Halfway home: The pitching
At the midpoint of the 2022 season, the Royals are making a strong case for having the worst pitching staff in the majors. But the attitude is good!
With Thursday’s loss at the hands of the Houston Astros, the Royals mercifully closed the book on the first half of the season. Their record currently stands at 30-51, a .370 winning percentage. The fun thing about the season being exactly half over is the wins can be easily extrapolated. You don’t need a calculator to see that, if the Royals continue at their current pace, they’ll finish 2022 with a 60-102 record.
For a team banking on improvement, not only is this not good enough, it’s wholly unacceptable. The Royals made one move to remedy the situation when they dismissed their hitting coach back in May. Otherwise, it’s been full steam ahead to the precipice of 100 losses.
Since we’re at the halfway point, now is a great time to take stock of what we’ve seen to this point. Today I’ll start with a look at the state of the Royals’ pitching.
It’s grim, my friends.
There’s no point in sugarcoating it: The Royals’ pitching has been abysmal this year. The starters, the bullpen…all of it. For a time, they were pacing to be amongst the worst staffs in the history of the game. The history! (At least going back to 1901. That’s a lot of history.) Now, they are simply in the conversation for…let’s say…one of the 30 worst pitching staffs in major league history. Isn’t it like most Royals teams in the Dayton Moore era, they’ll half-ass even abject wretchedness?
As it stands, they’re allowing 5.2 runs per game, the 25th worst rate in the majors and worst in the AL. They are the only staff with a sub-2 SO:BB ratio at 1.8. If you’re a Roto geek, their 1.48 WHIP is also the worst in the majors. Are you surprised? The Royals are allowing a boatload of baserunners and over 30 percent of those runners are scoring. (Shockingly, not the worst rate in the majors.)
Let’s start with a couple of key rate stats for the staff as a whole.
K rate - 18.6%
BB rate - 10.2%
On the strikeouts, the only team with a lower rate than the Royals is the Colorado Rockies who own a whiff rate of 18.1 percent. If those rates hold, they would be among the 10 worst going back to 2016. For some reason, the Texas Rangers just refused to strike anyone out from ‘16 to 2018. Again, and I’ve written this so much this year, the TV broadcast constantly harping on the washed idea of pitching to contact probably gives some insight that the front office and staff realize they’ve somehow accumulated a staff that can’t miss bats on the regular, or it’s some sort of bizarre shift in an organizational belief where they’re trying to convince themselves that pitching to contact is a good thing. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.
It’s important to note that my jumping-off point of 2016 isn’t arbitrary or just the first season after the world championship, rather it’s the first time where the strikeout rate jumped above 21 percent. Here’s how the Royals have done against league average since then.
The Royals have consistently been below the league average when it comes to strikeouts over the last seven seasons. It’s actually gone on longer than that (the last time the Royals outpaced the major league strikeout rate was 2013), but let’s keep our focus here. Awwww damnit…I can’t help myself. Fine. Going back to 2006 when Moore arrived in Kansas City the Royals have bettered the league average in strikeout rate exactly twice. In 2009 (18.4 percent for the Royals versus 18 percent for MLB) and 2013 (20 percent for the Royals versus 19.9 percent for MLB).
At the heart of the lack of strikeouts is the inability to get ahead of batters with a first-pitch strike. This has been inclusive of the coverage of the team in 2022, not because those of us following the team was intrepid enough to find a trend, but because the Royals themselves were making a big deal out of it. From Lewis in March:
When the Royals’ starters as a group began the count with a strike, they allowed a .666 OPS. When they started things off with a ball, they allowed a .876 OPS. Such a seemingly minor detail in a game — the first-pitch strike — matters profoundly. That being the case, Royals manager Mike Matheny said the club is going to “make a big deal out of it”.
There you have it straight from the skipper: They’re going to make a big deal out of throwing first-pitch strikes. Let’s see how that’s working.
The Royals’ research gurus are following this stat. Reports are being generated. Results are being analyzed. The team is communicating to Cal Eldred and the pitchers, emphasizing the need to work ahead in the count. And they’re not only not improving, they’re the worst team in baseball. By quite a bit.
So let’s dive a little deeper into this pitching rabbit hole.
