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A way too early look at next year’s rotation

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It would be nice if they were less embarrassing than this year.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Jake Junis figures to break camp as a member of the 2018 Royals’ starting rotation.
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

It may be hard to remember now, but lots of Royals fans were theorizing before the season that 2017 might have the best starting rotation of Dayton Moore’s tenure in Kansas City. There was reason for that optimism just as there was reason for the pessimism of the people who were convinced it wasn’t going to be that easy. If you look at the final results produced by the rotation during the 2017 season you can see things that justify either position.

Perhaps the most important thing about the 2017 rotation now, however, is that almost everyone who was expected to be a factor in it will be returning next season along with all of their same skills, caveats, and only a single year older. Considering that the Royals’ plans, according to Kansas City Stara columnist Sam Mellinger, are to either re-sign Eric Hosmer plus one of Lorenzo Cain or Mike Moustakas or to sign a handful of inexpensive free agents, it seems unlikely the Royals’ rotation picture will change too much between now and opening day. Perhaps a few non-roster invitees or minor league free agents and maybe one legitimate back-end starter will spice things up. Still, what you see now is probably the greatest part of the 2018 starting rotation picture.

All the stats are from FanGraphs and special thanks to Shaun Newkirk for his help both in researching comparables for some of these pitchers and for teaching me about how it was done so I can do more like this in the future. Let’s take a look at some comps for the Royals rotation.

Danny Duffy

Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Floyd Bannister 19.9% 7.7% 2.60 1.00 3.61 89 3.49 84 585.2 11.7
Melido Perez 20.1% 9.1% 2.21 0.86 3.88 91 3.69 86 562 10.9
Anibal Sanchez 21.1% 7.3% 2.89 0.77 3.70 93 3.40 87 587 10.8
Josh Beckett 21.7% 6.1% 3.54 1.10 4.11 89 3.85 89 579.2 10.8
Lance Lynn 22.1% 8.7% 2.53 0.62 3.25 88 3.35 90 580.2 10.2
Johnny Cueto 22.1% 6.3% 3.51 0.76 2.54 66 3.35 86 521.1 10.1
Andy Benes 20.9% 8.3% 2.52 1.02 4.13 98 3.95 91 584.1 9.9
Chris Young 21.9% 8.7% 2.52 0.99 3.60 85 3.96 91 517 9.8
Scott Baker 20.0% 5.9% 3.39 1.18 4.11 96 3.95 94 542.2 9.3
Ricky Nolasco 20.9% 5.2% 4.05 1.10 4.76 117 3.57 90 548.2 9.1
Tim Belcher 19.9% 7.8% 2.54 0.72 3.17 91 3.22 90 562.2 8.8
Homer Bailey 21.1% 6.5% 3.25 0.99 3.61 94 3.71 95 562.2 8.4
Garrett Richards 22.1% 8.4% 2.63 0.59 3.11 82 3.30 85 410.2 7.8
Matt Garza 20.9% 7.5% 2.80 1.01 3.68 93 3.79 95 506.1 7.7
Jimmy Nelson 21.3% 8.7% 2.45 1.00 4.08 97 4.10 97 532 7.7
Sid Fernandez 22.8% 8.4% 2.72 0.87 3.09 87 3.30 91 442.2 7.2
Danny Duffy 21.8% 7.1% 3.09 1.07 3.77 89 3.89 94 462.2 7.2
Yovani Gallardo 20.2% 8.2% 2.46 1.01 3.77 97 3.93 100 577 6.7
Bud Norris 21.2% 8.8% 2.40 1.08 4.19 107 4.03 102 531 6.4
Pitchers similar to Danny Duffy from age 26-28

Story of last season: The same as the story of his career: tons of talent but doesn’t stay healthy enough. Continued the trend of the past few seasons where the talent at least translates into results when healthy.

Reasons he’ll be good: For four straight seasons he’s flashed ace-level ability in between injuries and inconsistencies. On top of that, every season the inconsistencies get a little bit more diminished. As you can see in the table above his last three seasons compare favorably to some pitchers who turned out to be pretty good.

Reasons he’ll be terrible: He still hasn’t shown an ability to stay healthy over the course of an entire season. He’s pitched more than 150 innings only once, and that season included a horrible final month. It’s also unclear if there will be any repercussions to his availability next year following DUI charges being filed against him late in the season.

