I hope that one day, years from now, when the Royals are in a good place and we can all have a good laugh at the 2K Royals, we’ll look on September 12th, 2008 as the day the team’s persistent and criminal neglect of plate discipline finally reached its nadir. Last night, the Royals managed to rap out 11 hits and five runs with the help of a three-run ninth. The team sent 37 hitters to the plate. Yet somehow the Indians threw just 98 pitches in the entire game.
Thirty-seven batters. Ninety-eight pitches. It goes without saying that, for the second straight game, the Royals didn’t draw a walk – but they didn’t even see a three-ball count. They have six walks in their last seven games. And the beat goes on.
(And then there’s this gem from Dick Kaegel’s game recap: “Although Royals manager Trey Hillman was rather satisfied with his batters' approach, Lee found them a bit overanxious.”)
Anyway…we need to figure out who should occupy the last three slots of the rotation for next year. For the #3 and #4 slots, at least, my answers won’t be all that interesting: they’re the same guys who occupied those slots this year.
Brian Bannister has thrown 165.2 innings this year; he threw 165 innings last year, so we can make a pretty easy comparison. Compared to 2007, Bannister has struck out far more batters (106 to 77) and walked a few more batters (54 to 44). Do 29 more strikeouts make up for 10 more walks? I’d say so. Assuming that approximately 30% of balls in play turn into hits, then 29 more strikeouts = 29 fewer balls in play = 8.7 fewer hits. A few of those hits will be doubles and triples, but even if they’re all singles, you’d rather give up 10 walks than 8.7 singles.
It’s obviously not that simple. While Bannister’s altered approach this season has benefited his strikeout-to-walk ratio, it’s come at the expense of way too many fly balls. Bannister gave up 15 homers last season; he’s given up 27 this year, an enormous difference that can’t be chalked up to mere randomness. His groundball/flyball ratio, which was 1.13 last season – roughly league-average – has dropped to 0.95 this year, which is solid flyball territory. For most of the season, Bannister has tried to record more strikeouts by throwing to blow four-seam fastballs up in the zone past hitters. He has succeeded to some degree, but that success has come at too great a cost: four-seam fastballs with average velocity quickly become souvenirs if they aren’t located just right.
As Bannister has become more flyball oriented, not surprisingly, he has become far more dependent on his home park, as Kauffman Stadium is one of the best places for a flyball pitcher to ply his trade. Bannister actually has a lower ERA at home this year (3.55) than last (4.32). But last season, he pitched even better on the road, with a 3.48 ERA and just 7 homers allowed in 88 innings. This year, he has a 9.63 ERA on the road, and away from Kauffman Stadium he has allowed 14 homers in 62 innings.
(P.S. Remember all that talk about how good Bannister was in the daytime? His ERA in day games this year is now higher than at night, 5.89 to 5.76. As a general rule of thumb: when a player has a marked performance split in a small sample size for no obvious reason, the most likely explanation is no explanation at all.)
Bannister knows these splits as well as you and I, and so it’s not a surprise that after his 10-run debacle at Yankee Stadium last month, he decided that the cure was worse than the disease. He has stated he’s going back to using his two-seamer more often, giving up contact in exchange for power. He was doing much better with this approach until his last start, when he got dinked for 10 hits in
Which is, of course, the biggest difference between this year and last. Last year, batters hit .262 on balls in play; this year, they’re hitting .310. There was no way that Bannister could sustain his BABIP from last season, and it would be silly to act surprised that he hasn’t. The upshot of this is that Bannister really hasn’t pitched that much worse than he did last year. He’s given up a lot more homers, but otherwise his performance is the same. Of course, when you strip away the BABIP factor, Bannister didn’t pitch all that well last year to begin with.
Last season, I told anyone who would listen regarding Bannister that it was time to sell high. Now that the market correction has come, it’s time to buy low. I don’t think Bannister will ever be as good a pitcher as he appeared to be last season, a legitimate #2 starter. But I think he can be as good a pitcher as he really was in 2007: a league-average pitcher, a guy who can give you 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-4s.
Bannister learned this season that he can’t be something he’s not, that he can’t be a power pitcher just because he wants to be. But you know what? There are going to be times in the future when he needs a strikeout in a key situation. There are going to be times when he gets ahead 0-2 on a batter and decides to go for the kill instead of subject himself to the vagaries of the batted ball. If Bannister can go back to being the command-and-control finesse pitcher he’s always been, but apply the lessons he’s learned this year to dial it up a notch when he needs to, he’s going to bounce back just fine.
