RHP ∙ 2012—present
Between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Royals swapped outfielder Melky Cabrera, coming off a bounce-back year, for pitcher Jonathan Sanchez in the hopes that Sanchez would have a bounce-back year of his own. Instead, Sanchez was an absolute mess for the Royals. That bad situation ended better than anyone had reason to hope when in late July the Colorado Rockies agreed to take Sanchez in exchange for another pitcher who was struggling at the time, Jeremy Guthrie. Just moving on from Sanchez was a plus, but getting an actual useful player in return was a coup for GM Dayton Moore. Guthrie won’t ever set the league on fire, but he had some value for Baltimore for five consecutive seasons before 2012. Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland saw some things he thought he could tweak with Guthrie in the hopes of getting him back to that level or maybe even better. There was no reason not to take a flier. Guthrie said at the time, “…as I looked at what was in my future and I look at the Royals, I see a perfect fit there…I really hope to come in there and be a large part of good things that we can do here in the near future.”[i] Also, “I like the powder blue tops…I’m excited about that.”[ii]
Eiland wanted to just observe Guthrie for a couple of starts before tinkering, and those two games went just as badly as things had been going in Colorado. Then Eiland got to work. Guthrie’s next start was OK, and then things really clicked on August 8 in Chicago. Guthrie rolled through eight scoreless innings without allowing a walk, and then did not yield an earned run in either of his next two starts either. On August 19 he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. The team won 10 of his last 11 starts that year. So what changed? “He’s made a couple of little tweaks in his mechanics that helps him load a little bit more, hide the ball a little bit more. Nothing major, just very subtle tweaks. He’s just comfortable, I think,” Ned Yost said.[iii]
Eiland adjusted Guthrie’s shoulder tuck, changed his foot on the rubber, moved his hands down, worked on his balance. “All that was designed to get him down in the zone and add a little deception,” Eiland said. “He bought into it right away and worked on it hard, and continues to work on it to this day every day. Now he’s down in the zone and when he misses, he misses down. Pitching from thigh to belt-high like he used to, when he missed he missed up. Now when he’s from thigh down, his misses are down. And he gained some confidence. And once a guy with that pitchability gains some confidence, this is what happens.”[iv]
Guthrie was a free agent after 2012, but after his two sterling months in KC, both sides wanted to keep him in the fold. A big three-year deal with a team option for a fourth was signed soon after the season. Two years later, Guthrie has filled an unglamorous but valuable role as an innings eater with average run prevention. Homers remain an issue, but Guthrie has kept walks in check and let his elite defense do their thing. 2013 was highlighted by his first and second career shutouts. He also set a team record with 18 straight starts without earning a loss (dating to the end of 2012).
His 2014 regular season featured fewer highs, but a continuation of that steady presence that is more often than not enough to get the team a win. The Royals are a surprising 48-31 in Guthrie starts from 2012—14. The highlight that year of course was the playoff run. Guthrie, at age 35, made his playoff debut in the third game of the ALCS in a start against Baltimore. He delivered with five innings and one run allowed. He took the mound again in game three of the World Series, and came through with another performance just good enough for the team to win. His turn came again in game seven, and he started with a perfect first inning. Things went haywire in the second as he loaded the bases before recording an out, but limited the damage to two runs in the frame. He seemed to have righted the ship with a perfect third, but got into another jam in the fourth with runners on the corners and one out before being lifted. “When I walked back into the clubhouse after game seven having lost the game 3-2 and feeling responsible personally because I gave up the three runs, I walked in with my head held high,” he said. “I expected to be a little more sad than I was, but I think there was really nothing more that I could have done.” And to the fans, “We had a blast doing it with you and had a blast doing it for you and hope to do it again very, very soon.”[v]
[i] Vinnie Duber, “Royals acquire Guthrie from Rockies for Sanchez,” http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120720&content_id=35241892&vkey=news_kc&c_id=kc, July 20, 2012.
[v] Roxie Hammill, “Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie shares his faith at church homecoming in Platte City,” http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/community/816/article3558841.html, November 4, 2014.