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Hok Talk: The Royals rotation is about where it should be

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It may not be good, but at least it’s young.

Burch Smith walks back to the dugout after an inning of work.
Surely there is some way to turn Burch Smith and the rest into a positive.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the year, the Royals’ rotation had an average age of 29.4. After injuries and demotions, the Royals currently carry a rotation with an average age of 25.8. Shaving four years off that average age has done wonders for how interesting the Royals’ rotation is. What if I told you that, according to FanGraphs, the Royals from March-May got 1.9 fWAR from the starting rotation and from June-August they got...1.9 fWAR from the starting rotation. Turns out the team doesn’t have to be better to be more intersting; it just needs more hope. It’s a lot more fun to watch young guys struggle and hopefully learn than old veterans get worse and worse.

After a very rough start to the year, Danny Duffy seemed to turn things around but he’s still been pretty inconsistent on his way to a 4.70 ERA on the season. He may never again have the trade value he had before this season started. Since his 2018 breakout performance against the Athletics which saw him strike out 10 while holding them scoreless for seven innings Danny has been, even with his inconsistencies, much better. He’s struck out more than a batter per inning and carries a 3.56 ERA to go with a 3.36 FIP. His home run rate is back down to an impressive 0.66/9 HR/IP, as well. I find that a bit frightening because with home run and strikeout rates like that you’d expect him to be utterly dominant and he’s just been a bit above average. Part of the reason for that is his walk rate which, while significantly better than at the start of the year, is still sitting at 3.82 BB/9. Danny is pitching well enough everywhere else to survive those walks but he won’t return to the ace form we pray for until he brings them back down.

One odd thing I saw while looking through his game logs is that since June 9, when he started having the good starts, there is absolutely no correlation between his walks and his runs allowed. His worst games, control-wise, were a pair of four walk outings in six or fewer innings but both were shutout appearances. He’s allowed only five home runs in that span, all in separate starts. In one of those starts, it was the only run he gave up. The other four saw him give up no fewer than six earned runs. There does seem to be some correlation between allowing a home run and giving up a bunch of other hits, leading to lots of runs even without the dinger. It almost certainly doesn’t mean anything but it’s still odd. In games where he didn’t give up a home run since June 9, he’s never allowed more than a single run and actually has five shutout appearances in that amount of time though none of them lasted more than seven innings.

Heath Fillmyer has some people comparing him to Zack Greinke which is...a bit of a stretch, in my opinion. Still, he’s carrying a 3.46 ERA in five starts for the Royals, so far, which seems nice. His home run rate is drastically lower than even Duffy’s, though, at a 0.35 clip which seems unsustainable even with a 49.5% groundball rate. He’s also barely striking out more than he walks, too. All that adds up to a guy who is due for some massive regression any time now. He’s shown enough to believe he might have back-of-the-rotation potential, which is more than many were willing to grant him when the Royals acquired him and Jesse Hahn for Brandon Moss and Ryan Buchter, but there remain no guarantees.

Jakob Junis was the staff darling to start the year, with multiple early shutouts that were among the few Royals wins. His home run rate absolutely spiked and he currently sits at 1.93 home runs per nine innings which is bad Chris Young territory. His last start against the Cubs on Monday was his first halfway decent start since June 3 against the Athletics. In that time his home run rate has actually been 2.35/9 HR/IP but he’s also dealt with some other bad luck in the form of a .338 BABIP which is probably too high and a LOB% of 65.4% which you would think would recover some. Still, he was drawing early comparisons to Corey Kluber and those have died down quite a bit. I still think he’s got real potential to be a mid-range starter just a tier below Duffy but he’s going to have to find a fix for the home runs, first.

Brad Keller is everyone’s sweetheart, still, despite mixing several sub-par starts among his more impressive outings which has led to a 4.09 ERA as a starter which doesn’t match his reputation among Royals fans or staff, at all. He’s been setting career highs in strikeouts, recently, but his walks have also spiked, as well. He’s walked no fewer than two in a game since his eight-inning, one-run performance against Seattle on July 1. As a starter, he’s carrying a 4.23 BB/9 rate which is completely unsustainable with his 6.14 K/9. His home run rate of 0.27 seems as unsustainable as Filly’s and Duffy’s rates, too. He’s got the best groundball rate of any of the starters at 52% and you’d absolutely take that but he might not be the ace everyone is currently painting him as. Fans would probably be doing both him and themselves some favors if they tempered their expectations a bit.

Burch Smith is my favorite of the new young, starters. So it’s no surprise that he’s fared the worst and has the least room to grow as he’s already 28 years old. While it’s impressive that he managed to get back to the big leagues after 5 years of injuries, surgeries, and work in the minors, his 8.27 ERA before last night’s mess is easily the worst among the guys with at least five starts despite a pretty impressive 8.71 K/9 rate. He’s had only one quality start out of six since joining the rotation but he was also on a pretty tough pitch count in the first two outings. He’s got a 4.89 FIP and a horrid 47.2% LOB rate which both suggest he’s due for some massive positive regression. His 3.48 BB/9 is both completely unimpressive and the best among the starters listed here, today, except for Junis. I still have high hopes that he’ll figure things out and run off a handful of good starts before the year is out to give himself a great opportunity at the rotation, next year. He’s not young but perhaps he can be one of the cheap, steadying veterans for the next competitive team if he can fix the issues that have plagued him thus far.

The best news, though, is that even if these guys get hurt or don’t pan out the Royals have some other young starters with at least a modicum of potential. We’ve already seen Eric Skoglund this year and although he is currently hurt he showed more flashes of promise than many would be willing to grant him. Scott Barlow, a free agent signed in the off-season, has looked OK in relief appearances for the big league club. His AAA outings leave a bit to be desired but he’s still got some potential and a small amount of time at 25. Trevor Oaks has looked a bit overwhelmed at the big league level but he’s dominated AAA with a 2.62 ERA. His strikeouts have completely disappeared since last year while his walk rates have spiked which honestly makes me wonder if the Royals are messing around with his repertoire in the same way they apparently have other minor league pitchers. Still, he projects as the best young starter of the bunch if he can rebound.

The stark reality is that it may be that none of these pitchers ends up being very good. The hope is that several of them turn into cheap mid-back-of-the-rotation arms. Don’t underestimate the value of such pitchers. If you can fill out your rotation with guys on rookie deals, even if they’re not amazing, you can afford to pay a real ace to defect to your team to lead them. Or maybe add a superstar to your lineup. Especially with whatever additional cash the Royals can add to the payroll following their next TV deal. Even back-end starters are pretty expensive, these days. These young starters may not be very good but they still have plenty of value and time to prove they can stick and help out the next winning roster.