how many games out of first place the Royals are. So far Meche’s performance hasn’t impacted the standings one bit. But with three years to go, and with Meche still making the kind of incremental improvements that may presage a complete Jason Schmidt/Chris Carpenter breakout season, I’m still hopeful that he’s going to have an impact on a pennant race at some point before his contract runs out.
When he was signed, one of the biggest complaints about his contract was that, by extending him to five years, the Royals were taking a huge risk that he might get hurt early on and be a dead weight on the payroll for years. Instead, at this point that fifth year looks like a blessing in disguise, because it keeps Meche under contract for
Meche has more strikeouts than any Royals pitcher had in the previous 11 years, but he doesn’t even lead this year’s team. Greinke does. In 182 innings, Greinke has 167 strikeouts, enough to rank fifth in the league in both Ks and Ks per 9 innings. He’s walked just 52 batters, meaning that he’s just the second starting pitcher since 1991 to post a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3 or better. (The other was Paul Byrd in 2002, when Byrd walked just 38 batters in 228 innings.)
Greinke hasn’t had a true breakout year, partly because he’s given up 21 homers, and partly because his BABIP is an unimpressive .315, leading to more hits than innings pitches. Some of that is bad luck, some of that is bad defense. But the important thing to take away from this is that when you look at the things that are within a pitcher’s control – innings, walks, strikeouts, homers – Greinke has had arguably the best season of any Royals starter this decade.
While Meche is under contract through 2011, Greinke can be a free agent after 2010. I’ve said this a million times, but let’s go ahead and make it a million-and-one: signing Greinke to a long-term deal is Dayton Moore’s #1 priority, whether he realizes it or not. I understand that
A month from now,
I’d go further and offer Greinke a four-plus-one or (ideally) four-plus-two deal, because while we’re not privy to the current state of Greinke’s mental health, his physical health is stellar for a young pitcher. His mechanics are excellent, he’s reasonably efficient with his pitches, he’s never suffered an arm injury, and the time off in 2006 may have helped keep his arm healthy.
There’s a lot of talk about how the Royals can cash in Greinke this winter, put their rebuilding into overdrive the way the A’s have, maybe walk away with half of the Rangers’ farm system or something. If Greinke won’t sign, that’s an option that has to be considered. But it’s an option of last resort. It’s not just that Greinke has the potential to be a legitimate #1 starter, but that he already is a legitimate #2 starter. So long as Meche and Greinke stay healthy, the Royals’ top two starters can hold their own with the top two starters for every team in baseball.
It’s the other 60% of the rotation that’s a problem. We’ll get to them soon enough.