Make the Pitch

I will repeat what so many others have already said: the 2011 Royals will be hard to watch.

That isn’t to say there won’t be exciting things on the field. It’s not that there aren’t prospects emerging from the abyss known popularly as “The Process.” I’ve already written that there will be interesting things afoot, especially as the season progresses. Many other Royals bloggers have done the same.

However, even with these bubbling storylines, the problem remains that the Royals will not be a good team. There’s always the chance that they surprise us, but I wouldn’t bet the snowblower on it. They just don’t seem to have the firepower to have any success this year.

As for the most-cited reason for the bad team? Pitching.

Let’s face it, a potential rotation of Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, and Vin Mazzaro won’t exactly give the Twins, Tigers, or White Sox nightmares. They probably wouldn’t even keep the Naturals up at night. Even given the help a potentially improved defense will add, the likely drop in contributions from the starting rotation from last year to this year could be huge. We never know what Hochevar will give us, but I’m hopeful he can find his potential ace material. Chen isn’t likely to repeat last season. Francis could be anywhere in the spectrum of nails to downright terrible, depending on his adjustment to the new team and league. As for Davies and Mazzaro, well, they are what they are.

Asking too much of this starting core would be a mistake. Even with the relievers thrown in, the total pitching picture remains a mystery. There could be several very young relievers in the bullpen in 2011, so it’s difficult to predict accurately what sort of production they’ll achieve in the early going.

Why do I bring this up now? If you sort through the Royals’ franchise history, you’ll see an upward trend that’s a bit unsettling. Well, there are a few of these trends. And the Royals’ run production and prevention trends provide a telling story for the future of the franchise.

The Royals’ history has been a bit tumultuous, as you likely know. While things were good for a while, they quickly soured in the 1990’s and have ultimately brought us to where we are now – annually fighting to stay out of the cellar. As the losses have piled up, the team’s total scored runs per season has been anywhere from 600 to almost 900. The interesting part is that this doesn’t really correlate with success.

I’ve got a couple graphs to depict this, but I’ll make it clear with a quick example. In 2005, the Royals scored 701 runs. They won 56 games. In 2008, the Royals scored 691 runs. That team won 75 games. There was a 19-game improvement when the team actually scored ten fewer runs. Of course, luck and individual game outcomes come into play, but over 19 games? I think there’s more involved than that.

To make it clear, the difference between 2005 and 2008 is this: runs allowed. In 2005, the Royals allowed 935 runs. Compare that to 2008, when they allowed 781, and you’ll see what I mean. The run differential there was -234 in 2005 and -90 in 2008. Score a similar number of runs and allow many fewer and you have a recipe for a more competitive team. Score more runs and allow even fewer and you’re a playoff team.

So, here are some graphs to show you what I’m talking about. The first shows the Royals’ season wins and runs allowed over their history:

The second shows their losses versus runs allowed:

And just to show this, though there are a couple issues I’ll bring up, here’s wins against runs scored:

This is wins against run differential:

And finally, total losses versus team ERA:

What you have to take in mind is that this range covers a change in baseball style. The power increase in the 90’s changed the way the game is played now, though I don’t think it’s as much of a change as you might think. There has been an increase in team ERA over that time, but again, it’s less than you might think. It’s just something to keep in mind when you look at the long-term data.

Anyway, it’s pretty clear that runs allowed and pitcher performance seemingly have a close correlation with team success over a season. In a way, it supports the idea that pitching and defense are the first places to go to when building a franchise. Like in hockey and football, without a way to stop the other team from scoring, you’ll have a hard time winning games.

Here’s how the last six seasons have broken down. First, the percentage of total runs allowed by the starters and relievers:

And this is the comparison of the two groups in runs allowed per inning pitched:

The relievers really weren’t that bad last year compared to the years before. Having Joakim Soria in the wings to lock down the end of the game and some redemption performances by Kyle Farnsworth and Robinson Tejeda helped keep the runs off the board. And while the starters weren’t good, they were much better than the starting pitchers of the 2005/2006 teams. Everything’s relative, but the pitchers weren’t too much worse than they have been in the last few years.

The starters gave up a larger percent of the total runs than any of the Royals teams since 2005. Adjusted for innings, though, the relievers and starters have gone back-and-forth by runs allowed over the last few years. It doesn’t really seem to matter as much whether the relievers or starters are giving up more of the runs, but if one or both have a runs allowed per inning pitched of 0.6 or higher, it’s a really bad sign for the team. If they could be brought down below 0.5, the Royals would be in a good spot to compete. With an offense that does anything other than imitating the 2010 Mariners, the Royals would be a respectable team.

I wouldn’t bet on that improvement this season. Seeing as both the rotation and bullpen are primed for reasonably heavy turnover, there could be a huge variation from what we’ve seen before. There’ll be rookies in the bullpen and new pitchers in the rotation, so their transitions either to the majors or to the Royals/AL will be difficult to predict. In any case, the average age of the pitchers will likely be the youngest it’s been, or close to it, since 2005, when they averaged 25.6 years old based on Baseball Reference’s age calculation. That’s not guaranteed, but it’s a sincere possibility. While that doesn’t necessarily provide for good pitching in 2011, it projects to added youthful experience for several years, hopefully providing further support for the starting rotation when the Royals might be competing.

Speaking of that rotation, the biggest concern for 2011 right now seems to be the starting core. There seemingly aren’t any guys that deserve the ace or even second position in a good rotation. Heck, Hochevar was our number three pitcher the last couple years. Davies should be a five at best and Mazzaro is probably in the same situation. Really, these guys represent what would happen if you threw only average-to-below-average pitchers over a season. Of course, no one knows what they really will do, but it’s hard to be hopeful when the best career ERA of the potential starting five is the 4.64 of Bruce Chen, who had his best season since 2005 last year with a 4.17 ERA.

Now, I know ERA doesn’t give us everything. But on a scale where we’re considering total team success, it works well. With an improved defense this season, maybe the Royals’ pitchers will experience not only some decent backup in the field, but also added confidence that they don’t need to go straight after each guy. Maybe these pitchers will be able to pitch more to ground ball outs when they need to and be able to go longer in games. It’s hard to know until the season starts, but if the defense, especially in the infield, really is improved as much as it could be, that could have an added positive influence on the starting five.

In any case, the Royals are going to be bad. Improved defense or not, they’ll be frustrating as a team. If the pitchers look like their old selves, it could be even worse. Given the past effects of allowing 850 runs or so over a season, normal production from the pitchers will keep the Royals’ loss total up in the 90’s. Hopefully the offense gives us something to cheer for, but don’t be too hopeful.

Just delight in the small successes. That should get you through.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Bruce Chen Jeff Francis Kansas City Royals KC Kyle Davies Luke Hochevar MLB Royals Vin Mazzaro

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