KC Royals: Jeremy Guthrie Is Just Fine

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KC Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie‘s bloated 5.82 ERA has led some people to call for his removal from the Kansas City Royals rotation. Many analysts presume that the KC Royals will actively scour the trade market for a new starting pitcher as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, with Guthrie as the obvious candidate for replacement.

Not so fast.

Jeremy Guthrie‘s poor performance is something of a statistical construct combined with a rough start to the 2015 season. These two factors have made the 36-year-old Jeremy Guthrie look like he’s lost his ability to succeed against major-league hitters.

But that impression is deceptive. Guthrie has actually been very good in five of his last six starts for the KC Royals. It’s just that his 11-run debacle in his May 26 start against New York has inflated his ERA.

To tell you how bad that start was, Jeremy Guthrie become only the third guy in the last 100 years to give up 11 earned runs in one (or less) innings pitched according to ESPN Stats and Information. During the game, I kept wondering why KC Royals manager Ned Yost left Guthrie out to dry. Most managers pull a starter who is throwing meatballs before the game gets completely out of reach.

Perhaps Yost considered the game lost and hoped to save his bullpen. Whatever Yost’s reason, that terrible game served as a prelude to a three game sweep at the hands of the Yankees.

Aside from that 11-run deluge, Guthrie has given up seven runs since May 9. That works out to a 2.08 ERA over 30.1 innings pitched. Without that disaster in New York weighing him down, Guthrie has clearly righted the ship after a slow start to the 2015 season.

Guthrie admittedly suffered through the first month for the KC Royals. Through his first five starts, Guthrie gave up no less than three runs in every game. Overall, Jeremy Guthrie surrendered  21 runs in his first 29 innings pitched for an ugly 6.52 ERA.

Guthrie followed that rough beginning by allowing 2, 2, and 0 runs in his next three starts (18.1 innings pitched) before imploding in New York. He’s followed up his Yankee Stadium nightmare by allowing one run in 5.1 innings against Cleveland on June 2, and a 6.1 inning outing in which he gave up 2 runs against Texas.

Remember those SAT questions where they asked you to identify the one thing that doesn’t go with the others? Guthrie’s 11-run disaster looks completely dissociated with the other five games he’s pitched since his rough opening to the season.

Throw out that one performance, and Jeremy Guthrie’s season ERA drops to 4.24. That’s right in line with his 4.28 career ERA.

Fangraphs.com’s pitchf/x data supports the distinction between Guthrie’s first five starts and his last six. In Guthrie’s first five starts, his average fastball speed couldn’t break 91.4 miles per hour. Since then, he’s exceeded 92 miles per hour every game.

The problem with this story of recovery is that Guthrie isn’t striking hitters out. He’s always been a pitch to contact type of guy. This season, however, Jeremy Guthrie’s strikeout rate (K%) has crashed to 9.5%, down from his career rate of 13.8%. Meanwhile, Guthrie’s walk rate (BB%) has jumped to 7.5% this season compared to his career rate of 6.7%.

Guthrie’s inability to miss bats, combined with his bump in walk rate, helps explain his ERA. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) projects an 5.58 ERA based on things Guthrie can directly control (walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed).

Even with Jeremy Guthrie’s improved velocity, he’s only struck out 14 hitters in 31.1 inning pitched. Though to be fair, Guthrie did strike out five in 6.1 innings Sunday night against Texas.

These contradictory facts leave KC Royals fans with a dilemma: should we put more credence in sabermetric projections, or Jeremy Guthrie’s recent results?

While Jeremy Guthrie’s inability to miss bats gives cause for concern, his recent strong starts, combined with his jump in velocity, suggest he deserves to continue in the KC Royals rotation.  For me, the factor that tipped the balance is that Guthrie’s ERA would fall right in line with his career average if we throw out that one bad day in New York.

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