When the Royals pitchers start off with a ball—remember, something they do more frequently than any team in the majors—they put themselves at a massive disadvantage. After a 1-0 count, opposing hitters are cruising to .291/.415/.467 with an OPS+ of 121. They’re 21 percent worse than league average when starting off a confrontation with a pitch out of the zone. The good news is they’re not the worst! Just very close.
Time for a review. The Royals:
Don’t strike anyone out.
Can’t throw first-pitch strikes.
Get crushed when they fall behind 1-0.
If you’re the type to be building a “Fire Cal Eldred” dossier, I’m doing a lot of the legwork for you. Flag this newsletter in your email or something. And I’m just getting started.
You could maybe live with a lower strikeout rate if the starters could actually find the strike zone. That Royals’ walk rate is also one of the 10 worst we’ve seen since 2016. If you throw out the Covid shortened 2020 season, their current walk rate is tied for third-worst since ‘16. As you would expect by the superlatives of this paragraph, the Royals’ walk rate is the highest in the majors.
Here’s what gets me as I see several teams repeat on these tables of the worst in whatever category…Not only are the Royals ranking at or near the bottom of the pile in some key pitching rates, they’re number 30 with a bullet. Do you have any idea how difficult it would be for the Royals to climb out of the basement on walk rate? Look at how the teams are stacked above—just .2 percent separates 26 to 29. And then .5 percent to the pits.
The rotation has a 132 ERA+, meaning they’re 32 percent worse than a league-average rotation. That is—prepare yourself for this—the worst in the majors so far. Yes, the case can be made that the 2022 Royals rotation is the worst in baseball.
Let’s look at a few starters and assign some letter grades.
Brady Singer - B
Recall that Singer allowed seven walks while striking out seven in 7.1 Cactus League innings. That performance got him exiled to the bullpen to open the year. A detour to Omaha and he returned a different pitcher.
The strikeout rate is in line with what we saw in his first two seasons, but that walk rate is going to catch the eye. He’s gone from a league-average walk rate to one of the best among starters.
Of course, we can’t discuss Singer without mentioning the changeup. He’s already thrown more in 2022 than he did all of last year. Its usage is just under 10 percent, which is more than double what he did in each of his first two seasons. He’s throwing it primarily to left-handed hitters and is limiting them to a .231 BA and .385 SLG against. It’s not usually a swing-and-miss pitch for Singer, but it’s an effective offering.
Where Singer gets dinged is his ground ball rate is down from previous seasons and he’s getting hit harder than ever. His hard-hit rate of 41 percent is up four points from last year and rests two above his career rate. It follows that his 1.5 HR/9 is up almost half from last year. So now the Royals’ task is to get him to continue throwing the change and keep the walk rate depressed all the while he stops locating in the nitro zone as much.
I don’t trust the staff to help Singer make this adjustment, do you?
Daniel Lynch - C-
The slider remains a weapon and is the reason Lynch continues to carry the most upside of any young Royals pitcher. After limiting the opposition to .193 BA and .253 SLG on the slider in his rookie season, he’s followed that up with a .191 BA and .362 SLG on the pitch this year.
He’s largely ditched the sinker we saw last summer, but I wonder the wisdom behind that as it was an effective offering against right-handed bats.
Like his compadres of the Class of ’18, Lynch doesn’t have a ton of innings at the minor league level. In his two extended turns (at High-A in 2019 and Triple-A in ’21), he never had a walk rate above 3 BB/9. In his 130 big league innings, his walk rate is 4.2 BB/9. He’s going to need to solve that problem in order to make the next step.
He’s made improvements, and the potential is obvious, but honestly, he hasn’t moved along as fast as I expected.
Zack Greinke - C
It’s Greinke. What more do you want? Although I did expect a bit more in the run prevention column.
Brad Keller - C+
Behind Singer, he’s been the second-best starter. Damning praise on this staff. I remain confounded by his poor strikeout rate and the fact he’s allowing far too many baserunners. Although that’s a symptom of most Royals’ pitchers.
Keller is generally kind of meh to me as a starter. I’ve long asserted that if the Royals are going to contend with Keller in the rotation, he would have a fourth or fifth starter role. When he’s one of the top two starters on the staff…your rotation isn’t that good.
