We are 16 games into the season, with the Royals sitting in last place at 7-9. While that isn’t the start anybody was hoping for, it is not too bad considering how poorly the offense and bullpen has performed. The Royals offense has scored the fewest runs in baseball, while the bullpen carries the seventh-highest bullpen ERA.
What has been keeping the team from a disastrous start season has been the starting rotation, which leads baseball with a 2.37 ERA, well more than half a run less than the next best mark. In a recent six-game stretch, every starter went at least six innings in his start, and they combined to give up just three earned runs in 41 innings of work for a minuscule ERA of 0.66.
The rotation’s improvement is much appreciated, as many of you will remember that the Royals rotation finished 27th in baseball last season with a 6.0 fWAR. We are nearly 10% of the way through the 2017 campaign and Royals starters have already notched a 1.8 fWAR, good for fifth best in all of baseball.
However, as we have seen in Royals losses, the rotation needs some help from the rest of the club. The question that I feel like most of us are asking is whether or not the rotation can pick up the slack of a mere mortal bullpen. A mortal bullpen that Royals have not seen in quite some time.
My impulse says yes. Starting pitching is more valuable than the bullpen. However, the Royals have had a rare run of bullpen dominance, so the question is a bit murkier.
So here’s what we are going to do. We are going to look at the numbers and the only real way to do that, in my opinion, is to use the metrics. As we all know, ERA gets pretty diluted when comparing a starting rotation and a bullpen. For those of you who hate Fangraphs and #sabernerds, I do apologize. I feel like this is a necessity.
For the sake of this discussion, I made a small spreadsheet.
In this spreadsheet, I looked at the difference between starters and bullpen fWAR’s from 2014-2016. This is very narrow argumentation, but there is something to be taken from these numbers.
2014 makes sense. The Royals offense was pretty bad, but their fWAR was stabilized by a really, really good defense. The pennant run was made on Danny Duffy, James Shields, Yordano Ventura and the bullpen.
2015 also makes sense. The Royals lost Shields, while Duffy and Ventura were both less effective. Chris Young and Edinson Volquez picked up the slack, but the rotation was less stable than the 2014 version, even more so than the metrics would suggest. While the fWAR doesn’t look all that different, the 2014 Royals ERA (3.60) and FIP (3.89) were far superior to the 2015 ERA (4.34) and FIP (4.32).
Finally we have 2016, the worst season of the three. The rotation was bad and the position players were bad. What you should notice is that the bullpen’s performance has been virtually identical. 5.0, 5.0 and 4.9.
So what the heck does this mean? Well, in my mind, it means that the bullpen hasn’t really carried the Royals. And 2016 was proof. The bullpen was the Royals weapon, but without the rotation in 2014 and the offense in 2015, pennants don’t happen.
So yes, the rotation is capable of carrying the bullpen? But this question was never that cut and dry.
Sixteen games in, the Royals sit near the bottom of the American League in terms of bullpen ERA at 4.96. Yes, the rotation has picked up the slack, but that has just now gotten Kansas City close to .500. While the bullpen improving would certainly help the Royals get back above .500 and beyond, the better solution would be for the offense to, *ahem*, start scoring runs.
As noted, the Royals are heading into this road trip coming off of a 5-3 homestand, but they managed to score just 2.5 runs per game during that stretch. They have scored just six runs in their last 51 innings. They are 29th in baseball in batting average, 29th in on-base percentage, 29th in slugging percentage, and dead last in runs scored.
So yes, the Royals rotation can carry the bullpen. When the guys that throw 6-7 innings per night are better than the guys that throw 2-3 innings per night, that can’t be a bad thing.
The rotation cannot, however, carry a non-existent offense.