Ian Kennedy

Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Denny Neagle 18.3% 7.9% 2.32 1.53 5.38 103 4.81 99 170.2 2.3
Andy Benes 19.1% 9.5% 2.01 1.63 4.88 106 5.08 106 166 1.6
Jose Contreras 19.8% 11.1% 1.79 1.64 5.50 119 5.27 114 170.1 1.1
Anibal Sanchez 20.2% 7.9% 2.55 1.76 5.87 137 5.06 117 153.1 0.9
Mike Fiers 21.8% 9.2% 2.35 1.88 5.22 123 5.43 124 153.1 0.1
Ian Kennedy 20.0% 9.3% 2.15 1.99 5.38 121 5.61 131 154 -0.2
32 year old pitchers comparable to Ian Kennedy’s 2017 season

Story of last season: He started off the season hot but suffered an injury and never appeared to be the same pitcher after that. Late in the season it was confirmed he was pitching through another injury.

Reasons he’ll be good: He was pretty good in 2016 and there is every reason to believe he was rushed back from his first injury and pitched the rest of the season hurt. He has also been relatively healthy in his career before last year, which was his eighth straight season with 30 or more starts. If health and not lack of talent was the real problem last season there is reason to believe he can rebound.

Reasons he’ll be terrible: Pitching through injury can do very bad things to a pitcher’s career. He is starting to reach an age where fastball effectiveness can diminish and much of his success in 2016 was predicated on getting terrific results from his fastball. Only one pitcher on the above list has had anything resembling success following an age-32 season like Kennedy’s. Jose Contreras was kind of a unique situation in that he was a Cuban defector who didn’t become an MLB pitcher until age 31 anyway. The rest of them either were out of baseball in two years or less or have yet to pitch into their third season.

Jason Hammel

Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Javier Vazquez 22.2% 6.8% 3.28 1.13 4.05 96 3.79 90 777.2 14.3
Ted Lilly 21.1% 6.2% 3.39 1.31 3.68 84 4.14 96 782.1 12.7
Ervin Santana 20.0% 7.4% 2.71 1.01 3.60 88 3.95 96 696.2 10.4
J.A. Happ 21.0% 7.2% 2.92 1.05 3.61 89 3.85 94 670.1 10.4
Hisashi Iwakuma 21.1% 4.9% 4.34 1.10 3.17 83 3.62 93 653.2 9.6
Jake Peavy 19.9% 6.2% 3.19 1.09 3.68 92 3.92 100 677 9.3
CC Sabathia 20.8% 6.3% 3.30 1.27 4.35 107 4.06 98 624.1 8.5
Jason Hammel 21.2% 6.3% 3.35 1.26 4.10 100 4.11 102 694 7.7
James Shields 20.4% 7.7% 2.64 1.24 3.93 99 4.29 109 839.2 7.2
Jason Hammel comparables age 31-34 seasons

Story of last season: Jason got off to a terrible start but after a mechanical adjustment which had him pitching entirely from the stretch, similar to Danny Duffy, he rebounded to be a decent pitcher for a while, then an acceptable pitcher for a while, and finally he fell off a cliff again by the end of the season. He is the only returning pitcher who stuck in the Royals’ 2017 rotation the entire season.

Reasons he’ll be good: He has been above average to pretty good for a long time. He has already shown he knows how to get workable results with little to no stuff so aging should not be a huge impediment to him. He hasn’t been worth less than 1.5 wins for four straight seasons, whichyou can live with from your fourth or fifth best starter. Most of the pitchers in Jason’s list of comparables up there didn’t or haven’t pitched much beyond their age-34 season. Those that did pitch pitched competently enough, though.

Reasons he’ll be terrible: He has not finished a season pitching well since at least 2014. He pitched a career high 180.1 innings last season so he doesn’t even match his mediocre results to a lot of innings.

Jake Junis

An image of a graph showing pitchers who pitched similarly to Jake Junis in the minors, many of the mid and upper-tier pitchers are relievers.
Similar pitchers to Jake Junis from the minor leagues.

Story of last season: Jake was on the shuttle between Omaha and KC more times than some of us can count. By the end of the year the injuries had taken enough of a toll that he was finally given a more permanent position in the rotation.

Reasons he’ll be good: Jake was so good down the stretch that he was the Royals’ best pitcher for two months near the end of the season. He finished the year with a serviceable 4.30 ERA, good for a 97 ERA- which is ever so slightly better than average.

Reasons he’ll be terrible: Look at that list of comparables. Most of those pitchers suffered from ineffectiveness or injury which forced them into bullpen roles or, in the case of Dallas Braden, retirement. Mike Minor would be an acceptable outcome, barring the injuries that derailed his career. Matt Boyd and Jharel Cotton still have the potential to turn into pretty decent pitchers but signs aren’t pointing up, necessarily.

