Oh, to be the forgotten man. While everyone is talking “Santana, Santana, Santana,” what do you suppose the Kansas City Royals’ best pitcher over the past 5 years is doing? To whom, you might ask, am I referring?
No, not Luke Hochevar. Aside from his breakthrough year in 2013, when he was tossed into the bullpen like a banana peel on the trash heap, only to emerge smelling like a rose with a 1.92 ERA in 58 appearances, his best ERA in the past 5 years was 4.68 with no winning seasons.
Zach Grienke? Can’t count him. He only hurled for the Royals in 2 of the past 5 years, before hurling insults and disdain at the team who salvaged him off the mental trash heap, hastening his trade in 2010.
Brian Bannister? Ahem! Jeff Francis? Oh boy…no. Kyle Davies? That’s enough.
It’s Bruce Chen, of course.
Santana had a good year for the Royals, better than most expected. While his won-loss record (9-10) wasn’t remarkable, he did post his single best season ERA of his career (3.24), compliments of a spacious Kauffman Stadium, a solid defense and an improved slider.
His ERA was markedly better in the second half, improving from 3.63 in the first half to 2.63 in the back half. The only month Santana would just as soon forget is the same month the Royals would like to have as a do-over: May. Santana went 0-4 that month with a 4.72 ERA in 5 starts, emblematic of the Royals abysmal 8-20 May.
The Royals will tender a qualifying offer to Santana, somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million for one year, to ensure they at least receive a high compensatory draft pick in return if he signs elsewhere.
The market, Santana’s age and the Royals’ belief in whether or not he will continue to command his sinker in spacious Kauffman Stadium all will determine whether or not he wears Royal blue for the coming years.
But while the popular spotlight may be on Santana, it’ll be easy to forget that negotiations will also be going on with the Royals best starter over the past 5 years: Bruce Chen.
That’s right, that guy! For a team that has managed a 361-449 record over the past 5 years with only one year above water, Chen somehow managed a winning record of 45-39. Over that span, his ERA was 4.32, his strikeouts per 9 innings were a so-so 6.1 and he handed out nearly 3 free passes per 9 innings. His walks/hits per innings pitched (WHIP) totalled 1.368. In other words, he allowed runners all over the place. Yet, he’s a winner.
Chen has shared a spot in the Royals rotation with such fan favorites as Gil Meche and Greinke, and such forgettable players as Sean O’Sullivan and Vin Mazzaro. But only Luke Hochevar shared a rotation spot with Chen over the duration of the past 5 years. So, let’s look at Luke.
Hochevar’s record during the past 5 years? A sub-par 37-48, 6.9 strikeouts per 9 innings and a 1.335 WHIP.
Squint and you’d think you’re looking at Chen’s numbers. With one exception: Chen had a winning record the past 5 years. Luke? Not so much.
At age 36, Chen racked up a 9-4 record this year with a 3.27 ERA. Perhaps his best years are ahead of him?
Jaime Moyer, another soft-tossing, crafty lefty like Chen, pitched until age 49 and had 9 winning seasons after the age of 36. Any comparison of Chen to Moyer stops there. Moyer had 141 wins at age 36, Chen has 80.
Chen only pitched 121 innings this year, and some may say that is a sign of him slowing down. But, deservedly, Luis Mendoza won the 5th starter slot in Spring Training. Conversely, when Mendoza fizzled mid-season, it was Chen, not Hochevar, who got the call to step into that spot. And don’t forget, Chen started 34 games in 2012, the most in the American League, while pitching 191.2 innings. It’s certainly possible he could toss another 191 innings in 2014.
He may not pitch until age 49 as Moyer did. And he may not toss 200 innings per season as Santana does.
But over the past 5 years, there has been one reliable constant in the Royals rotation. He’s not overpowering. He’s not flashy. He’s doesn’t even have the greatest personal stats.
But he wins. And that’s something the Royals can’t overlook this off-season while everyone else is talking “Santana, Santana, Santana.”