At the beginning of the year, the Royals bullpen was very nearly historically bad. From March 29 through April 21 the Royals bullpen amassed an 8.41 ERA and a 6.14 FIP. They walked very nearly as many as they struck out and only stranded a little more than half the runners they allowed.
Since then they’ve struck out more batters in fewer innings and walked half as many on their way to carrying a unit ERA and FIP of 4.12 and 4.25 respectively. They even improved their strand rate to about league average at 73.4%. If you were wondering if there was any particular reason I chose April 21 as the cutoff date, you’d be on to something. That was the last time Justin Grimm pitched for the team and Brandon Maurer hasn’t seen a big league field in Royal blue since April 12. These things are not coincidences.
Brad Keller and Burch Smith have been called upon to pitch late in games, more often. This, too, is a good change. The Royals absolutely need to be seeing what those guys can do. The best outcome might be for both of them to stretch out and get some starts in before the season ends. And we might actually be beginning to see that. Smith has gone more than one inning in 6 of his 10 appearances and Keller went 3 innings last night after Jason Hammel completely imploded. If you go purely by ERA Keller is doing pretty well, though Smith has had some trouble.
Smith, for his part, is striking out a bunch of guys but also walking far too many and allowing too many home runs. He’s allowed 4 home runs, this season, but all were in his last 4 appearances before last night. Somehow, despite walking 4 and allowing 9 hits over those appearances which have totaled 8.2 innings all of those home runs were solo shots. He managed to walk 3 more last night without allowing a run.
Brad Keller’s ERA is second only to Kelvin Herrera’s, so far, on the season but he does seem to have one fatal flaw: inherited runners. So far he’s seen 12 of those and 8 have been allowed to score. The league average is 36% of inherited runners scoring; 67% is a lot more than that. Smith hasn’t done so well in that category either; he’s actually allowed 8 of 11 runners to score.
One incredibly odd thing I picked up while I was searching through the stats is that Keller, Smith, and Tim Hill all have considerable reverse splits. The sample sizes are too small to think there’s anything meaningful, there, but it’s still pretty interesting. Speaking of interesting things I discovered...
The starters are undoing the work of the relievers
The entire Royals pitching staff carried a 5.31 ERA through April 21, this year. Since then they’ve carried a 5.27 ERA. All of the gains of the bullpen have been almost entirely canceled out by losses in the rotation. Jakob Junis saw his post 4/21 ERA double that of what he had accomplished prior. Ian Kennedy and Hammel managed to more than triple theirs. Danny Duffy stayed about the same and Eric Skoglund has actually cut his nearly in half from a 9.31 ERA in 9.2 innings to a 5.09 ERA in 23.
Several people were predicting regression for Junis and Hammel but had hoped Kennedy could maintain while Duffy would improve. I also don’t think anyone truly expected Hammel to be quite as bad as he’s been, however. For what it’s worth, Kennedy’s regression is down almost entirely to the Baltimore game. This seems incredibly predictable given his proclivities towards flyball against that lineup in that park.
If you’re hoping the rotation might improve I don’t have a lot of good news for you on that front. Unlike the bullpen, the Royals have entirely too much money tied up in too much of it to consider cutting bait on anyone for a while. Duffy, Junis, and Kennedy aren’t going anywhere barring injury. Jason Hammel is going to have to be at least this bad for a good while longer before they’d consider cutting him and if he improves he’ll probably get traded rather than continue that production in the Royals’ rotation. The best hope lies in the guys already there improving themselves. As it feels like everyone has pointed out on this site hundreds of times, already, this year’s wins don’t matter but Duffy, Junis, and Skoglund are going to need to be better to give the Royals any hope for turning things around in the near future. Even if they improve immediately, though...
Don’t get your hopes up about the division
There were multiple articles written over at FanGraphs this week about how the Royals are not alone as a garbage fire in the AL Central; the entire division reeks of singed banana peels and other scorched refuse. You might find yourself wondering if the Royals could get hot and make a run at this thing. Thing is, they already got hot. After their win on Tuesday, they had won 7 of their last 10 and were officially the hottest team in the division. That was enough to get their winning percentage all the way up to .343 and put them firmly in possession of fourth place in the division.
Even after beating Cleveland last night - meaning that the division is once again led by a team that has lost more games than it has one - the Royals still found themselves in fourth place and 5.5 games back of the division lead. 5.5 games isn’t insurmountable this early in the season, anything can happen, it’s a long season, etc. But you really, really shouldn’t get your hopes up. Raise your hand if you really think Cleveland is really going to struggle this much for the entire rest of the year. This Royals team probably doesn’t have many significant hot streaks in them and if Dayton Moore does as he should they’ll probably be even worse after the trade deadline and end up cruising to 100 losses easily.