Royals Strikeout Bump Could (Maybe) Be Legit

Apr 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (30) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (30) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

Is the Royals strikeout bump sustainable?

In this week’s Monday Notes, I gave a brief look at the strikeout numbers for the Royals staff, and more specifically the starting staff.

That starting staff, as of this morning, is striking out just a tick over 10 hitters every nine innings. To put that into context, last years starting rotation struck out just over six per nine.

Kris Medlen continued that trend in his first start of the 2016 season by striking out seven over five innings of work.

I’ll start this topic off with the obvious, which is that it has only been seven games. That is not even 5% of the season. I would venture to say that we’ll have to see this trend continue into May for us to really begin to take it seriously.

We also have to consider that the Royals have played back-to-back series against teams that strike out a ton. Before that, they played the Mets, who may be as weak as any offense the Royals will face in the American League.

However, I think that there is something here, which is why I talked about it on Monday, and why I thought it was worth the discussion today.

We know that the bullpen are going to strike people out. They’re striking out 12 batters every nine inning thus far this season, with the evolution of Kelvin Herrera and Luke Hochevar to likely sustain an increase there.

The rotation, however, is a trickier bunch, that could really flip the American League on its head if this pace was even somewhat sustained.

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The Royals were able to maneuver through a very mediocre starting rotation last season in route to a 95-win season. Although it is true that the rotation was a liability (4.34 ERA over a meager 912.2 IP), that team was still able to get people out.

And I don’t just mean get people out enough to win games. This isn’t an “Alex Smith is just good enough to make the Chiefs legitimate” thing. That team was third in the American League in ERA.

They were an elite run preventing force, despite having a starting rotation who was threw fewer innings than any other team in the American league and had the second lowest fWAR among AL starting rotations. 

That team won a World Series. But how?

Well, we already know this. That rotation’s pace maker was a historically elite defense, with a historically elite bullpen as the fail safe. We can debate for day about whether or not this was the plan (and I’m guessing that it wasn’t), but that team was built for the very conundrum they were in.

If there was ever a team that could get away with really crappy starting pitching and have legitimate success, it was the 2015 Royals.

On to 2016. The Royals defense is the same, with Lorenzo Cain actually exceeding his range with this catch against the Mets.

It is not a stretch of any imagination to say that the bullpen is better than it was in 2015. The ineffectiveness and loss of Greg Holland obviously hurt the 2015 team, but they were still the best run-preventing bullpen in the American League, and it wasn’t even close.

However, that bullpen didn’t have Joakim Soria, a maxed out Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera’s slider, or Danny Duffy full-time. And the 2016 version still has Wade Davis.

So far in 2016, the bullpen has picked up right where it left off, leading all AL bullpens in strikeouts, as well as being fifth in ERA. It’s also worth noting that three of the bullpen’s seven earned runs were surrendered by Soria in his inning of work on Opening Night.

However, at least thus far, the rotation is actually keeping up with them. The Royals are third in the AL with a 1.0 fWAR and fifth in ERA.

The biggest difference is, obviously, the strikeout, something that the Royals rotation just didn’t have last season. As of this morning, three Royals starters have a K/9 of 10 or better, with Ian Kennedy not far behind at 9.45.

In 2015, not a single Royal reached nine.

Obviously, the sample size just isn’t there yet. If Edinson Volquez continued at his pace, he’d be looking at an 8-fWAR season. That’s pretty unlikely.

But there is some reason to believe that this is at least partially sustainable.

Former Kings of Kauffman Editor and current Baseball Prospectus Kansas City staff writer Hunter Samuels discussed this very issue just yesterday, before Medlen’s start.

"Overall, the Royals’ rotation appears to have a much higher strikeout ceiling than the last several versions, and their top three starters each have shown the kind of ability it takes to miss bats on a more frequent basis,” Samuels said. “In the history of the Royals franchise, there’s never been a season in which two starting pitchers threw 100 innings and surpassed 8 K/9. This year, they have a chance to do just that, and possibly add another starter in there for good measure."

You can read the rest of that article here.

I would be inclined to agree with Hunter here. He mentioned a few times in that piece the perplexity of guys like Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez not striking more people in the past.

This isn’t a new idea with these guys.

If you will remember the 2014 postseason, Ventura was still throwing that 98-102 heat, as opposed to the 95-99 range he lives in now.

However, in 25.1 playoff innings, he failed to strike out even five batters per nine. We have seen this with Kelvin Herrera as well, who despite electric stuff and one of the hardest fastballs in baseball, has never really struck out as many people as you would expect.

There are reasons behind each guy. With Ventura, he did come out and say that part of his struggles in 2015 were due to a fear of throwing inside. When he reestablished that after his demotion, he struck out over 10 batters per nine down the stretch.

Herrera, on the other hand, has been very fastball happy in the past, with a career high 78% in 2014 accompanied with a career low 7.59 K/9. However, as Sullivan mentions in the article I just linked, and as I mentioned before the season, we saw a huge strikeout jump when he began throwing more breaking balls.

Heading back to the rotation, Hunter notes that Volquez traded some strikeouts for control back in 2014, and as a result, he started being more productive, while seeing his strikeouts go down.

Next: Royals Deploy Four-Headed Bullpen Monster

With guys like Ventura and Volquez, it’s not out of left field to expect them to start striking more people out. I think the reason we didn’t expect this to happen was because we just hadn’t seen it happen, despite seeing the stuff that should make it happen.

Either way, what we have here is a really promising aspect to 2016 that not many people forecasted.

The defense and bullpen will continue to be dominant. If the rotation even partially jumps on that bandwagon, the American League is going to have some serious problems. Again.