Ranking the Royals starting pitchers (and candidates) so far in 2019

In the beginning of the 2019 season, all the criticism of the Kansas City Royals seemed to hone in on the starting pitching. In fact, the “the Royals have good offense, but lousy pitching” dominated any conversation regarding Royals baseball in April and early May of 2019. And the vitriol was for good reason: during March/April, the Royals starting staff ranked 26th in Major League Baseball in ERA (5.46), 23rd in FIP (4.84), and 26th in WAR (1.2).

In May, things slightly improved for the Royals’ starting staff as they ranked 25th in ERA (5.61), 19th in FIP (4.91), and 22nd in WAR (1.1). While some of the signs of improvement were nice, they weren’t exactly significant by any measure. However, in June, the Royals starters have really hit their groove, as they have been one of the better staffs this month. Through 16 games in the month of June, the Royals rank 10th in ERA (3.72), 12th in FIP (4.18), and 14th in WAR (1.4). Yes, the Royals’ overall record is bad (25-48 heading into Wednesday’s game against the Mariners), but considering the Royals’ starting pitching mediocrity dominated Royals fans and media conversations early in the year, the signs of improvement in this area may be a good sign going forward for this club as they hit the second half of the 2019 season.

So, who has been contributing to the Royals’ starter success? Who should be depended on going forward in 2019? And which starting pitchers have disappointed and probably will look at 2019 as a wash? I decided to rank all the starting pitchers into four tiers, which are described as follows:

  • Tier 1: The best Royals pitchers in 2019 and can be depended on for the remainder of 2019.
  • Tier 2: Good to average Royals pitchers overall, but have inconsistencies or minor issues that keep them from being tier 1
  • Tier 3: Average to below average starting pitchers. On the positive end, they have done okay so far, but have flaws that could prevent their success in second half. On negative end, they haven’t performed, but could be due for better second halves. Also, this includes some question mark pitchers (pitchers on the 40 man who haven’t played in KC yet).
  • Tier 4: Bad overall. Royals fans should not expect much, if anything from them going forward in terms of impacting the starting rotation.

With each ranking, I will list the three metrics I used above (ERA, FIP, WAR) and rank them within each tier. I will also describe and evaluate them further, using other metrics (K/BB ratio; HR/9, batted ball, etc.) to additionally distinguish each pitcher from one another within their tier.

Also, I included pitchers in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas currently on the 40-man roster in the tier rankings as well. I figured that it is possible that Royals rotation could change due to injury, trade or ineffectiveness, so I wanted to explore and rank those pitchers who could see a call up to the KC rotation in 2019. I didn’t include pitchers NOT on the 40-man roster (hence, no Foster Griffin in the tier rankings).

So let’s start from the bottom (Tier 4) and move down from there. It’s always best to start bad, so the news can only go up from there, right?

Tier 4

  1. Jorge Lopez (6.64 ERA, 5.65 FIP, -0.2 WAR, 10 starts)
  2. Heath Fillmyer (9.00 ERA, 7.97 FIP, -0.3 WAR, 3 starts)
  3. Scott Blewett (6.61 ERA, 6.95 FIP, N/A WAR, 12 starts in Omaha)
  4. Eric Skoglund (5.40 ERA, 3.81 FIP, N/A WAR, 2 starts in NW Arkansas)

Lopez is the best of what has been a poor bunch, though Blewett and Skoglund have yet to pitch in KC (and Skoglund most likely won’t due to he is recovering from injury and is facing an 80-game PED suspesion as well). Lopez has been a home run machine in 2019, as his 23.1 HR/FB percentage is the highest of any pitcher who has accumulated more than 20 IP for the Royals this season. However, what ranks him the highest of this rough bunch is that he is actually one of the better pitchers on staff when it comes to striking hitters out (8.52 K/9) and limiting walks (2.35 K/BB ratio). But Lopez just made too many major mistakes to stay in the rotation, and he also struggled against lineups when he face the order the second and third time around, as I have discussed on this blog before.

