A fun fact: no team in the American League that was below league average in SO-BB ratio made the playoffs last season. Only two teams who finished above league average in SO-BB ratio didn’t make the playoffs. One of those teams had fantastic pitching and a completely inept offense (Seattle Mariners), and one of them was leading in the AL Central until the very end of the season (Chicago White Sox). There might be something to this notion that strikeouts are good and walks are bad.
The Royals, of course, were below league average, which in 2012 was 2.45 SO-BB. They sat at 2.17 SO-BB with a starter ratio of 1.72. That’s bad like Andrew Ridgeley’s career after Wham!. The relievers were better, but not that much better at 2.36. We know the relievers strikeout a lot of hitters, but they also walk too many. Add to that the fact that they had plenty of long relief outings last year from pitchers like Nathan Adcock, Everett Teaford, and Vin Mazzaro, and the Royals bullpen struggled with walks. Hopefully, fewer innings will help with that.
It’s one of the most basic principles of baseball: don’t give away first base. And if you can, don’t even let the hitter put the ball in play because if they put it in play, there’s a much greater chance they’ll get on base. If they don’t put the ball in play (I’m counting a homerun as in play), and the pitcher doesn’t walk the hitter, there’s a near zero percent chance that hitter will reach base. Simple math.
The Royals know this. When they went out and overhauled their rotation, I imagine they believed the strikeouts would go up and the walks would go down. And they will. I tried to take a rough average of each member of the starting five’s SO-BB ratio throughout his career. I fudged a bit on Davis and Mendoza since elements of their careers complicate their numbers as starters. Instead, I took numbers from Davis’ 2011 (when he was last a starter), and I took Mendoza’s numbers from his three years with the Royals which equal about a season of starting. The results were that this rotation, if they perform only at their career averages, will have a SO-BB ratio of 2.25. That seems discouraging, and maybe it should be. But we must also remember that this is just a rough picture of what these pitchers might be in 2013. James Shields had a number of just average strikeout years before 2010 when he started piling up strikeouts, and that skews the data. Wade Davis had very high strikeout numbers from the bullpen last year, and we have yet to see if that will translate back into the starting rotation. It’s not as if there is no possibility that the Royals will make it into the 2.5 range.
If there’s hope that the Royals will rise above league average in the SO-BB category, it lies in a few things. Shields pitching as he has the last couple of seasons. That seems pretty reasonable. Davis showing the strikeout potential he showed in the bullpen as a starter this year. This seems doable. And Jeremy Guthrie continuing to pound the strike zone like he did with the Royals last year. We watched as Guthrie put on a show in his final 14 starts of last season, but he wasn’t striking a ton of people out. He fanned only slightly more than his usual amount while in Kansas City (5.5 K/9). The difference was he dropped his walk numbers down to 1.9 BB/9. That’s very good, closer to the numbers he put up in Baltimore in 2010 when he had a 3.83 ERA in 32 starts and a SO-BB ratio of 2.38.
It’s a stat to keep your eye on for this season. Obviously, it’s not the only way to gauge a pitching staff’s success, but it will be tough for the Royals to contend if they don’t get that number to around 2.4. Are they capable? Absolutely. But like so many things for this season, it will require progress on the part of a few key players.