It’s late June and the Royals are in first place. No, they aren’t at the top of their division nor are they leading the wild card race. They are, however leading teams in a way they haven’t in some time. The Royals have very quietly acquired the best earned run average in the American League. The season is long but this is still a huge accomplishment considering their performance on the mound in years past.
Saying that Royals pitching has been bad would be charitable. Saying that Royals pitching has been the worst would be closer to accurate. For well over a decade, Kansas City has put up some of the worst pitching numbers in all of baseball.
Since 2000, the Royals have been one of the three worst teams in combined ERA nine times. In that time, their best pitching performance was in 2007 when they ranked 7th in the American League. To add a bit more perspective, in 2009, when Zack Greinke won the Cy Young award he posted an ERA of 2.16 for the season. That same year the Royals had a collective ERA of 4.83 coming in at 12th as a team in the league.
That’s what makes the jump to number one, even at this early point in the season something worth mentioning. Even as they sit five games out of first place, Royals pitching has given up fewer runs than the division leading Tigers, who sit at number two as a team in earned runs. And as the Kansas City bats slowly awaken from their royal slumber (pun entirely intended), they find that they are able to win the close games that they were losing earlier in the year. They are currently 12-6 in the month of June in part by holding opponents to an average of about two and a half runs a game.
But as mentioned before, in the 2009 season, team ERA can be somewhat deceiving. Ervin Santana has been lights out thus far with the American League’s 3rd best ERA of 2.64. James Shields is right behind him at 2.72, putting him at 6th best in the league and one one-hundredth of a point behind Seattle’s Felix Hernandez. Even Jeremy Guthrie comes in below league average in ERA at 3.72, good enough to get him in the top twenty in American League pitching. However, the combined efforts of these three cover up the chink in the armor at the back end of the Royals’ rotation.
Luis Mendoza is 2-4 with an ERA of 4.30. He hasn’t been terrible, but he has been unpredictable. Wade Davis has been worse averaging over five earned runs per start. The stunning performance of Santana and Shields, who were acquired this offseason, have covered up what could be the biggest weakness for these Kansas City Royals.
Santana and Shields routinely pitch deep into games. This has been a god send for the Royals bullpen, who have now pitched the fewest amount of innings in baseball (175.3). With the bullpen rested and the bats coming alive it’s this first place Royals pitching rotation that could use some shoring up. There do exist options, none that the Royals hope they have to use though.
Dan Duffy, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery, has been making minor league rehab starts since the end of May. Duffy has been sharp in the past averaging over nine strikeouts an inning in 2012 but since coming off of surgery he’s been getting ruffed up in AAA. Also pitching right now in AAA Omaha is Yordano Ventura, the Royals young ace in waiting. “Ace” Ventura as he is already being called, has had mixed success in Omaha but dominated in double A ball. Ventura owns a fastball that can touch 100 mph. His K/9 rate over four starts is 8 and 11.5 in AAA and AA respectively. Ventura has talent to be sure but the Royals probably don’t want to prematurely promote their young prospect and limit his training and experience (not to mention bring his arbitration date closer) simply because Wade Davis has had a few bad starts.
And of course there is always the trade option, but most people suspect an underwhelming trade deadline from the Royals this year considering the amount of players they surrendered before the season started. And of course Davis and Mendoza may pick up the pace down the stretch. Davis has yielded only four runs combined in his last three starts.
Still, having the best pitching in the American League is a great problem to have. The Royals took a chance this off season to acquire pitching and they got what they wanted. And now that the offense is starting to show up they are starting to look like the contender that fans had hoped for.