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2015 Season in Review: Starting Pitchers

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Sometimes, all you need to do to win a championship is just be mediocre.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get one thing out of the way right away. There were no aces on the Royals' pitching staff last year. The guy they thought might develop into one, Yordano Ventura, had his fair share of difficulties throughout the year. Their most consistent pitcher, Edinson Volquez, was good but not quite ace material. Then, the pitcher they traded for and tapped to become their de facto ace, Johnny Cueto, was very un-ace-like (except when it mattered most).

Going into this year, there still aren't any aces on the staff. The rotation looks like it will once again be the weakest part of the team. But that's fine, because the Royals managed to win a World Series last year. Here is how the starters managed to do just enough to win a championship:

Royals SP, 2015
Age IP W L ERA WHIP FIP HR/9 BB% K% fWAR
E. Volquez 31 200.1 13 9 3.55 1.308 3.82 0.7 8.5 18.2 2.6
Y. Ventura 24 163.1 13 8 4.08 1.298 3.57 0.8 8.4 22.2 2.7
J. Guthrie 36 148.1 8 8 5.95 1.551 5.61 1.8 6.6 12.7 -0.9
D. Duffy 26 136.2 7 8 4.08 1.390 4.43 1.0 9.0 17.4 1.2
C. Young 36 123.1 11 6 3.06 1.086 4.52 1.2 8.6 16.6 0.9
J. Cueto 29 81.1 4 7 4.76 1.451 4.06 1.1 4.9 16.0 1.1

*Minimum 10 games started. All stats in this series compiled from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

Edinson Volquez

Remember how wrong we all were about Kendrys Morales? We were pretty wrong about Edinson Volquez, too. The 31-year-old put up one of his most consistent seasons in a season when the Royals needed consistency most. Volquez broke the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career, while continuing to cut down on walks and home runs. He provided valuable mentorship for fellow Dominican Yordano Ventura, except when, well...

The resulting suspension marred what was an otherwise solid season, with Volquez becoming the Royals' number one pitcher while Ventura experienced ups and downs.

His season could probably best be summed up by his performances in the World Series. Volquez had the most tragic storyline in a crazy Game 1, pitching a solid six innings without realizing that his father had passed prior to the game. He came back to pitch another strong six innings in Game 5. He received no decision in either game, but did enough to keep the Royals afloat in games they'd eventually come back to win. That is more or less what Volquez had been doing all season. He wasn't an ace, but he kept the rotation afloat when it seemed on the verge of falling apart.

Now 32, Volquez can't be expected to duplicate his All-Star, 4-WAR 2008 campaign. His ceiling is probably right around what he did this past year. And that's fine, so long as the Royals don't expect him to

Grade: As I said earlier, the Royals didn't have any aces on staff last year, so I won't give anyone an A. But Volquez is close as you could get. B+.

What's next: Volquez will hope to have another consistent season, but this time with more help from his fellow starters. He has a mutual option after this season.

Yordano Ventura

After an outstanding rookie season that culminated in a flawless Game 6, do-or-die World Series performance, big things were expected out of Ventura this year. Ventura did not deliver, at least at first. He had a rough start to the season, struggling with inconsistency throughout the first half.

But his troubles on the mound were less concerning than his troubles with self-control. Ventura caused multiple bench-clearing incidents within the first month of the season — three in his first four starts, to be precise (see above video). Ventura would miss several starts due to suspension and injury. When he was on the mound, he was volatile — in all senses of the word. Eventually, he earned a brief demotion to Omaha.

But then a spell of injuries swept through the rotation, and Ventura never ended up throwing a pitch for the Storm Chasers. He came back up to the major league team and everything appeared to be fixed.

He pitched well enough through the rest of the year that fWAR actually graded him as slightly better than Volquez for the season. If you look at the numbers behind Ventura's season, his 2015 doesn't look all that different from his 2014. Ventura's FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching, a way to isolate a pitcher's performance from luck and defense) was remarkably similar: 3.60 in 2014 and 3.57 in 2015. His walk and strikeout rates remained steady. One noticeable difference: while Ventura had some problems with his fastball, he made up for it by developing his curveball into an elite weapon.

Overall, Ventura's 2015 looked messy because it was messy. But it shouldn't be a big reason for concern heading into 2016.

Grade: Ventura gets docked a few points for the April antics, but gets credit for rebounding in the second half. B-.

