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Grading the Royals pitchers

Dr. Hok does not grade your curve on a curve.

Mike Minor throwing a pitch for Kansas City back in 2017
Earning an A+ on this staff is no Minor feat!
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I have to start this off by pointing out that Drew Butera actually has a ZiPS projection as a pitcher. He was projected to pitch 1.1 innings over 2 games and allow a single run on one hit - not a home run - with no walks and a single strikeout. It’s gems like these that make this all worthwhile even when the season drags or the Royals miss the playoffs, again.

For more oddness the Royals show season projections from multiple systems for such pitchers as Francisley Bueno, Wilking Rodriguez, Scott Downs, Yohan Pino, and Kris Medlen.

So, as you all probably guessed, it’s time to grade the pitchers. As before the stats are from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs including the various projection systems that can be found on FanGraphs like Steamer, ZiPs, and FANS.

Starting Pitchers

Danny Duffy - A-

Coming off his new contract extension Danny actually was very, very similar to his ZiPS projection in a lot of ways. Which is to say, he was pretty darn good. He got fewer starts for fewer innings and stranded fewer runners. He also essentially flipped his ERA and FIP compared to the projection, which meant he pitched better than expected somehow but gave up more actual runs. Still, despite all that, he actually beat his WAR projection by more than half a win. If he had managed to stay healthy and maintained his performance for the entire year he could have been among the best starting pitchers in all of baseball, as it was he was still very good.

Luke Farrell - F

Luke got one start and hasn’t been able to stick on even a 40-man roster, since. The good news for him is people keep adding him to their team as quickly as he can be released. Maybe he’ll pull an Onelki, some day.

Jason Hammel - C+

Jason Hammel was, more or less, Jason Hammel. The biggest difference for him was that his Left on Base percentage cratered - something that is frequently attributed to luck. He actually dropped his FIP a tenth of a point from last season - nearly nailing his projection - but saw his ERA skyrocket by almost a run and a half though his projection suggested it would only go up about two-tenths of a run. Still, like Duffy, he actually outperformed his WAR projection.

Nate Karns - Incomplete

Nate was solidly outperforming many of his projections - striking 1.5 more batters per 9, walking better than 1 fewer, and leaving 8% more men on base - and generally making Dayton look good before the other problem Karns always has showed it’s ugly head - he got injured and was out for the year. He should be healthy again by the start of next season, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

Ian Kennedy - F

Ian was pretty decent for the Royals’ last season and operating on the largest contract ever given to a pitcher by the Royals. He needed to be at least pretty good again, this year. He was not. One thing worth noting is that before his injury he was pitching to a 3.03 ERA and a 4.59 FIP, having allowed only 1.26 HR/9. After he returned from his injury he pitched to a 6.08 ERA and a 5.92 FIP while allowing 2.21 HR/9. It seems fairly reasonable to guess that he came back from the DL too soon and was likely pitching hurt the rest of the year.

Jason Vargas - C

I know a lot of people are going to want to grade him harshly because of his terrible second half, but taken as a whole his season was actually not half-bad. The second half slide was also incredibly predictable given how few innings he had been able to pitch the previous two years. If the Royals had had more depth they might have been able to give him some time off in the middle of the year and let him come back to finish strong. They didn’t, though, so things went poorly for him. Still he pitched nearly 3 times as many innings as he was projected to pitch and with a slightly lower ERA. He finished the year tied for the most wins in the league - it’s a meaningless stat, but still fun when it looks good for a guy you’re rooting for - and had 1.6 fWAR. In the end I’m glad he did all his good work up front. It was fun to see him in the All-Star Game and his collapse in the second half was far from the only reason the Royals missed the playoffs.

Swing Men

Trevor Cahill - F

Do I need to say anything at all about Trevor?

Onelki Garcia - F

Onelki tried so hard to be a great comeback story. Instead he reminded us why comeback stories are so cool - they almost never work out.

Sam Gaviglio - C

Sam pitched in four games for the Royals, including two starts. He struck out too few and walked too many to make you think he’s going to be super awesome, but he also pulled out a 3.00 ERA and added 0.2 fWAR to the team. The Royals, even as a rebuilding team next season, are going to need rotation depth that is not an automatic loss and Gaviglio seems likely to be better than many of the Royals’ other internal options. Since they claimed him of waivers as a rookie he should still be making the minimum next season and the Royals should keep him around as a swingman until he either proves he deserves a shot as a starter or he doesn’t have what it takes.

Jake Junis - B+

Jake emerged as a solid rotation option by the end of the year. The most promising thing about him is that he upped his strikeouts by one per nine over his projections without moving his walks an iota and actually undershoot his homers per nine as well. Despite not being on the MLB roster for good chunks of the season he was actually the fourth most valuable starting pitcher and seventh most valuable pitcher overall in the Royals pen. Hopefully he’ll be good next year.