Jonathan Heasley - D+
Heasley sports perhaps the best fastball among his draft brethren. It has a nice spin rate that gives it a bit of the illusion of rise, which should make the pitch harder to hit than the heater with average spin. Except Heasley consistently lives just about middle-middle with the pitch. Opponents are slugging .591 on the four-seamer. Yikes.
A 1.46 strikeout to walk ratio isn’t setting yourself up for success.
Like with Singer and Lynch, there are adjustments to be made if he’s to position himself for success. I doubt the Royals will be able to unlock those adjustments.
Kris Bubic - D-
Remember all that talk this spring about how Bubic was developing a slider and how that was going to unlock all sorts of potential. In 860 pitches he’s thrown this year, he’s offered zero sliders. So much for that.
He’s done better since returning from Omaha in that he’s survived the first inning in each of his six starts. But the walk rate is still too lofty at 4.5 BB/9 since the start of June.
Hanging grades on players is extremely subjective. I also realized as I was laying these down that I’m probably grading on a curve. Feel free to hit the comments to disagree. Hell, do it if you agree, too. Everyone can use a little positive feedback.
Meanwhile, I could use some relief and so could the Royals.
I don’t have the energy to hand out letter grades to the bullpen corps. And you don’t want me to bring you down any more than I already have. Suffice to say the only bullpen worse than the Royals’ 118 OPS+ is the Reds at 133. (Lordy, Cincinnati’s bullpen is beyond awful.) The Royals relievers’ 1.76 SO:BB ratio is the worst in the majors and their 4.76 ERA is second-worst. (The Reds sport a 5.57 bullpen ERA. My god.)
Scott Barlow remains the best option out of the bullpen but he hasn’t had more than two days between appearances since mid-June. Over this stretch, he has a 4.22 ERA and has allowed two home runs in 10.2 innings. With an 8.1 BB/9, there’s no way I want Amir Garrett to have the ball in a high leverage situation. Yet he’s entered with runners on base in five of his last seven appearances and has pitched in some high leverage situations since returning to the team. Sure thing, Matheny. Jose Cuas is my favorite in those high leverage situations, but Matheny has gone to him so much that he’s pitched on one or no days of rest in 10 of his 16 appearances. I worry about that.
The second best option out of the bullpen is probably Taylor Clarke, who the Royals nabbed after Arizona didn’t tender him a contract last winter. A 1.2 walk rate is good no matter where you pitch. Coming out of the Royals’ bullpen, it’s phenomenal. Dylan Coleman is striking out 9.7 batters per nine, but a 6.5 BB/9 is an unwelcome counter. His fastball velocity hasn’t matched what he flashed in 2020, but Josh Staumont (currently on the 15-day IL) is still in the 90th percentile with his heater. It averages 96.6 MPH.
If the Royals were serious about improving their pitching, they’d move forward without Cal Eldred. However, we know from comments made by Dayton Moore a couple of weeks ago that this is not an option the Royals feel they want to pursue.
It’s obvious that a front office seeking to become more transactional doesn’t have the stomach for the dirty work that’s sometimes necessary to improve. I think back to one of Moore’s comments on a pregame show on the Royals Radio Network. It was replayed the following day by Carrington Harrison at 610 Sports.
"Our environment is one of encouraging, one that shows the importance of exercising patience and belief and trust in one another. It's probably cost us wins on the field, there's no doubt about that. But I think in the long run, we're developing champions off the field and when you do that you’ve got a better chance to win a world championship on the field. There’s bumps and bruises along the way, there’s growing pains, there’s frustration…At the end of the day i think it's really important that we continue to use this platform to grow players and help them become men and fathers and husbands and great brothers and great teammates."
A team serious about winning would not be employing a pitching coach who has helmed a staff that has veered into the historically awful. Not when the franchise literally pushed all of its chips in on collegiate arms in an attempt to accelerate a rebuild. Forget about that whole rant from even earlier about how if you’re going to criticize Eldred for the struggles of some, you need to give him credit for the successes of others. I’m fairly certain that outside of a few individual game performances, I just laid out a strong case that this pitching staff is the worst in baseball in 2022.
The Royals need to be contemplating life after Eldred. Not this winter. Today. Now. There’s half a season left and every game is important in the attempt to put this franchise back on the road to respectability. Don’t wait. Don’t squander the opportunity to improve. Do it now.