What's next: In the best-case scenario, Ventura blossoms into an ace. The worst-case scenario rhymes with "Commie Lawn."

Jeremy Guthrie

Jeremy Guthrie actually started a game in September for the Royals. He gave up eight runs and did not get out of the third inning. It was not his worst start of the season. He pitched the third-most innings for the Royals in 2015. That is about all you need to know.

To be fair, Guthrie is a great guy and likely had a tremendous positive impact on the clubhouse during the World Series run. I have never been as pumped up about wooden boats as I was after the 2014 Wild Card game. But his time on the mound for the Royals came to a merciful end this season.

Grade: I'm happy he got a ring. I really am! But he still earned an F.

What's next: Guthrie recently signed a minor-league deal with the Texas Rangers.

Danny Duffy

Danny Duffy started the season in the rotation, but like many of the Royals' starters he struggled with inconsistency. He had several brilliant starts but several more clunkers. He pitched unspectacularly, but still well enough that you would not consider moving him to the bullpen because the rest of the rotation had its own problems to sort out.

Duffy missed a month with a biceps injury, but managed to stay relatively healthy for the rest of the season. In early September, once the rest of the rotation got their issues sorted out, Duffy was moved to the bullpen. He did not give up a run for the rest of the regular season.

The bullpen is where Duffy really shines, and it is probably where he will end up doing the most good for the Royals. It is very possible that he begins the 2016 season in the rotation, but he will have to show improvement and consistency if he wants to stay there.

Grade: C.

What's next: Duffy is battling for a rotation spot in spring training.

Chris Young

Journeyman Chris Young resurrected his career with the Royals in 2015. Young shuttled between the bullpen and rotation throughout the season, but made more appearances as a starter. And he made them count - Young posted both the lowest ERA and WHIP of any Royals starter with more than 50 IP.

His relief performance in Game 1 of the World Series was a good summation of his season:

He doesn't avoid many bats, but when you're playing in front of the Royals' defense, you can afford to take those risks. Young managed to make an 87-mph fastball work in the majors, and that is no small feat. In fact, not much of what Young did this year made sense at all.

Consider: In May, Young pitched five no-hit innings for the Royals before leaving the game. Then he did the exact same thing in September. A 36-year-old with an 87-mph fastball shouldn't be pitching no-hit baseball.

But this is the Royals. Weird things happened all year to the Royals.

Grade: He exceeded expectations and performed well in a pinch. Remember when I said I wouldn't give out any As? I lied. A-.

What's next: The extreme fly-ball pitcher signed a two-year deal with the Royals and will compete for a rotation spot. Bring sunglasses if he's scheduled to start a day game.

Johnny Cueto

Where to begin with Johnny Cueto? We could start with his time with the Reds prior to the trade, or we could start with his Instagram account.

Yeah, let's start with the Instagram account.

If you are a little confused and bewildered by those photos, you have captured the feeling of watching Cueto pitch in a Royals uniform (but with fewer horses). He was not good for much of his time with the team, struggling openly with Sal Perez and pitching poorly enough to see his ERA and FIP both skyrocket in a few short months.

Cueto was hammered numerous times in his three-month stint with the team, including a shellacking in Toronto during the ALCS. But when the Royals needed Cueto most, he came through.

In the do-or-die Game 5 of the ALDS, Cueto retired nineteen Astros in a row during a brilliant eight innings. In Game 2 of the World Series, Cueto hurled a complete game to put the Royals in the driver's seat of the series. This was the Johnny Cueto for which the Royals traded.

So you could probably say the Royals "won the trade," since they won the championship and Cueto played no small role. But his struggles in the regular season that threatened to wrestle home field advantage away from Kauffman Stadium make the situation seem more complicated than that.

Grade: Some very good starts, some very bad starts. We'll split the difference. C.

What's next: Johnny Cueto signed with the San Francisco Giants this offseason, where he will win another championship because 2016 is an even-numbered year.

Other appearances:

  • Kris Medlen came back from Tommy John surgery in the second half of 2015. He was decidedly average upon returning, but it's probably best not to put too much stock into those starts, for better or for worse. Grade: Incomplete/C
  • Jason Vargas underwent a Tommy John surgery of his own that will keep him out for most, if not all of this season. He was unremarkable prior to the injury. Grade: C-.
  • Joe Blanton performed serviceably well as an emergency starter before being shipped to Pittsburgh. Grade: C.