The Best Royals Starter Since Zack Greinke


When the Royals acquired Felipe Paulino from the Rockies for cash way back in May, my response was this: meh. I didn’t really know much about him and wasn’t too impressed by what I saw statistically. For me, I didn’t see a reason to be upset or excited because, well, he was just another stripped cog in a busted gear system. Of course, he then had to prove me wrong.

After Paulino found himself with a bloated 7.36 ERA as a late-innings reliever after 18 games in 2011, it was fair for the Rockies to designate him for assignment. Perhaps trading Clint Barmes for Paulino was a bad idea for the Rockies, as their second basemen have subsequently been, well, Chris Getz or worse. But their heart was in the right place, as Paulino came to the Royals and has started 14 games, relieved in one, and has arguably been the best starter on the staff.

How is he pitching to accomplish this and what could he mean for the Royals down the line? Well, that’s what I wanted to know.

As I said, Paulino has arguably been the best starting pitcher for the Royals since joining the club on May 26. But, for fun, let’s look at the starting staff’s stats in that time:

Luke Hochevar: 15 games; 91.1 IP (6.1 IP/game);  61 K;  33 BB;  7 HR;  5.05 ERA;  -0.438 WPA
Jeff Francis:         15 games; 88.2 IP (6 IP/game);     42 K;  17 BB;  8 HR;  5.18 ERA;  -1.543 WPA
Bruce Chen:         10 games; 56.2 IP (5.2 IP/game);  37 K;  23 BB;  7 HR;  4.61 ERA;  -0.482 WPA
Danny Duffy:      15 games; 79.1 IP (5.1 IP/game);  62 K;  34 BB;  13 HR;  5.67 ERA;  -1.607 WPA
Kyle Davies:          4 games; 20.1 IP (5 IP/game);     21 K;     9 BB;  1 HR;  5.31 ERA;    -0.546 WPA
Felipe Paulino:  14 games; 85.1 IP (6 IP/game);    75 K;  31 BB;  6 HR;  4.11 ERA;    -0.966 WPA

You may see some of these statistics and say “Wait, Gage, what about that WPA?!” or something of that sort. And that’s fine. The WPA, or team wins added or subtracted based on the player’s performance, suggest that Paulino wasn’t necessarily the ace of the staff that he’s seemed. After all, Chen and Hochevar both have cost the Royals about half a win as opposed to the nearly full win Paulino has cost them (Davies’ WPA in four starts is worse than Paulino’s average over four starts would be, so I ignore him. For many reasons). Let me add one more stat, whether you like it or not, to even this out:

Hochevar: .320 BABIP
Francis: .317 BABIP
Chen: .318 BABIP
Duffy: .333 BABIP
Davies: .419 BABIP
Paulino: .344 BABIP

Now, more of the balls in play that Paulino has given up have fallen for hits than all of the other starters except Davies, who no one cares about anymore (if they ever did). I don’t care if you call BABIP “luck” or “fate” or “lack of defensive ability” or “bad pitches” or whatever you want. Paulino’s BABIP remains the worst on the current staff. And he is still succeeding more than any other pitchers.

How is he doing this? One word: strikeouts. Paulino has racked up about 5.4 K/game, whereas the four other pitchers in consideration have 4.1, 4.1, 3.7, and 2.8 K/game. He throws about 50% fastballs at an average speed of 95 MPH, which has slowly ticked upwards as the season gets later. In comparison, Duffy is the only starter that throws more (55%) with all others throwing less than 40% fastballs. And no starter averages the kind of heat that Paulino throws.

Still, as Kyle Farnsworth can attest, throwing pure fastballs often won’t simply hand you strikeouts unless you’re Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. And Paulino has two offspeed pitches that induce swinging misses 15% of the time (both higher than the league average), which is one more such offspeed pitch than any other Royals starter. Both clocking in at around 87 MPH, his changeup and slider induce swings over 50% of the time and count as his “out pitches.” That is, when he wants to sit a batter down, he goes with one of these two.*

*For reference, his fastball only induces a swinging miss 7% of the time, but is more likely to be fouled off.

Hochevar’s slider results in swinging misses 18% of the time, but none of his other pitches are above 11%. Francis’ change is 10%. Duffy’s slider, which he should apparently use more than 27 times in 15 games, results in 22% whiffs. And Chen’s two best pitches are his changeup and curve, both of which are at 10%.

