Only one franchise in baseball has managed to stumble their way through the past decade without having a single pitching staff rank in the top half of the league: the Kansas City Royals. The franchise was only able to rise above 20th once over the course of the last decade, finishing 16th in 2007 thanks to Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and a surprisingly good bullpen that featured a 23-year-old Zach Greinke for most of the year. But that one year is just a blip on the radar and it’s not a very impressive blip at that.
That’s why GM Dayton Moore decided to go all in on pitching this offseason, overhauling the Royals’ rotation to the point that it’s unrecognizable now. Gone are the days of starting Luke Hochevar on Opening Day. Instead, Kansas City now has a viable front man at the top of their rotation in James Shields and a pretty solid quartet backing him up. Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, and Luis Mendoza may not be the most recognizable names in the game, but they have been ruthlessly effective so far, carrying KC to the 5th best starter’s ERA in the Majors as well as the AL Central lead.
Normally when the ace of your rotation is able to dodge a smash hit right back up the middle it’s a good thing. But for Angels’ ace Jered Weaver that’s not exactly the case. Weaver landed awkwardly on his left arm while dodging a come backer that was sent screaming off the bat by the Rangers’ Mitch Moreland and after having being examined on Monday it was determined that he had broken his elbow.
When Cardinals starter/bulldog Chris Carpenter announced that he was going to miss the entirety of the 2013 season with shoulder numbness, it put the St. Louis rotation in a temporary state of flux. Not that this state of flux is a bad thing. Actually, it’s quite the contrary. The Cardinals have weathered injuries to key members of their starting rotation before and they appear more prepared than ever to replace their long-time workhorse. A plethora of young, talented, and hard-throwing starting pitchers stand ready to take Carpenter’s place, which should lead to an intriguing battle for the last couple of spots in the Cards’ rotation. The candidates:
One of the best ways for a baseball team to maximize its pitching potential during any given season is for a franchise to call up young, talented arms and place them in the bullpen. This allows the young, talented pitcher to gain big league experience on a winning ballclub, without jeopardizing a team’s playoff potential. Once the rookie gets a little seasoning, many teams will try to convert these players back into starting pitchers, because starters have much, much more average value, due to the amount of innings thrown. This strategy has worked in the past with mixed results. David Price was a shutdown reliever for Tampa Bay during their AL pennant run in 2008, and became a Cy Young caliber pitcher with a 2nd place finish to his name. Joba Chamberlain helped the Yankees to the playoffs, throwing electric bullpen innings in 2007, but then he struggled when moved to the rotation.
This season multiple teams are attempting to move pitchers brought up in the bullpen back into starting pitching roles. The Cardinals’ Lance Lynn, the Rangers’ with Neftali Feliz, and the Boston’s Daniel Bard are making the transition back to starting. After catching Bard’s 11AM start yesterday, I’ve been able to watch all 3 pitchers, so let’s take a look at each and break them down:
Daniel Bard made his 2nd start for the Red Sox yesterday, and pitched rather well, but took a hard luck 1-0 loss to James Shields and the Rays. His final line was 6.2 IP, 4 hits, 1 earned run, 7 strikeouts, and 7 walks. He walked 3 batters in his final inning, and 2 of those after he crossed the 100-pitch threshold. It was obvious to anyone watching the game that Bard was tiring, and it made me wonder why Bobby Valentine didn’t pull Bard a couple batters earlier, potentially preventing the decisive run. Outside of the 7th inning, Bard was in control against the Rays, generating plenty of swinging strikes, and showing the ability to be a quality big league starter.
Bard’s repertoire in previous seasons had consisted of a fastball and a wipeout slider. He lived off his fastball, throwing it 69% of the time, and the slider was his go to out pitch, generating an outstanding 18% swing-and-miss rate. Bard has completely remade himself as a starting pitcher, showcasing his fastball evenly with his slider, while mixing in an excellent change-up. He was consistently hitting 93 with his fastball, with the ability to ramp it up to 96. If Bard continues to throw his pitches with this much velocity and movement he will remain an excellent strikeout pitcher as a starter. The only downside is that having pitches that move as much as Bard’s do can lead to control problems.
