The 2015 regular season has mostly served as an affirmation that the 2014 run to the World Series by the Kansas City Royals was no fluke. At 84-58, the Royals maintain the best record in the American League despite a 4-9 record dating back to August 30. The season began with a bang for the Royals, as they outscored opponents by 45 runs in April and looked like the best team in the league. Since April, however, the Royals are just 33 runs better than their opponents. Even with a lineup that gives most opposing pitchers no easy outs, the Royals have a very average run differential — a run differential that would suggest they are not actually 26 games better than .500.
Thank the starting pitching for that.
The Royals thought they had addressed their team’s only concern at the Trade Deadline when they acquired Johnny Cueto. Cueto gave the Royals four good starts to kick off his brief tenure in Kansas City, but has since imploded. Over Cueto’s past five starts, spanning 26.1 innings, he has allowed 48 hits, 28 earned runs, and eight home runs. In 11.1 innings against the Baltimore Orioles, Cueto has allowed seven home runs. The Royals have not won any of those five starts, and at this point, there have to be serious questions about Cueto’s health and his ability to pitch in the postseason. If Cueto gives up seven home runs across two starts to the Orioles, can he really be expected to fare much better against the Toronto Blue Jays?
The acquisition of Cueto was one the Royals felt they had to make to make a return trip to the World Series this year a reality. After losing James Shields to the San Diego Padres, the Royals were left to count upon Yordano Ventura and a cast of middling arms to propel them back to the postseason. Ventura has not been able to live up to the lofty expectations created by last fall’s star turn in the World Series, but he has been better since the All-Star break. Still, Ventura has a 4.42 ERA on the season. Only Edinson Volquez has been able to provide a modicum of stability for the Royals’ rotation. If Volquez is your ace going into the postseason, can you really expect to contend for the World Series?
As the Royals prepare to play out the final 20 games of the 2015 regular season, there should be real concern about their postseason chances. Since the All-Star break, Kansas City is only 32-24, over 30 percentage points worse than the first half of the season. More troubling, is the fact that the Royals are just 30-30 against teams with a winning record this season. The Royals 4.42 starter ERA is the worst among playoff hopefuls. They are tied with the Texas Rangers for worst WHIP among playoff teams at 1.36, have allowed the worst OPS, and have struck out fewer hitters than all playoff contenders but the Minnesota Twins and Rangers.
The Royals knew starting pitching was a concern, which led to their willingness to mortgage part of their future on Cueto. Had he continued living up to expectations, the concerns regarding the Royals rotation would have been slightly alleviated. Now, Cueto looks like the biggest question mark in a rotation that also includes Danny Duffy and Kris Medlen. The rotation was a question mark last season, but everything broke right in a weak year for the American League. And even though the back end of the rotation was not great with Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, the Royals still had a postseason veteran in Shields and Ventura pitching at his absolute best.
It’s hard to continue labeling the Royals the American League favorites with their middling rotation, especially as the offensive juggernaut that is the Blue Jays lineup continues to turn opposing pitchers’ knees to Jello. The Royals have good hitters, but they realistically cannot be expected to win many 11-9 games with Toronto.
By no means am I downplaying the Royals’ ability to emerge from the American League bracket. It would still not come as a total shocker to see them back in the World Series, as every other team in the league has plenty of their own holes to deal with. The lineup is strong, does not strike out, and can manufacture runs. The bullpen is arguably the best in the American League and has the type of power arms that win October baseball games. The Blue Jays also have enough of their own questions in the starting rotation. In the end, if the Royals can get their starters through six relatively good innings, they will have a shot at the World Series. But, if the season ends short of a return trip to the Fall Classic, it won’t be too hard to pinpoint the culprits.