Friday, October 25, 2013

Starting Pitching Review

GMDM and Yost declared before the 2013 season began that they wanted and would get 1000 IP from their starters. I laughed; an absurd claim, I thought. By the end of the season, the starters threw 986.2 innings, good for 4th of 30 teams. Pretty close; I was happy. The starters had done their jobs in 2013. This was in stark contrast to 2012, when the starters pitched 890 innings, good for 28th of 30. What worked, and what didn’t?

The Royals starting staff K% was 17.2%, good for 27th of 30 (or bad...yea, bad). Their BB% was 7.4%, 16th of 30 and tied with 2 other teams. Basically, the middle. Their contact% was 82.2%, 4th highest in the league. So, the starters emphasized contact over strikeouts, but they didn't go overboard with free passes, suggesting that the Royals starters had decent control. The Royals' BABIP against was .296, 18th of 30. Despite allowing a large amount of contact, the Royals achieved about a league average BABIP due to their defense. Unfortunately, that still means that more baserunners existed. More importantly for run prevention, the Royals had a 75% LOB%, 3rd of 30. Also importantly, that 75% LOB% is likely to regress in 2014; LOB% is one of those pesky stats that is usually more luck than skill. The Royals had a 10.4% HR/FB%, 10th of 30. The Royals' pitching was determined that home runs shouldn't beat them. Due to the Royals' home park, a similar HR/FB% in 2014 is plausible.

While the Royals allowed plenty of contact, not so many runs scored due to the Royals ability to prevent runners from scoring once they were on base (75% LOB%!). They accomplished this feat in two ways. One, by limiting home runs. Two, by focusing on fly balls over ground balls. Due to Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, David Lough, Jarrod Dyson, and Frenchy's arm (not his body), runners were less likely to score or advance a base on fly balls. The Royals were 27th of 30 in GB%, 9th of 30 in FB%, and 29th of 30 in LD%. If the Royals could have turned some of those line drives into fly balls, it is likely that fewer runs would have scored due to fewer base hits. LD%, like LOB%, doesn't correlate year-to-year, so it is likely that some of those line drives will become grounders and fly balls in 2014.

The Royals recognized they had an excellent outfield defense (for most of the year), and so they emphasized fly balls over ground balls in order to let their speed chase stuff down. They essentially did the opposite of what the Pirates did this year, which was to shift the infield defense aggressively and get tons of ground balls. The Royals starters gave up 454 runs this year, 14th of 30.

Overall, the Royals starters were 12th of 30 in fWAR. It seems the organization emphasized fly ball contact, and it worked this year because of the Royals defense and Kauffman's slight ability to limit home runs. The Royals placement relative to other teams in starting pitching WAR is just as much due to innings pitched as actual ability, but I predicted this starting rotation would likely be top 15, with top 10 being optimistic, and I was correct. Due to an impending regression in defense* and LOB%, the Royals should re-focus on keeping the ball down and getting a few more ground balls in 2014, but focusing on fly balls appears to be a sound strategy for their situation.

*I would like to state my case very quickly for the defensive regression. The Royals were near the top in almost every category defensively, but some of those contributors (Cain, Lough) are not likely to repeat the absurdly high level of performances. In addition, aging another year will likely decrease the defensive skills of each player, as defense tends to decrease each year as a player ages. This is not to say the defense will be bad next year. It will still probably be above average, just not world beaters.

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