Despite his excellent K/9 rate of 10 so far this season, Bard is the owner of a mediocre 1.63 K/BB rate. He’s averaging over 6 walks per 9, a ratio that will kill him down the road. Bard has faced two AL East offenses that figure to rank in the top half of baseball, so that has to be taken into account as well. Both Toronto and Tampa have difficult lineups, with hitters who work the count and running games that pressure the pitcher. Bard will need to improve his control, and if he is able to, he possesses All-Star potential.
Feliz, on the other hand, has had the benefit of pitching against two of the lighter hitting lineups in baseball, based on last year’s rankings. Feliz over his 1st couple of starts is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He has thrown hard, both starts averaging 93-95 with his fastball, and throwing a good slider and change-up. Against the Mariners, he suffocated their lineup, allowing only 6 total base runners over 7 innings. The Mariners offense won’t be the abomination of the past 2 years, but it probably won’t rank in the top half of the league, so Rangers’ pitcher’s domination should come as no surprise.
Everything Feliz throws has an elite amount of movement. He generates a swing-and-miss rate above 10% on 4 of his pitches, including the fastball, 2-seamer, slider, and change-up. Its difficult for a pitcher to master throwing two pitches at an elite level, and Feliz is the owner of four. Check out the movement he generates on his two fastballs and his slider:
He has primarily thrown his fastball, throwing it nearly 70% of the time, only relying on his breaking pitches when he is in desperate need of an out. This is an interesting skill, because he never shows the hitters much of his repertoire, Feliz is able to baffle hitters in the later innings. When the Mariners, were able to mount a threat, putting 2 on in the 7th inning of Neftali’s 1st start, he was able to turn to his breaking pitches and generate a weak grounder back to the mound out of Olivo to end the inning.
Feliz does have a couple warning flags popping up concerning his performance early in the season. His strikeouts have been way, way down, averaging only 5.3 per 9. His strikeout rate dropped a bit last year, from 9.2 to 7.8 per 9, so hitters may be learning to stay away from two strikes with Feliz. Two starts is too early to decide whether the league has caught up to him, but it is a trend that is worth monitoring.
The Cardinals’ 24-year-old righty is the least heralded pitcher in this group, but has easily been the most impressive so far. On the season Lynn is 2-0, with a 1.50 ERA, and 13 k’s in 12 innings. He has only allowed 9 total base runners as well, meaning that nobody has hit him hard either. Lynn throws a dizzying array of pitches, but is most partial to his 4-seamer, 2-seamer, and curveball. His velocity on his fastball sits in the low 90s and he has the ability to pump it up to 95 when needed.
Lynn’s control has also been sublime during this young season, as evidenced by his strike zone chart against the Cubbies, where he frequently painted the corners. The ability to hit the corners is tough for many pitchers to master, and Lynn displaying it at such a young age, which is a good sign for the Cardinals.
He also is generating plenty of swings-and-misses, possessing a k/9 above 10 so far on the young season. In his start against Milwaukee he was able to sit down 8 batters himself, and that is an offense that has some legitimate bats in it . In the 35 situations that he has used his curveball, Lynn is generating swing-and-misses 50% of the time. This number will obviously come down as regression sets in, but Lynn is displaying the ability to strikeout hitters at an elite rate, which is the most valuable skill to have as a pitcher.
Backed by an offense like the Cardinals, a pitcher like with the ability of Lynn will be able to pile up wins for his team. The Cardinals have been generating cheap, young pitching for the past decade, and Lynn looks to be another in the long line. With Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Adam Wainwright, and Shelby Miller, the Cardinals have the potential to have an elite staff for the next 5 years as well.