For as bad as Lopez has been as a starting pitcher, Fillmyer in 3 starts has been a poorer version of Lopez: same HR issues (25 HR/FB percentage), but without the command or strikeouts to make up for it (4.20 K/9; 1.40 K/BB ratio). Fillmyer was decent in his cup of coffee in the Royals rotation in 2018, as I profiled last year, but his lack of strikeout stuff or ability to induce consistent ground balls (40.4 percent) will most likely prevent him from finding much lasting success at the MLB level.

Blewett and Skoglund are on this last as mere formality, as they are both on the 40-man roster. Blewett is putting up pretty pedestrian numbers in Omaha, and isn’t wowing anyone with his stuff either (only 40 strikeouts in over 69 innings). Skoglund has a little more potential, as he displayed improvement in 13 starts with the Royals in 2018 (2.58 K/BB ratio). However, his lack of strikeout stuff, injury issues, and his impending suspension make him a bit of a wash for the remainder of this season.

Tier 3

  1. Glenn Sparkman (3.96 ERA, 4.93 FIP, 0.1 WAR, 5 starts)
  2. Josh Staumont (2.21 ERA, 4.07 FIP, N/A WAR, 10 “openings” in Omaha)
  3. Kyle Zimmer (5.17 ERA, 5.83 FIP, N/A WAR, 7 “openings” in Omaha)

Sparkman has filled in admirably for Jorge Lopez, but we’re starting to see the blemishes a little clearer now that the league is starting to adjust to the former reliever. While his ERA is decent, the high FIP and a low BABIP as a starter (.227) suggest that major regression is on the horizon. Sparkman doesn’t walk guys (1.80 BB/9) and displays decent command (2.60 K/BB ratio), but he struggles to strike guys out (career 5.71 K/9) or induce ground balls (41.7 percent). Another alarming sign is that his 44.1 hard hit percentage actually leads Royals starters, which could produce more disastrous results when the BABIP goes up. Sparkman is a good option for now, but it may not be lasting in the second half.

Staumont and Zimmer have been experimented as “openers” in Omaha, as Staumont has 10 “openings” and Zimmer has 7. Both Staumont and Zimmer have electric stuff, but their control is incredibly suspect, as they post walk rates of 6.87 and 5.74 in Omaha, respectively. However, if Sparkman falls off a cliff in the second half, it would be interesting to see if Dayton Moore brings up either Staumont or Zimmer and try the “opener” trend that’s becoming more popular with MLB teams struggling to fill out their rotation. I think Staumont deserves first shot at it over Zimmer, but it would be interesting to see if either of the “Wild Things” could find success in the uncanny role.

Tier 2

  1. Danny Duffy (4.64 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 0.8 WAR in 10 starts)
  2. Jakob Junis (5.33 ERA, 4.96 FIP, 0.5 WAR in 15 starts)

Duffy, by far, is the senior member of this Royals staff, as he pitched during the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 AL Pennant seasons. Duffy is also the Royals’ highest-paid starting pitcher, and has also been the most popular. However, what keeps Duffy from being a Tier 1 pitcher is his health. After being the Royals’ Opening Day starter in 2017 and 2018, Duffy missed out on the opportunity, as well as some early starts in March and April, due to shoulder issues. Duffy isn’t a perfect pitcher by any means: he has one of the lowest groundball rates on the team (39.3 percent), which means that if the ball is flying, Duffy can get in trouble (though it hasn’t this year thus far; only a 9.8 HR/FB percentage). Also, Duffy’s K rate is under 8 (7.62) for the first time since 2015, a sign that age and his history of injuries may be catching up to him. That being said, his K/BB rate is also higher than last year (2.19 to 2.01), and would be the third-highest mark in his nine-season career. Thus, while Duffy may not be striking out batters like before, he may be maturing as a pitcher, which may not only make him more valuable in the second half, but may make him a worthy Tier 1 pitcher for this Royals team.