Now is not the time for the Royals to cut bait. If Bannister has another year like
Luke Hochevar is a very different pitcher than Bannister, owing to his excellent sinker, but his performance this year was equally uninspiring. In Hochevar’s case, he definitely deserves another year in the rotation, for a variety of reasons: his age (he turns 25 on Monday), his pedigree, and the fact that even in a rookie season in which he finished with a 5.51 ERA, he surrendered just 12 homers in 129 innings. Opposing batters hit .280/.345/.413 against Cool Hand this year, and those are not numbers which ordinarily lead to a 5.51 ERA.
In his last 13 starts covering 76 innings, Hochevar walked just 15 batters and allowed just 6 homers, but still had a 5.78 ERA in that span. That combination of control and sink is going to be successful in the long run no matter how few batters you strike out – that Chien-Ming Wang territory right there. In the short run, Hochevar did poorly because batters hit .338 against him with runners in scoring position. That number will inevitably drop, and so will his ERA. Give him another year of development – let’s remember, this was just his second full pro season – and some regression to the mean, and that ERA could easily drop a run-and-a-half next year.
The #5 starter could be any one of a number of guys. Kyle Davies hasn’t pitched all that well, but you’ll take a 4.70 ERA from your #5 starter any day. The problem is that Davies has been as lucky with his ERA as Hochevar has been unlucky; batters have hit .297/.366/.454 against Davies, which usually results in an ERA in the mid-5s. There isn’t much in Davies’ statistical profile that augurs for more success, other than his age (he’s six days older than Hochevar). I think Davies would serve well as a long man and spot starter, but I think he’s going to falter if given another rotation spot next year.
In his place, the Royals have a number of reasonably good options, and they also have Brandon Duckworth. (In 112 innings with the Royals over the past three years, Ducky has 59 walks and just 58 strikeouts, but has been reasonably successful because he’s allowed just six homers. He’s always been homer-prone in his career – he allowed 23 homers in just 135 innings for
The reasonable options include signing a veteran starter – preferably not one named Brett Tomko – to a one-year deal; going with a youngster like Carlos Rosa or Daniel Cortes; moving Robinson Tejeda back to the rotation (though I personally think that’s a bad idea); or just holding an open tryout in spring training and hoping that someone emerges who’s capable of giving you five decent innings every fifth day.
Or, you know, you could move Joakim Soria into the rotation, a move which would be bold, have the potential for enormous returns, and have a limited downside, because you can always move him back to the bullpen if he struggles in the rotation. Naturally, this means the Royals won’t do it.
The most important point regarding the rotation is that in addition to having two true studs, the Royals don’t have any enormous holes to fill. They have two pitchers who represent a gamble for different reasons, and they have the usual mélange of somewhat unsavory options that every team has for their #5 starter. But they don’t have to go outside the organization for help. Not only that, but they have a number of young pitchers who are nearly ready to step into a rotation role.
Rosa could be ready as soon as spring training if he’s healthy; including a brief stint with the Royals this year, he whiffed 89 batters in 99 innings and allowed just 19 walks, but missed most of the season’s second half with a forearm strain. Cortes needs another full year in the minors, but he’s just 21 and could be a rotation anchor for much of the 2010s. And behind those two there are a number of second-tier prospects, like Blake Wood and Blake Johnson and Julio Pimental, one of who might elevate his game next season and become a legitimate option for the rotation. Then you get to the low minors, where the Royals have as much pitching as all but a few organizations in baseball.
Ultimately, I think that whatever improvement the Royals will make for next year will come on offense, and since the options for improvement through free agency are limited, the Royals will be best-served by trading some of their pitching prospects for immediate help in the lineup. The Royals have a ton of good pitching prospects, but no great pitching prospects; even Cortes projects as a #2 starter in the minds of most scouts. So the loss of any one or two of these guys is unlikely to be crippling. This doesn’t mean the Royals try to replicate their trade of Eric Cordier for Tony Pena Jr. Rather than trade a less buzzworthy prospect for a bandaid solution, the Royals ought to seriously consider trading Cortes or Rosa, or even someone like Dan Duffy, in order to get a legitimate, long-term solution in centerfield or behind the plate.
And ultimately, I think Dayton Moore is going to do something like that. Since he was hired he has spoken about pitching being the currency of baseball. Well, currency only has value if you spend it. Having diligently saved up for the past few years, it might finally be time to splurge a little.