What does that mean? Options. Paulino has options when it comes to striking someone out, and it means that batters can’t guess with certainty what the out pitch will be. Of course, this is all hand-waving about what really happens out there, but it seems clear that Paulino has something working in that department. While he wouldn’t be a 1-, 2-, or 3-pitcher on a good staff, he slots in well with these Royals starters. And while that gives the team something fairly solid for 2011, that makes it harder going forward.

Pitching was a concern coming into 2011. We all thought that the team could hit at least well enough to win some games. Kila Ka’aihue would get a starting spot, this was (once again) Alex Gordon‘s year, Billy Butler could focus on hitting, and the big hitting prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas would get their shots at big league pitching. But no one knew what to think of the pitchers.

Several months later, we’re in the same place. Hochevar is still inconsistent Hochevar, showing flashes of brilliance, but crumbling for no apparent reason at other times. Chen is Chen, Davies was Davies, and Francis has been basically what you’d expect of him (though, I had hoped for more). I think you’ve heard about Paulino now. Danny Duffy came up and has been tottering around the league, not once giving up fewer than two runs in a game. While I expect him to improve drastically next year, it’s hard to watch him get pounded day in and day out. But who do we replace them with?

Luis Mendoza has been a shut-out starter for Omaha, but has a career 8.43 ERA in the majors (including a 22.50 ERA with the Royals last season). Jeff Suppan is 36 and has a 4.40 ERA and 1.386 WHIP at Omaha, where he’s basically been an innings-eater and life coach for the younger pitchers. Mike Montgomery has struggled, Vin Mazzaro was blasted in Kansas City earlier this year, Sean O’Sullivan hasn’t been effective in the majors in 2011 (though he has been okay with Omaha), and Kevin Pucetas isn’t even on the radar.

Looking deeper, John Lamb had Tommy John surgery, Will Smith and Chris Dwyer haven’t been spectacular, Edgar Osuna is no longer the dark horse starter candidate, and Jake Odorizzi has met a tough challenge at AA after obliterating high-A. Even farther down, Justin Marks, Tim Melville, and Tyler Sample have all struggled. Noel Arguelles and Elisaul Pimentel have performed well enough, but it’ll take time for them to reach Kansas City.

So, remember Mission 2012? Well, maybe it’s 2013. Or 2014. Let’s go with 2014. In that time, Duffy will have more experience, Montgomery can hopefully overcome his command issues, Lamb can return from surgery, and Odorizzi will have a shot at the majors. Oh, and Aaron Crow will have his own shot at the rotation in 2012, it seems, which could be a move that is more concerned with the future of Royals starting pitchers than with Crow’s use to the club. Basically, it’s a mess. And messes need to be cleaned up.

The best thing to do? I can’t believe I, of all people, will write this, but sign one or two solid pitchers in that time. I’m not talking the Chens or Francises of the baseball world. Some decent pitchers. Mark Buehrle. Paul Maholm. CJ Wilson. Chris Young. Maybe guys like Joel Pineiro that may want to get on the comeback path. After the 2012 season, there could be a lot more options. Matt Cain. Cole Hamels. Shawn Marcum. Of course, many of these will likely sign back with their own teams, but you get the idea. Whether through trade or free agency, the Royals need to pick one or two starters up that can actually hold their own. It can both ease the pressure on the younger guys and give them a solid arm to look up to as they come to the majors.

Anyway, something needs to give. The Royals still have Hochevar on arbitration years, but the only other starters they’re likely to have around are Duffy and Crow, if Crow is even a starter at the beginning of the season. Where are those arms going to come from? Well, probably random players from free agency or trades that are impossible to foresee and…the minors. Not a great outlook for 2012, pitching-wise.

So, maybe it’s Mission 2014. Nonetheless, when your best starter is Felipe Paulino, you have to start asking questions about the future. And the future of Royals pitching seems to get muddier all the time.

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Tags: Aaron Crow AL Central Baseball Bruce Chen Danny Duffy Felipe Paulino Jeff Francis John Lamb Kansas City Royals KC Kyle Davies Luke Hochevar Mike Montgomery MLB Royals

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