It seems like weeks we’ve been discussing what lies ahead in October. Now we are in the final week of the season, the Royals postseason plans are starting to crystalize.
Take the rotation. The Royals game notes now project the starting pitchers for the rest of the regular season.
9/30 – Edinson Volquez
10/1 – Kris Medlen
10/2 – Chris Young
10/3 – Yordano Ventura
10/4 – Johnny Cueto
This pretty much answers the Royals plans for the Divisional Series. Ventura will almost assuredly take the ball in Game One. Cueto gets Game Two with Volquez picking up the third game.
It may be obscured due to his rocky first half, but Ventura has been the Royals best starter the second half of the season. And that includes his disaster start against the Pirates that got him optioned to Omaha for an afternoon. Overall in the second half, Ventura has posted a 3.75 ERA against a 3.44 FIP with a 9.3 SO/9 in 84 innings of work. If there’s a silver lining to his struggles and time missed with injury, it’s that he will finish the year with around 160 innings, or about 20 innings fewer than last summer. He should be fresh for the postseason.
I think Ventura’s about-face has been one of the underreported stories of the season.
Let’s look at how Ventura has attacked left-handed batters. The heat map on the left is from the first half. The right is the second half. Both are courtesy Brooks Baseball.
Now take a peek at how Ventura has approached hitters from the right side.
A couple of things are fairly obvious from the heat maps. For starters, in the first half, Ventura was locating far too many pitches in the meaty part of the plate. The numbers would bear this out. In the first half, the opposition made “soft” contact just over 11 percent of the time, while “hard” contact was made around 32 percent of the time. Not only that, the location meant he wasn’t missing bats with enough frequency. Ventura can bring the heat and has been known to hit triple digits. Impressive, but leave a 100 mph heater middle-middle and a major league hitter can do equally impressive things.
Ventura has shifted his location and has been keeping the ball down in the zone more since the All-Star Break. If you believe the gospel according to Uncle Hud, you would think that a low pitch can’t be hit for a home run and is the pitcher’s best friend. A low pitch can most certainly be launched, but if you’re going to miss, it’s almost always advisable to miss low. And it is true, that ground balls are a frequent outcome of a low pitch with the downward plane. Again, the numbers bear this out. In the first half, batters were hitting grounders around 52 percent of the time versus fly balls at a rate of around 29 percent. Ventura has gotten more grounders in the second half, with a 53 percent ground ball rate and a 25 percent fly ball rate. That may not seem like a massive difference, but the opposition isn’t squaring up the low pitch as much. His slugging percentage against has dropped from .401 to 373 in the second half.
A couple other things to note about Ventura’s first half. If you read the tea leaves (or the numbers) it wasn’t difficult to see that a turnaround was coming. Prior to the All-Star Break, his strand rate was 67 percent. The average starting pitcher will have a strand rate around 75 percent, so you could have rationally expected a correction. The low strand rate was part of the reason he outperformed his ERA of 4.76 with a FIP of 3.96. This isn’t to say, “I saw this happening,” because I didn’t. What the numbers in the first half showed was the potential for a turnaround was there. A turnaround, though, was far from assured. Thankfully, he was able to relieve some of the pressure he put on himself and was able to get on the right path in the season’s second half. The Royals will need him fronting the rotation in October.
It’s safe to assume when the Royals acquired Cueto close to the trade deadline, they figured he would be the first bullet out of the starting pitching chamber. His struggle to adjust to whatever has bumped him back in the pecking order. There’s certainly a part of the fanbase down on Cueto, but he is a pitcher with ace pedigree. All parties had to have been shocked to a degree that he has found so long to find his footing in Royal blue. Yet since Cueto is just a rental and Ventura is a long-term piece of the puzzle, this development where Ventura is ahead of Cueto in the rotation is a good one as far as I’m concerned.
Everything hinges on the pitching. You want to point fingers at the Royals tepid September? How about their 5.4 runs allowed per game? They have scored 130 runs (which ranks fifth among AL teams) and allowed 147. To paraphrase the dean of Faber College, a negative run differential is no way to go through the season. Good thing this is just a month. The offense hasn’t exactly set the baseball world on fire, but run scoring is down across baseball this month.
Besides, it doesn’t make sense to worry about September. This team has had a postseason spot all but secure for the last two months. If September is just a slump or if we’re seeing a team that has removed it’s foot from the accelerator for the time being, it’s not enough to worry. What happens in September has no bearing in October. None. The idea of momentum in baseball is a fallacy. Each game presents a new challenge. Last night’s epic win doesn’t always carry over into the next day.
Today is the one year anniversary of the greatest baseball game I have ever witnessed: The 2014 AL Wild Card. Some may make the argument that game was the spark that ignited the momentum for the Royals postseason run. I tend to think it was outstanding starting pitching, a lockdown bullpen and some timely hits. Seriously, think back to the extra inning games in Anaheim. If the Royals don’t have the best bullpen in the American League, they don’t win both those games. They were able to outlast a very good team. Attrition, not momentum.
Besides, if you’re going to buy into the momentum narrative, what are you going to do about the experience narrative. You know, the one that says it matters having postseason experience. How then do you explain a team that featured nearly every key player making his postseason debut, including the manager, running the table like they did? Momentum trumps experience? How about good starting pitching trumps everything.
The good news – and the point of this rambling post – is to point out that Ventura has emerged as the Royals best option to lead the team into October. He’s made the necessary adjustments, is locating better, and has deservedly moved to the top of the rotation. Recent Royals struggles aside, Ventura looks a strong bet to continue his second half success into the postseason. With a resurgent Ventura and a steady Cueto, the Royals will be in a very strong position to start their quest to defend their American League title.