Newcomer Jonathan Sanchez could be a force in 2012. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Punching Out

I know you want to read some more about the Royals starting rotation heading into 2012. Most fans think the offense will be the key strength of the team, that the defense will be much better than most years and that the bullpen will be strong as well.

It’s just that missing piece, the starting rotation.

No, the Royals have no ace, and with the market settled (except for Roy Oswalt, who can’t seem to decide where he wants to play, if at all), they won’t have one. Their rotation is a mix of third and fourth starters – which isn’t a bad thing, provided you have someone who could be a number one or two guy. At best, the rotation could be average if the pattern holds.

There is, however, one area that may lend the Royals some room to grow.

Since 2000, the Royals have finished below the league’s average strikeout rate in every season except 2008 and 2009.

Year K/9 Avg Rank
2011 6.7 6.9 10
2010 6.5 6.8 10
2009 7.3 6.9 3
2008 6.8 6.6 7
2007 6.2 6.6 13
2006 5.7 6.4 14
2005 5.9 6.2 10
2004 5.6 6.4 14
2003 5.4 6.1 13
2002 5.7 6.3 13
2001 5.7 6.4 13
2000 5.8 6.3 12

For many of those years, Zack Greinke was the main reason the Royals were close or surpassing the league average.

Over that twelve year span, 37 of the 48 teams making the playoffs had a higher staff strikeout rate than the league average. It’s not so simple to say that a lot of strikeouts make teams better or that if your team has a high strikeout rate you stand a better chance to make the playoffs. Plenty of teams have missed the playoffs while surpassing the league average, but it’s notable that only one team has won the American League pennant while finishing below average: the Tigers in 2006.

So strikeouts probably help.

The key members of the Royals bullpen are solid strikeout sources. Blake Wood had the lowest K/9 of the top five relievers in innings pitched last season, and he still struck out eight per nine innings. Greg Holland, who fell short of cracking the top five in innings pitched, punched out better than 11 batters per nine and Kelvin Herrera, who should see a lot of time in the majors,  has a career 8.7 K/9 in the minor leagues.

So if the Royals are to make improvements in their staff’s strikeout potential, it’s going to fall to the starters.

Going into 2012, Felipe Paulino is probably going to keep his rotation spot (though things can change in spring training) and since he led the team in K/9 from starters with 8.6. In the offseason, the Royals swapped out Jeff Francis (4.5 K/9) for Jonathan Sanchez (9.1 K/9 in 2011 and 9.4 K/9 lifetime). Luke Hochevar also seemed to rediscover his slider in the second half of the year and from July to the end of the year, increased his K/9 from 4.6 K/9 to 7.7 K/9. Since his slider has been one of the better pitches, statistically, in baseball, he uses it often in two strike counts. If he’s going to ever have an out pitch, that’s the one.

Then there’s Danny Duffy, who, as a rookie, struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings. Even if he doesn’t improve that rate, he’ll at least get more innings, which means the rest of the league is exposed to his strikeout abilities more often.

While there’s no true correlation between strikeouts and winning, the connection makes some sense. A pitcher who can strike out batters will be missing bats. They’re probably harder to get a good look at (at least a lot of the time) and if the ball is never put in play, the batter’s rarely going to get on base. If a strikeout pitcher gets going, they can dominate a whole game.

The hope, then, is that Paulino can continue to strike batters out and build on success from 2011*. Sanchez will have the strikeouts there, but walks have always been an issue. He’s going to be streaky as his control comes and goes, but he should still punch out plenty of batters. It falls on Duffy and Hochevar to maintain their strikeout numbers from late last year. That should lead the Royals to have a better than average strikeout rate, which, combined with the bullpen, the solid offense and the better defense, could give them an opportunity to exceed expectations.

*Hat tip to Jeff Parker who unearthed this article comparing Paulino with Edwin Jackson.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Danny Duffy Felipe Paulino Jonathan Sanchez Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Luke Hochevar MLB Royals

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