KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Even the most cynical observers knew the Royals’ pitching would be better this season after all their off-season moves to bolster the rotation.
And entering Tuesday night’s game in Atlanta, that part of the equation hasn’t disappointed. The Royals are third in the league in team ERA (3.32).
And the Royals’ staff is doing it behind the oldest weapon known to pitching: The strikeout.
After leading the American League in strikeouts through the first week of the season, the Royals have dropped back a bit, but still are fifth in the AL with 105 strikeouts.
Royals’ starters are averaging an eye-popping 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland isn’t getting carried away with the strikeout numbers because like most pitching coaches, he preaches pitching to contact.
“We preach pitching to contact, absolutely,” he told FOX Sports Kansas City. “We’re getting those strikeouts with secondary pitches, which means we’re getting ahead in counts. The main thing is, we just want outs.
“What we’re doing this year is getting ahead with those first three pitches in the count. Then you have more control over the situation. You’re seeing us getting swings and misses because we’re ahead in the count.”
Granted, it is a small sample size (12 games), but the Royals’ strikeout numbers are quite a reversal from last year. The Royals were seventh last year in strikeouts as a team with 1,177, and keep in mind that 535 of those came from the Royals’ bullpen, which set an American League record for Ks.
This year, both the starters and the bullpen are getting into the strikeout act.
“Some of it is just talent,” Eiland said. “It’s not something we’re trying to do. It’s something just happening as a byproduct of getting ahead in the count.
“In terms of the bullpen, that’s just mostly power pitching. We’ve got that. And a lot of times, the situation may call for strikeouts with the bullpen.
“But there are times, too, when our starting pitching needs a strikeout in situations and we’ve been able to get that.”
All the starters so far have had impressive strikeout games, including Luis Mendoza, not exactly known as a K machine.
“Are we preaching strikeouts? No,” Eiland said. “We’re preaching getting strike one, and get ahead in the count.
“Mendy is not really a strikeout pitcher. The seven he got in his first start is a credit to his improved breaking ball. But he’s normally a sinker ball guy who goes for ground balls.”
The only danger to the high number of strikeouts, obviously, is the risk of piling up pitch counts, and thus having shorter outings for the starters.
“That’s about it,” Eiland said. “Elevated pitch counts are never good. But I don’t see any other negatives associated with it. It’s an out.
“(Strikeouts) can be a macho thing but that’s not the case here. At least now it’s not.”
What truly has Eiland beaming is the fact Royals pitchers are not issuing many free passes. Entering Tuesday’s game, the Royals had walked just 31 hitters – only Minnesota had walked fewer (30) hitters in the American League.
“That’s what makes me proud,” Eiland said. “That tells me we’re pitching ahead in the count. You do that and you’re going to be successful and you’re going to win games.”
That’s yet another reversal from last season when the Royals were 12th in the league in walks with 542 – only Cleveland (543) and Toronto (574) were worse. And that contributed to the Royals having the second-worst WHIP in the league (1.41) to Cleveland’s (1.42).
This season, the Royals have the third-best WHIP at 1.15.
“It’s a change for our starters,” Eiland said. “Our relievers never really had a problem with walks last year.
“The strikeouts are nice but really what makes me happy is the low amount of walks. Getting up in the count and keeping runners off the bases – that’s what makes successful pitching.”