Eric Skoglund - F+

Eric had a terrific debut and even got to tip his cap to the crowd at Kauffman stadium as he walked off the mound without allowing a run to score. He did not pitch a single game the rest of the season without allowing runs to score and only once allowed fewer earned runs than innings pitched en route to a 9.50 season ERA. He walked almost as many as he struck out, he rarely induced soft contact and finished the season with a 2.33 WHIP. He was what we like to call, “Bad.” But somehow he was worth 0.1 fWAR so he gets a plus on his F.

If you’re looking for a silver lining the projection systems actually thought he should have pitched to an ERA in mid 4 range. That would be a valuable back-end rotation/swing man piece. Maybe he can still get there, some day.

Matt Strahm - F

The Royals bullpen was really counting on Strahm continuing to be a strong contributor this season. He was so bad early on that he was demoted and when he came back he was much better but he was so bad in those first three appearances that he still finished the season with ERA, FIP, and walk rate all over 5 and a -0.2 fWAR in a world where Eric Skoglund can still get 0.1. As much as all of the projection systems expected him to regress he managed to regress even further. His lack of control seems likely to prevent him from ever being as good as Royals fans hoped he would be after his startling debut in 2016 but he won’t be their problem, anymore, since he was dealt to the Padres.

Travis Wood - F

A certain brilliant writer suggested that the Royals would be making a mistake to sign him. And if they had to sign him, then he need be restricted to status as a LOOGY. So of course the Royals signed him to an expensive - compared to what anyone should have been willing to pay him - two-year deal, tried to make him a long reliever/sixth starter and then had to eat the entire contract when they tried to upgrade the team at the deadline.

Chris Young - F

You forgot Chris pitched for the Royals this year, didn’t you? Sorry for reminding you.

Relief Pitchers

Al Alburquerque - C

Al didn’t really do anything wrong. He struck out a fair few and pitched to a 3.60 ERA. He did walk more than you’d like, but it wasn’t really hurting him. After the Royals released him the White Sox signed him to fill the hole in their bullpen caused by dealing the whole thing away piece by piece at the deadline and he wasn’t half bad for them either. It’s actually bit baffling why a team like the Royals cut a reliever who was producing quality innings for them. I can’t give him a higher grade because he simply didn’t pitch enough innings and he did walk too many, but he was by no means bad during his time in KC.

Scott Alexander - A+

Scott absolutely destroyed the projections while earning a 2.48 ERA and giving up only three home runs all year long. He walked more than was appropriate but on a Royals staff where walks were a constant problem he was actually about average in that department. The real question is whether he can sustain this success. He’s being compared to Zach Britton but he doesn’t have the elite strike out numbers and he was a 27 year old rookie to start the year. Still he figures to get a real shot to spend the entire season on the roster next summer.

Miguel Almonte - F

Almonte almost got to make his first career big league start this year but saw it rained out. In the end he managed only to pitch two innings in which he allowed 5 hits, 2 walks, 0 strike outs, and 3 runs. Can’t pass a class with an effort like that unless you go to UNC.

Ryan Buchter - B-

Ryan gets rolled into a lump with his fellow traders from the San Diego deal, but he was actually better for the Royals than he was the Padres. His strikeouts went down but so did his walks and most impressively, his home runs. He gave the Royals 27 innings of 2.67 ERA. They couldn’t ask for much more out of him.

Neftali Feliz - C-

He wasn’t terrible for the Royals, especially given some of the performances they dealt with, but he wasn’t good, either.

Brian Flynn - Incomplete

Flynn only managed 2.1 innings at the big league level due to his various injuries, and he only allowed a single run! His AAA stats, however, were not impressive. A 27-year old with big league experience needs to do better than a 5.40 ERA in Omaha. Because of that he’s a candidate to be DFA’d this off-season though I tend to think the Royals will hang on to him.

Kelvin Herrera - F

The year he had would have been considered a success for a lot of other pitchers but Kelvin isn’t just any old pitcher. The Royals needed him to be a rock solid closer, he was worth 2.0 fWAR last year and everybody thought he’d be worth at least one this year. He was worth 0.1.

The thing is, much was made of his strikeout drop alongside a walk and home run increase. But he actually had the third highest strikeout rate of his career - more than 2015 or 2014 when he was part of one of the best bullpens ever constructed - and his walks were also his third best of his career, again fewer than in 2014 or 2015. The home runs were the worst they’ve ever been outside 2013 but the real problem appears to be a drastically reduced strand rate - a full 8% below his career average. Some people are suggesting he should be non-tendered in his final year of arbitration but there is no way Dayton Moore will do that. If Dayton brings him back there’s at least a decent chance he could rebound.

Andres Machado - F

22.09 ERA.

Seth Maness - D

Seth has a fascinating story as a pitcher who opted to rehab from a torn UCL without getting Tommy John Surgery. He did it, too; pitching again in the big leagues this year. He didn’t pitch particularly well, though, and he was terrible in AAA. It will be interesting to see if anyone else takes this route and can show us if Maness was just bad or if the new rehab doesn’t work well enough.

