So far in this series, I’ve written about resolutions for the infielders and the outfielders, and now it’s time to turn our attention to the starting rotation. Because the fifth starter spot is still up in the air, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll just focus on the four pitchers we assume will be in the rotation come Opening Day.
For 2014, Shields’ resolution should be to remember how to miss more bats. In 2012, Shields posted a career-best strikeout rate of 23.6%, but that number tumbled to 20.7% last season. He also had the highest walk rate of his career (7.2%). Now don’t get me wrong, both of those rates are better than league average, and Shields was still a terrific pitcher last season. However, he also gave up a lot of line drives and had a strand rate that will likely regress, so ticking up his strikeout totals could help maintain his production. It’s hard to say what, specifically, caused the drop in strikeouts, but it just seems like his sinker, curveball, and his signature changeup weren’t as effective as they had been in 2012. All three of those pitches saw a significant drop in their whiff per swing rate, and the curveball, in particular, wasn’t generating as many swings as in previous years. Because of that, Shields relied on his fourseam fastball much more, and of course, major league hitters don’t typically swing and miss at fastballs as often as they do on other pitches. One way around this is to start off more at bats with a first pitch breaking ball – for a strike – to keep the hitters off balance. If Shields can get ahead in the count more frequently, he may be able to put hitters in a position where they feel the need to swing at his offspeed and breaking pitches, even if they’re not thrown for strikes. In order for Shields to see his strikeout rate climb, he’s going to need to figure out how to fool hitters once again, one way or another.
As I detailed last week, Vargas should resolve to maintain his increased ability to strike out opposing batters. Much like he did last season, Vargas will need to keep the ball out of the middle of the strike zone, and mix his pitches effectively. By focusing primarily on his fastball, changeup, and curveball, Vargas was able to miss more bats than he had in previous seasons, so hopefully he’ll continue to do that in 2014. His changeup, in particular, was extremely dangerous, so I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Vargas use that pitch a bit more.
Guthrie’s resolution for next year should be to do what he’s always done: throw strikes and stockpile as many Magic Beans as possible. I am a big fan of Guthrie, especially on Twitter, where he’s one of my favorite follows. I don’t love the way he pitches, but it’s tough to argue with his results (for the record, I hate results-based analysis, but Guthrie’s track record warrants it, in my opinion). Guthrie isn’t suddenly going to turn into a strikeout machine, and despite a slight increase in his groundball rate last season, he doesn’t rely on his sinker enough to be a real groundball pitcher, so he’s going to need his defense to continue helping him out on batted balls. His strikeouts per 9 innings have gone down in each of the last 2 seasons, although his last three months were better than the first three months of the 2013 season. Guthrie has always been a pitcher who outperforms his peripherals, and I expect that trend to continue, at least for another year. As long as he’s not walking many batters, the league’s best defense and Guthrie’s apparently bottomless bucket of luck should allow him to be solid in the rotation once again.
Duffy’s New Year’s Resolution should be to become more efficient with his pitches. Some may take that to mean I’m suggesting he pitch to contact, but that would be incorrect. Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to strike out hitters at an above average rate while still throwing less than 100 pitches in 5 innings. Duffy has an electric arm, and the ability to strike out around a batter per inning, so why give that up all in an effort to rely on batted ball luck? The biggest thing for Duffy is for him to command his pitches better. Obviously he’ll need to cut down on walks, and locating his pitches is a huge part of that. Also, when he gets behind in the count, batters can sit on his fastball – a pitch they fouled off on 50% of their swings in 2013. Foul balls drive up a pitch count in a hurry. If Duffy gets ahead early, and if he can command his curveball and changeup, he’ll be able to put batters away without laboring through 5 or 6 pitch at bats. In order for the Royals to have any hope of repeating last year’s pitching success, they’ll need Duffy to step up, and the easiest way for him to do that is by getting through 6+ innings every time out.