Kansas City Royals Pitchers: Fantasy Gold

Earlier in the week I discussed the Royals and Giants deal which saw Jonathan Sanchez head to Kansas City, and mentioned that it helped address their need for pitching. A team can never have too much pitching, but the need for it in Kansas City may not be as great as it appears on the surface. A couple of emerging starters, a second year starter, some prospects that aren’t far from making an impact, and a lights out bullpen have a chance to provide fantasy gamers with some cheap talent that could outproduce their average draft position (ADP) or auction cost. Of the bunch, it is the two emerging starters that might be the most intriguing.

The Royals acquired Felipe Paulino from the Colorado Rockies for cash considerations after they had designated him for assignment. He started 20 games, winning four with a 4.11 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. The underlying statistics suggest he was better than that, and offer reasons for optimism. For starters, he throws incredibly hard with an average fastball velocity of 95.1 mph, and racks up plenty of empty swings with a 9.5 percent swinging strike rate and a 78.9 percent contact rate. In addition to his premium fastball, he throws a slider, curveball and change-up. His slider is the secondary pitch he throws most frequently, featuring it 28.5 percent of the time in Kansas City, but it was his change-up that posted the best run value. His pitch mix gives him all the goodies necessary to retire hitters from both sides of the plate. At the worst, he should be a sneaky source of strikeouts (8.59 K/9), and at the best he could be a lot more. His control was passable with the Royals, 3.47 BB/9, and his groundballl rate of 45.1 percent isn’t too shabby either. His FIP of 3.51 and xFIP of 3.74 after the trade could be indicative of what’s to come.

The other Royals starter to emerge with Paulino was former number one overall pick Luke Hochevar. He has teased turning the corner in spurts previously, but never to this extent. His overall season line looks like typical Hochevar work, but it’s a lights out August and September that are tantalizing. It’s always dangerous to look at small periods of time without context, but something truly changed with him.

From his opening day start March 31, through the end of July, he rarely used his slider, instead choosing to throw almost exclusively fastballs of one variety or another (four-seam, cutter, sinker). Those three pitches accounted for 69.7 percent of his mix, and none generated whiffs with any regularity. The cutter had a whiff rate of 12.7 percent, and the four-seam fastball and cutter checked in under a five percent whiff rate each. After August 1, he began relying much more heavily on his slider. The usage of that pitch jumped from 10.7 percent to 22.0 percent and he reaped the benefits punching out batters in 22.7 percent of at-bats compared to 12.2 percent before the change. What’s most impressive about the pitch is that he’s not simply using it as a chase or waste pitch, he threw it for strikes 72.8 percent of the time. His cutter whiff rate declined slightly (2.4 percent) after revamping his pitch mix, but both his four-seam fastball and sinker got a boost (3.4 percent and 2.8 percent respectively).

Hochevar is a groundball pitcher, inducing them 49.8 percent of the time in 2011. He had no month in which that rate dropped below 45 percent, and he retained his groundball slant even after making the exponential jump in strikeout rate from 4.7 K/9 before July 31, to 8.4 K/9 after. Looking at the raw counting stats instead of the strikeout rate is enough to leave someone slack jawed. In his first 138 innings Hochevar struck out just 72 batters, over his last 60 innings, he struck out 56. That’s just 16 fewer strikeouts in 78 fewer innings. Yeesh, talk about a progression! This is a skill set fantasy owners need to jump on. Because many have already labeled him as a “bust,” after five years in the major leagues, the cost of investing in Hochevar should remain cheap come draft season. Don’t miss out on this 2012 breakout candidate, who already began his breakout at the end of 2011.