Brandon Maurer - F

No, I’m not doing it. We’ve spent enough time fretting about Maurer.

Kevin McCarthy - B+

Taken as a whole his numbers are not half bad for a middle reliever. His 3.20 ERA and 0.2 fWAR are sparkling compared to his ZiPS projection of 4.80 and -0.3, respectively. Had the season ended in September he would have probably pulled out an A- with a 2.84 ERA in 44.1 innings for the big league club. Unfortunately he was forced to pitch a game in October. The 4 runs allows in only 0.2 innings against Arizona jumped his ERA up nearly half a run and dropped him half a letter grade. Better luck next year, Kevin.

Mike Minor - A+

None of the projection systems had Minor being worth more than 0.2 wins. All of them figured his ERA would stay up where it was the last time he pitched, in 2014, and that his strikeouts would be stable even with the move the bullpen while his walks would go up. His walks actually came down a tiny bit from his career average while his strikeouts spiked to unheard of levels, for the lanky lefty. Combine that with a similarly drastic reduction in home runs and you get a reliever who managed to be worth more than 2 fWAR, this season - tied for ninth most valuable reliever in baseball. And Jeffrey Flanagan’s pick for 2018 Royals Closer, even though he is unlikely to pick up his side of the mutual option.

Mike Morin - F

Things were looking really good for the Shawnee Mission South alum through four appearances with the Royals. Unfortunately his fifth and sixth appearances totalled 5 runs allowed in only 2.1 innings. It’s anyone’s guess whether the Royals will offer him a contract for next season.

Peter Moylan - A-

Mr. Sleddgiato himself tied for the most appearances for a pitcher in MLB with Cleveland’s Bryan Shaw. He pulled off a very nice 3.49 ERA and a 0.3 fWAR - both considerably better than anyone projected him to manage. His season was a bit odd in that when he was good he was very good and when he was bad he was as much a garbage fire as anyone in the pen. In the end it even out to a pretty good season for the Aussie barista. He’d like to return to the Royals and they’ll probably have room for him, but he’d also like to have a guaranteed contract for next season and he probably deserves one - though not a rich one - after the past couple of seasons he’s put up.

Joakim Soria - A

I know a lot of people are going to roast me for this grade but I swear to you that Joakim was actually really good, this year. His 1.7 fWAR was good enough to tie him for twenty-first in baseball and he outperformed his projections by a huge margin in every way except in BABIP and LOB%. The reality is, as many have argued all season, that he was honestly a very, very good pitcher this year who got very, very unlucky. Before 2015 Joakim had only once had a BABIP over .300, and now he’s been 20+ points over for two straight seasons. Maybe he just isn’t fooling anyone anymore, but then how is he getting so many strikeouts? Even with all the caveats about bad luck don’t expect him to be great next year. Bad luck appears to be the only kind he has anymore and he isn’t getting any younger.


Dave Eiland - F

Despite coming into the year with what many were calling the best Royals rotation in a long time along with a couple of very strong pieces from past bullpens the Royals fielded a below average pitching staff that cratered in the second half. It’s unclear how much can be blamed on Eiland but he certainly didn’t help. Hopefully his replacement will be able to do more.

Dayton Moore - F

Dayton made the best move he could in signing Hammel, the consensus best starter left on the market after Yordano Ventura’s sudden, tragic passing. His trade for Nate Karns started off looking pretty good as well until the injury bug caught him again. The signing of Travis Wood was an obviously terrible decision weeks before it was even done. And the trade with the Padres did not work out at all. Moore actively made the team worse with most of his pitching acquisitions and gave up the Royals best remaining pitching prospect as well as a potentially valuable bullpen piece and a low-ball, high-ceiling lottery ticket.

Ned Yost - F

It’s unclear how much of the blame Ned Yost should bear for the pitching failures. If he left his starter in it imploded in his face. If he pulled the starter early the bullpen exploded or became over-worked and exploded later. Pitchers were hurt and ineffective all year and instead of having a pitching staff for which there were very few wrong buttons to push, as he had become accustomed to for the past few years, he had one that included exactly zero buttons that would not hurt the team in some manner. Still, he could have made adjustments sooner than he did. If Kelvin Herrera was really that uncomfortable in the closer’s role it was Ned’s job to notice it sooner. If Joakim Soria can’t pitch in high leverage situations anymore then Ned needed to see that and deal with it, too. He just let things slide like cars on an ice-covered street until all that was left was a huge pileup of ineffective pitchers and way too many lost games.

Just as with the position players that is a startling number of Fs for a team that came into the year with playoff aspirations. Also, once again, Dayton Moore’s moves pretty much all backfired. Baseball has ever been a game of process of results. Even the best batters make outs more than half of the time. Even the best starting pitchers will allow runs more often than not. However, with GM Dayton Moore’s results being so terrible prior to 2014 and so terrible since 2015 one has to wonder if he just got lucky those two seasons while continuing to use a flawed process that shows up in bad results the rest of the time.


What grade would you give the Royals pitching staff, this year?

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