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The Royals’ Pitching Woes

Luke Hochevar

Luke Hochevar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Kansas City Royals’ 2012 season started with higher expectations than would normally be appropriate for a team that lost 91 games the previous year and had suffered eight consecutive losing seasons.

There were good reasons for the optimism. A number of young everyday players had graduated from what was being called MLB’s best minor league system. The bullpen had been completely rebuilt in 2011. The one questionable area remaining was starting pitching, but even that looked to be improving.

Bruce Chen had anchored the staff the last couple years, winning a team-leading 12 games each year. Luke Hochevar pitched well in the second half of 2011, giving fans hope that he might someday live up to his status as the overall #1 pick from the 2006 June draft. Jonathan Sanchez, acquired from San Francisco over the winter, looked a little like a younger Randy Johnson, striking out more than 9 batters per 9 innings but also struggling with control. Felipe Paulino, acquired during the 2011 season, had also shown an ability to strike out a lot of batters. Danny Duffy, despite a rocky rookie campaign in 2011, also had a high strikeout rate and looked like someone who would emerge as a decent starter. On top of all this, Luis Mendoza surprised everybody by improving to become the top pitcher in the AAA Pacific League at age 27.

So even though starting pitching was the team’s most glaring weakness, the potential seemed to exist for the Royals’ staff to have a breakout year if only they could find some consistency.

They have not found it.

Chen has stayed healthy and has managed to start more games already than he has in any of the previous six seasons. Barring a September injury, he will set a career personal best in games started, at age 35. He is tied for the team lead with 12 quality starts. He has improved both his strikeout and walk rates. Unfortunately, when batters have made contact, they have done more damage than the past two years. He has allowed home runs at a 35% higher rate, and batting average against him is 30 points higher. And he’s averaging barely over 5 innings per start.

Hochevar pitched the home opener, and gave up seven runs in the first inning. He threw a complete game shutout against Tampa Bay on June 25, and allowed one hit and no runs in eight innings on August 21, also against Tampa Bay. But he has also four starts in which he has allowed seven or more runs in four innings or fewer.

Sanchez had trouble locating the strike zone, walking more batters than he struck out. He was eventually designated for assignment, then traded to Colorado for Jeremy Guthrie, who had been struggling through a similar season in Denver.

Mendoza has had mixed success. After struggling early, even spending time in the bullpen, he has worked on mixing up his pitches to keep hitters guessing, and has added a cutter to his repertoire. Since his return to the rotation on June 12 he has thrown nine quality starts in fourteen appearances. His 1.5 SO/BB ratio, however, raises questions about whether he will be able to sustain this level of performance.

Duffy showed flashes of brilliance in six starts but struggled to throw strikes with consistency. He walked more than five batters per nine innings, and in half his starts did not make it through the 5th inning. He also fought chronic elbow pain before finally being diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) on May 14. He underwent Tommy John surgery on June 13.

Paulino got injured toward the end of spring training and missed the first month of the season. He returned to pitch well in seven starts before a groin injury put him back on the disabled list on June 6. During a rehab start June 20 for the Royals’ AA affiliate in Northwest Arkansas, Paulino tore his UCL. He underwent Tommy John surgery on July 3.

The injuries presented an opportunity for a young pitcher to step into the rotation. After auditioning Nate Adcock, Everett Teaford, Vin Mazzarro, and Ryan Verdugo, the Royals have settled on Will Smith as their #5 starter. Smith has had mixed success; he has had quality starts in half his appearances, but averaged fewer than 5 innings in the other half.

Other highly touted pitching prospects are still not ready for the major leagues. Mike Montgomery, considered at the beginning of last year to be one of the top 20 prospects in all of baseball, struggled in AAA for all of 2011 and much of 2012 before being demoted to AA, where he has struggled as well. John Lamb, also a top-20 prospect at the beginning of 2011, had Tommy John surgery in May of 2011 and is just now returning to the pitcher’s mound. Jake Odorizzi has pitched well, earning a promotion to AAA before the All-Star break, but like Duffy he throws a lot of pitches per batter, and therefore has trouble going deep into games.

Innings per start has been an issue for the entire team. Overall, Royals starting pitchers have thrown 52 quality starts and have been lifted before the sixth inning 53 times. In 35 games the starter has not even completed five innings.

As the season winds down, starting pitching remains as much a question as ever. The Royals will need to find an answer if they want to be competitive in 2013.

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