Sep 24, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) delivers a pitch against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
The numbers will tell you that the Kansas City Royals rotation was significantly worse in 2015 than 2014. The 2014 starting staff posted the fourth-best ERA in the American League at 3.60, compared to the 2015 rotation that had the A.L.’s fourth-worst ERA at 4.34. The 2014 starters also logged more innings with 986.0 as opposed to only 912.0 for the 2015 team. If you like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the 2014 rotation exceeded the 2015 KC Royals by a margin of 10.8 WAR compared to 8.4 WAR.
Well, this is a situation where the numbers are deceptive. The 2015 Kansas City Royals have a better starting four going into the playoffs than the 2014 squad.
How can I say such a thing?
First of all, you have to remember that 2015 featured a more favorable run environment than 2014 (see the slide about offense above). But, more importantly, the KC Royals starting staff finally found its footing in the last week of the season—posting a collective 2.01 ERA in their last turn through the rotation. Finally, the Kansas City Royals rotation that will spearhead their playoff drive will feature two players that did not join the team until the trade deadline: Johnny Cueto and Kris Medlen.
Cueto, of course, arrived in a deadline deal with the Cincinnati Reds. Meanwhile, two-time Tommy John survivor Medlen did not return from rehab until July 20; and did not start a game until August 24.
Of the two pitchers who have been with the Kansas City Royals all season, only Edinson Volquez has been pretty much the same guy in April as he is in October. Yordano Ventura struggled with expectations that he would take over as staff ace, and his command, for the first four months of the season in which he posted a disappointing 4.41 ERA to go with a 9-7 record.
Beginning in August, however, Ventura began to harness both his emotions and his prodigious “stuff”. No longer was he the out-of-control kid that inflamed opponents into bench-clearing brawls. Instead, he became the “ace” everyone had envisioned when he shut down the San Francisco Giants in game 6 of the 2014 World Series. Yordano Ventura went 8-1 the final two months of the season, with an impressive 3.26 ERA and a K/9 that jumped to 9.7.
In short, his results began to match the overpowering velocity of his 100 mph fastball.
Yes, Johnny Cueto looked lost for most of a month as opponents rocked him for 28 runs in 26.1 innings during a nightmarish streak in which he lost five straight starts. But he rebounded to post a 3.24 ERA in his final four starts after straightening out a targeting problem with catcher Salvador Perez. Cueto has been a dominant pitcher for years in the National League, with a career adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 122 (22% better than a league average pitcher).
In 2014, staff leader James Shields appeared out of gas in the post-season after pitching 227.0 innings during the regular season. In five post-season starts, Shields allowed 17 runs in 25.0 innings pitched (6.12 ERA). His only strong start came in game one of the American League Division Series against the Angels, in which he held Los Angeles to two runs in 6.0 innings and earned the win.
Yordano Ventura was an unproven 23-year-old that had not yet become the polished power arm that he became down the stretch in 2015. Jason Vargas (11-10, 3.71 ERA, 106 ERA+) was pretty much a league-average mid-rotation pitcher last season. He wasn’t quite up to the standard set by Edinson Volquez in 2015 (13-9, 3.55 ERA. 117 ERA+). Meanwhile, Kris Medlen has a much better pedigree as a former top-of-the-rotation starter for Atlanta than 2014 innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie.
In short, the season-long stats looked better for the 2014 rotation. But, the 2015 version is in a much better place coming into October.
Next: 2015 Bullpen vs. 2014 Bullpen