April 08, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Ervin Santana (54) delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Royals Pitching Overachievers and Underachievers

The Royals have been playing contending baseball despite having rough numbers from most of their key offensive players. With Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer seemingly starting to wake up, things are looking up, but the first 32 games have been a credit to the pitching staff.

So far, James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana have anchored the team, with none of the top three starters having any meltdown starts. Guthrie has been undefeated in every start (and has a team-record streak of starts without a loss). Santana has looked like a completely different pitcher from last year and Shields is as advertised.

The bullpen, despite perception, has performed just as well in 2013 than they did in 2012. The times they’ve blown saves, though, have been traumatic enough to make it seem like everyone’s struggling. As a group, relievers have a 3.16 ERA. Last year’s bullpen had a 3.17 ERA. This year’s group has a 3.41 K/BB ratio compared to last year’s 2.36.

Now, the question is how long they can keep it up. Guthrie was the typical innings eater with the Orioles, got rocked as a Rockie and has been brilliant as a Royal. He’s also striking out a higher percentage of batters while walking a lower percentage. He’s stranded an incredible 93% of baserunners – a number that just can’t be sustained.

Santana’s also out-performing his career norms. His ground ball rate, HR/FB rate, walk rate, strikeout rate, and strand rate are all better than his what he’s done to this point. It’s not as drastic as a 93% strand rate, but at 84% it’s still pretty high.

The big three starters’ ERAs are outpacing their FIPs and xFIPs, and all three measurements are better than their career to this point.

That’s not to discredit what they’ve done to this point. Pitchers can go on great runs and Santana has a couple of very good years on his resume. Shields has been a legit Cy Young candidate in the past and, while not a true Ace in the mold of Justin Verlander, he’s not too far at all from that group. The trio having success shouldn’t be surprising. Having this much success is a surprise, though.

On the other hand, the other two parts of the rotation haven’t had much success. I’m somewhat willing to give Luis Mendoza a break since he’s been skipped due to weather, schedules, manhunts, but he has to be better than he has been. He had a stretch of good starts last year, but this year he’s walking batters more often and not striking out enough to compensate for it. Nearly half of the runners he’s let on base have scored, and he’s not getting grounders as frequently.

Similarly, Wade Davis is struggling to reach his career marks. He’s had some good starts but when he’s been bad, he’s been disastrous.

I’ve thrown all of the Royals pitchers’ 2013 stats (through 32 games) into a table and compared them to their career rates. Things I’d look at when guessing at statistical regression (and remember, regression just means going towards the normal rate, which isn’t necessarily worse – Kelvin Herrera’s home run per fly ball rate is an obvious regression situation) are how many runners are left on base (average LOB% are usually around 70%) and how many homers are surrendered per fly ball allowed (usually around 10%). As those numbers turn towards the norm, ERAs should go up as well – but the favorable walk rates and strikeout rates can prevent large swings. Shields and Guthrie, already owning good walk rates, have been a bit worse than their career rates. (Bold numbers show where a pitcher is outperforming his career stat in that area; italics indicate where they’re performing worse statistically. All stats picked up from FanGraphs.)

At some point, Guthrie will lose a start. Shields will get hit. Santana will have a bad day. Davis will throw a gem and Mendoza will show why he won the fifth starter job in the first place. Herrera will hit a stretch of fly balls that don’t leave the yard (for example: four fly balls that stay in will change his HR/FB% to 15% from his gawdy 37.5%). Luke Hochevar and Aaron Crow won’t strand every runner they allow to reach.

But these guys are better than last year and they’re showing it, even if the stats in the end might not be quite as great as they are now. If the offense picks up at the same time as some of those statistical regressions, the net change may not even be that noticeable and the Royals may not have to rely as much on high strand rates.

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