Nate Karns

Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Name K% BB% K/BB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP- IP WAR
Kerry Wood 26.2% 10.3% 2.54 1.12 3.60 85 3.96 91 650.2 11
Drew Pomeranz 24.4% 9.2% 2.65 1.01 3.24 77 3.78 92 499.1 8
Scott Sanders 22.2% 8.8% 2.53 1.20 4.80 113 4.16 94 525 7
Rich Harden 26.0% 11.1% 2.35 1.32 3.84 90 4.33 102 489.1 6.4
Trevor Bauer 23.3% 8.3% 2.80 1.11 4.23 96 3.94 91 366.1 5.9
Kevin Gausman 22.4% 7.5% 2.99 1.40 4.15 95 4.30 96 366.1 5.5
Bill Caudill 22.6% 10.1% 2.25 1.05 3.40 83 3.67 89 370.1 4.9
Ron Davis 22.7% 10.2% 2.22 1.00 3.77 91 3.59 90 415.2 4.3
Dan Wheeler 22.0% 7.3% 3.00 1.05 3.60 83 3.78 86 335.1 4.1
Brad Peacock 23.5% 10.9% 2.16 1.20 4.15 105 4.32 108 383.2 3.5
Nathan Karns 24.0% 9.3% 2.59 1.36 4.37 109 4.36 108 310.2 2.6
Russ Springer 22.1% 9.9% 2.24 1.23 4.76 108 4.39 99 328.2 2
David Riske 22.4% 9.5% 2.35 1.27 3.52 79 4.33 99 320 1.5
Pitchers comparable to Nate Karns age 25-29 seasons

Story of last season: Won the rotation spot out of spring training and appeared to be a revelation. He was striking out more and walking fewer than ever before, he had 0.4 fWAR through eight starts despite a pair of disastrous appearances including an ill-advised relief appearance in the first series of the season.

Reasons he’ll be good: He’s got some great stuff and appeared like he might finally be harnessing it at the beginning of the year. Is somewhat reminiscent of a right-handed Danny Duffy, though a bit older: great stuff, checkered injury history, and inconsistent results. Some of those names on that comparables list are very promising.

Reasons he’ll be terrible: He has now appeared in five MLB seasons and isn’t young anymore. He has never pitched more than 147 innings in a season and has never been worth more than 1.5 fWAR. He seems unable to stay healthy, even in a relief role. There is no backup plan for him; he goes against the recent trend of turning mediocre starters into elite bullpen arms; he was both bad in limited time and injured very shortly into his tenure as a reliever in 2016.

Eric Skoglund

An image of a graph showing pitchers who pitched similarly to Eric Skoglund in the minors; the best pitcher on the list is Dillon Gee.
Similar pitchers to Eric Skoglund from the minor leagues.

Story of last season: He had a sensational debut against the Tigers early in the season but finished the year with an ERA over 9.00 and never pitched more than three innings at once again.

Reasons he’ll be good: Um, well, Maybe he will turn into Dillon Gee or Yusmeiro Petit from that chart above and be a nearly-serviceable swingman?

Reasons he’ll be terrible: He was bad last year and the absolute best outcome on his comparables list is Dillon Gee.

Sam Gaviglio

An image of a graph showing pitchers who pitched similarly to Sam Gaviglio in the minors; the vast majority of them have been replacement level or worse in the big leagues.
Pitchers comparable to Sam Gaviglio from the minor leagues.

Story of last season: Started the year with Seattle and had some ups and downs, but even the best starts were never anything to write home about. Came to KC with low expectations and managed to hurdle them.

Reasons he’ll be good: He pitched his entire rookie season in the big leagues without being nearly as bad as Eric Skoglund, Onelki Garcia, or Andres Machado. His breaking ball flashes really good, sometimes.

Reasons he’ll be terrible: The best results on that comparable list are Glen Perkins - who accrued that “massive” amount of fWAR over the course of nine seasons as a reliever - and Josh Tomlin who continues to defy expectations and isn’t as good against the rest of the league as he somehow is against Kansas City. It took him six seasons to come up with his fWAR, too.

So, as ever, the biggest problem facing the Royals next season is a complete lack of depth. There are two or three guys who you can expect to at least not give the game away but after that the Royals are back to lots of question marks or Eric Skoglund in the big leagues. And after that they’ll have to consider giving Andres Machado or Miguel Almonte a start. Or even seeing if Kyle Zimmer can throw 10 consecutive pitches from a major league mound. Those are not keys for success.

Every major league baseball team has two or three starting pitchers they feel OK about. Every major league team sees injuries to its pitching staff, too. So the best teams have at least six or seven guys that they don’t hate seeing on the mound. If the Royals think they want to be competitive in 2018 it’s going to take more than just returning their big free agents from offense, it’s going to take some more legitimate starting pitching.