Junis has been a frustrating enigma the past two years. Statistically, he looks awesome: great K/BB ratio (2.45), solid GB rate (45.5 percent; second highest on the team), third-highest swinging strike percentage out of Royals starters (9.8 percent, only 0.1 percent behind Duffy), and he sports the second lowest contact rate of Royals starting pitchers (78.1 percent). If you look at all those advanced numbers at face value, Junis should not only be a tier 1 pitcher, but perhaps the Royals’ best starter as well. However, two issues hold Junis back: the long ball (1.63 HR/9) and finding the strike zone (41.3 strike zone percentage, second-lowest on the team). Usually, these issues center on how he is controlling his slider: if it’s on, he’s one of the best pitchers on the Royals staff; if it’s not, well…I think his 2019 numbers have spoken enough. I wonder if Junis will ever be able to solve these issues, because he is a much better pitcher than his 5.33 ERA indicates, but I don’t know if he’ll ever get over that hump and be more than just slightly above average in 2019.

Tier 1

  1. Brad Keller (3.97 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 1.4 WAR)
  2. Homer Bailey (4.82 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 1.2 WAR)

Keller was thrust into being the Royals’ Opening Day starter due to Duffy’s shoulder issues in Spring Training. However, while many did not envision the 23-year-old as a top of the rotation guy when the Reds drafted him in the Rule 5 draft and traded him immediately to the Royals in 2017, he has done his fair share in 2019 to prove that he is the Royals’ best starting pitcher on staff.

Keller sports an interesting and throwback profile as a pitcher: he doesn’t post high K rates (6.10), he doesn’t induce a lot of swings and misses (his 8.1 swinging strike percentage ranks 5th of 7 Royals starters), he walks a good amount of hitters (he has the worst walk rate and K/BB ratio of Royals starters with 4.45 and 1.37 marks, respectively), and he can struggle to find the strike zone (his zone percentage is 38.6 percent, according to Fangraphs; 44.6 percent according to PitchInfo). However, Keller is a sinker ball pitcher, and induces ground balls at an above-average rate (a team high 51.4 percent), which demonstrates his aptitude with the pitch. Furthermore, he has limited his walks in the month of June as his walk rate has dropped to 1.64, and his K/BB ratio has increased to 3.75.

So, yes, Keller is an ugly pitcher when looked at with a sabermetrics lens. That being said, he is a dependable, innings-eater arm, who keeps the ball in the park (a struggle for many Royals starters this year), and is only getting better start by start. That’s why he’s not only a Tier 1 pitcher, but perhaps the Royals’ best starter on staff.

As for Bailey, I do not want to take away anything from him. Statistically, he looks better than Keller, as he has a more impressive FIP (4.09 to Keller’s 4.11), K rate (8.08 to 6.10), and K/BB ratio (2.16). And compared to other Royals pitchers, he doesn’t let the long ball affect him too much (0.96 HR/FB rate), though it’s not as good as Keller’s mark.

In many ways, Bailey is what Royals fans should expect from a Tier 1 pitcher: he can make hitters swing and miss at a decent clip. But while Bailey’s Kansas City redemption story is nice (a lot easier to go from the bandbox of Great America Ballpark in Cincinnati to the more spacious Kauffman Stadium), it always feels like Bailey is on the cusp of great and mediocre frequently. With Keller, one can kind of expect what his start will be. But with Bailey, it could be sterling, like last night’s performance against the Mariners, or it could be an utter disaster. Bailey lacks consistency, though he’s certainly been better since May ended and is one of the more dependable pitchers on the Royals staff.

Bailey has been a surprising free agent addition to the Royals rotation, something Moore has not done well as of late (Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy the prime examples). However, while Bailey may be a more impressive statistical pitcher, Keller gets the nod as the Royals’ best pitcher due to him being more consistent in 2019.

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