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Pitching-Hungry Royals Find Surprise of the Summer

The surprise addition of the summer is not hard to identify.

FelipePaulino

We all expected Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Johnny Giavotella to make their appearance in Kansas City sometime this season. They were highly drafted players who had risen through the Royals’ farm system.

We all expected Alcides Escobar, acquired in the Zack Greinke trade, to be entrenched at shortstop. Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur were going to play every day, at least until they got traded (which obviously didn’t come to pass).

We weren’t exactly sure how well the young relievers would perform, but we knew they’d be there, so vacant was the bullpen.

And while Salvador Perez came along earlier than expected, even he was on the radar as the catcher of the future.

The biggest surprise came on June 1 when Felipe Paulino took the hill as the Royals’ starting pitcher in just his second appearance with the team.

Still hoping to contend in the AL Central, the team was desperate for starting pitching. So desperate they were willing to run out a National League castoff with a career 5-24 record and an ERA well over 5.00.

Paulino had pitched excellently the day after he was acquired for cash from the Rockies on May 26. He relieved Nate Adcock, who was getting bombed in a miserable start against Texas, entering the game trailing 7-6. Paulino hogtied the Rangers for the next 4.1 innings, surrendering just one hit.

But that was in relief. The Royals decided to give Paulino a start. And on June 1, Paulino was nearly as good as he was in relief. He held the Angels to just four hits over five innings.

Like kids with a new toy, fans got excited, momentarily. But rumors of a bad attitude and unfulfilled promise from his previous stints in Houston and Colorado tempered the enthusiasm. Soon the young guns like Hosmer, Moustakas and Duffy were stealing the limelight, and Paulino labored under the radar.

Some of his starts have been excellent. Several others, not nearly so. But the body of work deserves analysis, particularly after another stellar performance Friday against Cleveland, a game in which he took the loss, but carried a shutout into the seventh inning.

Paulino’s supposed potential has made him a frustration to managers over the years. But his numbers this season are more impressive than you might expect.

Paulino currently has the lowest ERA of Royals who have started at least one game.

He is tied for the second lowest WHIP – only Luke Hochevar is better.

He is third on the team in batter average, just a few points behind Bruce Chen.

Paulino hasn’t accumulated enough innings to show up among the league leaders. But his 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings would rank him 27th in the big leagues, far ahead of Hochevar’s 5.34 (which is good for 81st in the league).

In strikeouts to walks surrendered, Paulino’s 2.40 would rank him 59th in the league and behind only Jeff Francis on the team.

While Hochevar has celebrated “ace-like” stuff and Chen is heralded for getting the most out of his limited abilities, Paulino is putting up comparable numbers. And all that from a guy who the Rockies were ready to dump for cash.

The glaring deficiency for Paulino is his lack of wins. His record would suggest that he doesn’t know how to win. Even disregarding his previous lack of success, his record as a Royal is 2-10. Last Friday’s game might be telling. After pitching flawlessly, he hit a snag in the 8th inning and allowed the Indians to score a run and load the bases.

But if Friday night’s game is any indication, Paulino has been hindered by lack of run support and bullpen relief. The game was just 1-1 when he exited, and Tim Collins let him down by walking in a winning run.

So, other than poor relief pitching, what keeps Paulino from winning games?

A highly analytical article by David Golebiewski suggests that for some reason Paulino gives up an inordinately high average on balls put into play.

This could be a problem. Anyone who has played baseball knows that some pitchers give up soft grounders and weak pop-ups, while others give up rockets. Perhaps the issue is that when Paulino isn’t missing bats, he’s hitting them squarely.

Can the problem be fixed? I’m no pitching coach, so all I can do is hope that it’s a statistical anomaly that will work itself out as Paulino gains experience and develops confidence.

Paulino turns 28 in October. He’s earning $790,000. Those two numbers should work in his favor.

If the Royals were willing to suffer through years of Kyle Davies, waiting for him to capitalize on his “quality stuff,” shouldn’t they be more than patient for Paulino to harness his far superior talent. Paulino routinely throws in the mid-90s and has been clocked at over 100 mph.

What about the attitude problem? Is Paulino a Carlos Zambrano-like cancer who can’t win and brings the rest of the team down?

After Collins walked in the winning run Friday, Paulino could be seen in the dugout trying to boost the young reliever’s spirits. Ryan Lefebvre and Frank White praised Paulino as a “team guy” and someone who they’d found to be nothing but pleasant in their interactions.

While Hosmer, Moustakas and company gain all the headlines, as expected, a May acquisition – for cash no less – could go down as the surprise of the summer. Dayton Moore may have just won one, bringing in a fire-balling starter when no one else was looking.

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