As you can see, the Royals have been remarkably consistent over the 13 years. They have averaged a 26th place in ERA. That is clearly one of the worst, and probably the worst over that time period (the other usual suspects like the Orioles and Rockies have fluctuated enough that they're probably a bit better). The Royals, who are a pleasant surprise at 13-9 aren't hitting much (20th in runs, 12th in OPS) and while they have some good hitters, they're not going to hit their way to the playoffs.
How have they done it? They're 6th in starting ERA and 7th in bulllpen ERA, making for a balanced attack. Last year, they were 6th in bullpen ERA and 26th in starting ERA. The reason this might continue is that their starting rotation is almost completely different from last year.
In 2012, they got starts from Bruce Chen (34 starts), Luke Hochevar (32), Luis Mendoza (25), Jeremy Guthrie (14), Will Smith (16), Jonathan Sanchez (12) and a handful from a few others.
In 2013, they have a starting rotation of Ervin Santana, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy Guthrie and Luis Mendoza. Chen and Hochevar were moved to the bullpen and are pitching very well (1 ER in 15 IP). They acquired Santana in a trade with Angels last October, with Shields and Davis coming from Tampa in a trade last December. No one is mistaking Santana for Justin Verlander, and while he underachieved the last few years, he won 17 games as recently as 2010.
The Royals are lucky to be in a division that will probably have only one other good team (Tigers). The Tigers came out of nowhere in 2006, the Orioles did in last year (although going 16-2 in extra inning games would be hard to replicate), and the Royals have a shot at the playoffs this year if the starters continue to pitch well.
Starters have also improved, but only down to .257 in 2013 from .270 in 2004. This is a startling drop, and is not a surprise considering the huge increase in strikeouts among relievers. Just as with the strikeouts, it is interesting to consider how much further this could go.
It doesn't seem possible that this trend could continue forever, but could relievers be holding the league to a .220 average in a few years or even .200. Something like that might trigger some kind of response to help the hitters like when the mound was lower after the '68 season. It is possible that this is as low as it is going to go, but we'll have to wait and see.
The lowest total from any month in 2012 was 7.36 in April, which made it higher than any individual month from 2005 to 2011. The trend here is remarkable, but it obviously can't continue going up like this forever. It does not seem at all ridiculous to assume that pitchers could average over 8 strikeouts per 9 innings for an entire month and then an entire season.
Why is this happening? This article from Tyler Kepner in the New York Times before the season started discusses several different possibilities, one of which is increased specialization in the bullpen. As more and more great pitching prospects are placed on a path early on in their careers to be a bullpen strikeout specialist, we will see more astonishing seasons. In 2012, there were 4 pitchers (Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Ernesto Frieri) with at least 60 innings and a K/9 average of over 13 (there was a total of 9 between 2000 and 2010).
If the Rockies are going to compete for a playoff spot, we probably know how they're going to do it based on recent history. When they made the playoffs in 2007 and 2009, they went 51-31 and 51-30 at home in those two seasons. On the road, they were around .500 in both seasons.
Their recipe for success is to be at the top in offense at home, somewhere near the middle in road offense and home pitching and a top 10 road ERA. The only thing that has held steady is that they've been able to score runs in Colorado even as they nearly lost 100 games last year.
They've been a pleasant surprise so far this year with a 4-1 start (only other teams with a 4-1 start are the much-hyped Nationals, Braves and D-Backs). So far, they've done well in every area, scoring 19 runs in their 3 game road series in Milwaukee and only game up 5 runs in two games at home to the Padres.
Can they compete? It will help if they have only five pitchers that start over 10 games (like they did in 2009) rather than 9 like in 2012. If Tulowitzki stays healthy, that'll give them a big boost. Teams come out of nowhere every year to make the playoffs, and it will happen even more often with 2 Wild Card spots up for grabs. The Rockies might be one of those teams.