The 2012 Kansas City Royals starting rotation: How big of a question mark is it?

Despite all of the attention the Kansas City Royals are receiving for their young offensive stars, most analysts still say that the starting pitching will be what holds the Royals back this year.  But is this group getting the credit it deserves?

There is an immense amount of optimism surrounding the 2012 Kansas City Royals.  For any fan under the age of 20, this sort of optimism is unprecedented in their lifetime.  For the rest of us, it is hard to remember the last time there was this much excitement around the club.   However, there is one part of aspect of this year’s Royals edition that most consider to be a huge question mark, and that is the starting pitching.  People outside the organization look at the Royals pitching staff and don’t see a proven Ace. This is a valid point.  But the Royals, for the first time in a good number of years, should have 5 guys (or more) that they can throw out there that can not only miss bats, but give them a chance to win every time out.  Here’s a look at the projected Royals starting rotation and what we might expect from this group in 2012:

Projected Opening Day Starter-Luke Hochevar:

Last season was a mixed bag for Hochevar.  The first half was mostly the usual erratic Luke Hochevar that Royals fans had become used to seeing pitch for the previous 3 years.  He would start a game strong, sometimes even dominant.  Then he would get himself into a jam and things would completely unravel from there.  It was maddening.  Was it in his head?  Could he not pitch effectively out of the stretch?  It wasn’t until Ned Yost began forcing Hochevar to pitch out of these situations that a change became evident.  The results in the 2nd half demonstrated that change.

First the good:

-Hochevar was 2 innings away from pitching 200 innings, finishing with 198, the most of his career to this point

-At 4.68, Hochevar finished with his lowest ERA as a full-time pitcher in the majors

-His 1.283 WHIP was down significantly from 2010, and was the best he has posted as a full-time starter

Now, the better:

-In his 12 starts after the All-Star Break, Hochevar’s ERA was 3.91

-His strikeout rate was also way up.  For the year, Hoch had a 5.8k/9 SO rate. However, after the break, it was 7.7

-His WHIP after the All-Star Break was a stellar 1.12

-After the break, Hochevar averaged 6.11 innings per start

If we assume Hochever picks up where he left off in the 2nd half of the season, we should expect something along these lines:

Innings: 201

ERA: 3.90

WHIP: 1.15

K: 172

Those numbers might not be Ace type of numbers, but that is a damn good #2 starter on a championship team, which is what Hochevar’s potential was always thought to be.  He is also 28 years old, in what should be the prime of his career.

Projected #2 starter-Jonathan Sanchez:

Sanchez is probably the most electrifying pitcher to wear a Royals uniform since Zack Greinke.  If anyone in the 2012 Royals rotation has the potential, when at his best, to become the ace of the staff, it is likely Sanchez.  However, he has always struggled with control, and last year battled injuries.  He will be 29 years old for the duration of the season and is probably the biggest wild-card in the rotation.  When at his best, he is a high strikeout, low hit-rate, high walk-rate pitcher.  If we split the difference between what would be a successful season, or a disappointing season for Sanchez, it might look something like this:

Innings: 175

ERA: 4.10

WHIP: 1.35

K: 185

To put it into perspective, in 2010, Zack Greinke’s last season with the Royals, he posted these numbers:

Innings: 220

ERA: 4.17

WHIP: 1.245

K: 181

Sanchez has the potential to do much more than the numbers listed above.  But if he gives the Royals something along those lines, that will make him a solid contributor to the rotation.

Projected #3 starter-Bruce Chen:

Chen would probably be the biggest candidate for regression out of this group, mainly due to his age.  He will turn 35 midway through the season.    He has also spent a significant amount of time on the Disabled List the last two seasons, which has cut into his Innings Pitched #’s and is definite cause for concern. I have a feeling that Dayton Moore might like a mulligan on the decision to give Chen a 2 year deal for $9,000,000.  If you assume Chen hits the DL for his normal stint in 2012, with a bit of regression, it is reasonable to expect his 2012 numbers to look like this:

Innings: 145

ERA: 3.97

WHIP: 1.40

K: 95

If Chen can make it 145 innings, and put up these type of numbers, he probably slots as more of a #5 starter on a playoff team.  If we ever again have to say that Bruce Chen was the best pitcher on the staff, that will mean things have gone terribly wrong.

Projected #4 starter-Felipe Paulino:

Why the Royals were trying to act as if there was any question as to whether Paulino would be in the rotation at the beginning of the season, is still a mystery.  At least Ned Yost is now conceding that Paulino has a “leg up” in the competition for the rotation spot.  What Paulino did last year is likely the most under-appreciated part of the Royals 2011 campaign.  Paulino will be 29 in October, so he is another who is in what should be the prime of his career.  Despite a paltry win total, he posted an excellent 8.6K/9 innings.  His 4.11 ERA and his 1.372 WHIP should both come down in 2012, as the BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) stats show that an abnormal # of balls dropped for hits last year.  Paulino started 20 games last year, and averaged just over 6 innings per start.  If he is able to start 32 games, that should put him right around 200 innings for the season.  Call me optimistic, but this is what I expect from Paulino this season, with the potential for more:

Innings: 198

ERA: 3.80

WHIP: 1.25

K: 190

This would make Paulino another solid #2-like starter for a championship team, which he is certainly capable of becoming.  If only the Royals could find a #1 starter (hint, hint)

Projected #5 starter-Danny Duffy

It is looking more and more likely that the #5 spot in the rotation will end up going to Duffy, though this is not a certainty yet. Duffy just turned 23 in December, so he has youth on his side.  As a rookie in 2011, he showed promise, but also struggled to go deep into ballgames and pitch his way out of jams.  There was one game though, last year, in which Duffy gave Royals fans a taste of what he could become.  That was on June 19 against the St. Louis Cardinals, when Duffy struck out 9 batters in 3 2/3 innings.  This game showed the reasons both why Duffy has such promise, and why he still had a little ways to go.  While he only walked 1 batter, he gave up 6 hits and let his pitch count get all the way up to 90 before being pulled with 2 outs in the 4th.  If Duffy can adjust his approach this year to not always pitching for the strikeout, learning how to finish a batters off, and pitching more efficiently, he is the guy who could step up and be the ace of this staff.  I expect Duffy to take a huge step forward this year, and for his numbers to look something like this:

Innings: 170

ERA: 3.65

WHIP: 1.35

K: 132

It would make sense that the Royals would continue to be careful with Duffy.  If “The Process” is to come to fruition, Danny Duffy is going to need to be a big part of that.  If he can put up numbers close to those above, that will put him in great position for a true “breakout” campaign in 2013.

While this Royals team is missing the true “ace” starter that they had in Zack Greinke, one could argue that top to bottom, this is the best rotation the Royals have had in over a decade.  While injuries could play a role in this, there is also more starting pitching depth in the organization than at any other time in recent history.  Whether it’s Luis Mendoza, Aaron Crow, Mike Montgomery, Nate Adcock, or someone else, the Royals should be able to keep things afloat should one or more of these guys go down.   This group of starting pitchers will be one of the more interesting things to monitor as we get rolling in 2012.

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