The Royals pitching staff has underachieved expectation this year, and by a considerable amount. Their 4.97 runs allowed per game is just fractions of a run ahead of the dreadful Cleveland Indians, and comfortably ahead of the Orioles who have absolutely no way of getting anyone out. Suffice to say, if the Royals are going to be a .500 or better team in the second half of the year, their run prevention must be better.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this is that the Royals are vastly improved on defense from last year. Team UZR puts them at 2.1 runs below average, which is not great but far beyond where they were just a year ago. For this, you can credit vast improvements in defense made by Alberto Callaspo, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Billy Butler, who butchered the infield last year. Betancourt still ranks as the worst defender on the team, but he's on pace to hurt the team about a third as much as he did last year. Callaspo both improved his range, and moved down the defensive spectrum to a position he can handle. Butler is much more remarkable, as he is now a perfectly league average defensive first baseman. Mitch Maier has stepped right in to center as the team's best defensive player after playing sparingly last year.
Mike Aviles has been the second-worst defensive regular, though he's been the Royals best defender at second base this year. If you've watched him try to play the position, you would probably say he looks like he's playing on the wrong side of the field. But with Chris Getz' defense being very overrated (though he can't be worse than Betancourt), the Royals are getting the best production they can from second base.
Jason Kendall is playing slightly below average defense behind the plate. I don't know where a team can find good defensive catchers in free agency, exactly, but you would like to hope that your team could do better than Kendall with all the options this team had last year. Kendall's defense is essentially on par with John Buck's from last season, and might be behind Miguel Olivo. Kendall doesn't call games nearly as aggressively as Olivo did, which has led to fewer wild pitches/passed balls, but also fewer "missed bats". It would be unfair to pile a lot of blame on Kendall for the inability of the pitchers to strike out hitters, but some of the regression has to lie with the catcher.
In defense of Kendall, $3 million dollars per year usually can't buy a catcher with a .333 on base percentage. Sure, you're paying for that with a .320 slugging percentage, and both Miguel Olivo and John Buck are having far superior offensive years, but in Kendall's case, you knew what type of patience at the plate you were getting when you signed him, and he doesn't figure to be any worse offensively next year. Clearly, the Royals would have been better off with those other two catchers, but I don't know anyone who thought that John Buck would be in the all-star game this year, nor that Miguel Olivo would be having the kind of offensive year he is currently having. The fact that Kendall is the second worst offensive regular is one reason the Royals offense is improved. Last year, that "regular" was some sort of Josh Anderson/Willie Bloomquist/Ryan Freel rotation. Now: to find a way to get him out of the
The players that Kendall calls the game for are the biggest culprits, and the Royals bullpen is probably overrated as well. The "great bullpen" of the last two months really boils down to two relievers having quality season, power right-handers Kyle Farnsworth and Robinson Tejada. Joakim Soria is struggling this year, though it's only actually hurt him in two save opportunities: the Miguel Cabrera poke-shot on the second night of the season with 2-strikes, 2-outs in the ninth (the Royals would later win), and the barnburner in Texas in which he allowed back to homers that sent the Royals reeling towards a 13-12 loss. Soria consistently toys with his margin of error in save opportunities, almost daring the opponent to come up with a clutch hit, of which they are oh-for-the-season with RISP. Apparently, to beat a struggling Soria, you must hit before he gets started.
But the rest of the bullpen is full of mirages. Victor Marte has been the "best of the rest" but he's erratic at best. Blake Wood isn't so much erratic, but he gives up too many hits to work around. Dusty Hughes is a token lefty without a good pitch and has control issues. Kanekoa Texeira is a fairly standard waiver wire pickup who does fine in a "long" role, mostly because what he does is largely irrelevant.
None of that matters if the Royals aren't in games when the bullpen takes over. One of the problems with the Minnesota Twins, for anecdotal purposes, is that most everyone who picked them to win the 2010 AL Central were expecting Joe Mauer to be the absolute freak of a hitter who led the AL in slugging and on base percentage last year. Instead, the Twins have gotten merely the league's best hitting catcher who has good, but not great power. Mauer has 3 home runs at the all-star break, and deserved his election as the AL's starting catcher. Such is life for Royals ace Zack Greinke, who has disappointed pretty much everyone this year to the tune of 2.7 WAR at the all-star break, and barring a DL stint (crosses fingers), another 5 WAR season from the pitcher seems pretty inevitable.
Luke Hochevar, whose injury and subsequent DL stint has really hurt the Royals, has distinguished himself as the number two pitcher on the staff, about half as valuable as Greinke according to Fangraphs. So with a bona fide no. 1 pitcher, and a run of the mill no. 2 who will miss about a month total due to injury, plus all the money that the Royals have spent on this rotation, how the heck are the Royals averaging 5 runs against per game? We can count the reasons on one hand.
Gil Meche is being paid $12 million dollars this year. He has thrown 48.2 innings this year, each more terrible than the last. Meche has never been shy to pitch around hitters, but his walk rate of 6.29/9 is well beyond Marmolian. That might not be so terrible if Meche wasn't getting hit all over the place, but his 5.55/9 K rate is by far the lowest of his career. He's also stranding just 64.5% of runners, again a career low. The results have been disastrous.
But even considering that, the Royals have actually been a worse rotation with Gil Meche's career-worst production on the DL than with him giving up 7 runs per 9 innings every fifth day. This probably shouldn't be possible, but it's just one of the many ways that the Royals high-priced rotation isn't helping.
Kyle Davies has been the Royals third best pitcher this year, which is not to say he's been passable in the role. For the year, Davies finds himself somewhere between the realm of average and replacement, which is a safe place to be when you're a Royal. Davies is still wild, still has an excellent change-up, and has been fortunate (or possibly skilled) at keeping his home run rate down. Keeping the ball in the park has masked the fact that Davies is striking out fewer batters than last year, when he turned back into a pumpkin after a strong finish in 2008.
Davies has a 5.57 ERA, which is higher than it should be, but not unexpected for a pitcher that just isn't very good. Like Meche, he's stranding just 65% of runners, which is inflating his ERA.
Davies is probably unlikely to be in the Royals rotation next year in deference to the next guy on this list, who appears to be favored as the fifth starter
Bannister has been about as effective as Davies has this year, but he's been killed by the long ball all year. After turning himself into an effective groundball pitcher last season, Bannister has regressed a bit in the other direction, though not quite towards the extreme flyball pitcher he had been prior to last season. Bannister has been historically quite good at avoiding homers. Only once since coming to the big leagues in 2006 has Bannister averaged more than a home run per nine innings, in his career-worst 2008.
Bannister's 1.59 HR/9 rate is unlucky, and by far a career high, but anecdotally, none of these bombs are cheapies. Bannister is using the same stuff as last season, but he's really, really struggling to locate his groudball pitches, and the difference between Bannister's career HR rate and current HR rate is roughly equal to the difference between the groundballs generated by his stuff last year, and this year.
Bannister is the Royals pitcher (outside of Greinke) who is bound to improve drastically in the second half, which should help the Royals not give up so many runs.
When called up from Omaha to fill a spot in the rotation due to injury, you're not going to be expected to take the world by storm. But Lerew has been so prone to the home run in five starts that his xFIP is a respectable 4.99 compared to a dreadful 7.07 FIP.
With a 7.56 ERA, Lerew might have seen his last major league game in any capacity. He strikes out roughly two for every one he walks, which means his "stuff" is major league caliber (throws in the 90s, good slider, etc.), but he's given up 17 homers in 60 major league innings, and better than 17% of career flyballs (and 22% this year) go over the wall. The refusal of this rate to regress to the mean suggests that Lerew simply gives in to major league hitters too easily, throwing his batting practice fastball when he gets into trouble.
Lerew has been so dreadful coming out of AAA that he's got a career worst 3.8 runs below replacement in just five starts. Prorate that over an entire season as a no. 5 starter, and Lerew would be a -2 WAR player. In other words, he doesn't have major league potential, and actively hurts his ballclub.
Lerew, Bannister, Meche, and Davies aren't giving up all these runs by themselves, but the starting pitching has been the biggest culprit, and things won't get much better unless Bannister and Meche combine to make them better. They will need to to make the Royals a viable mid-tier team in the second half.