When the Royals spent four first round picks on college pitchers in 2018 the message came across loud and clear. They were going to invest heavily in revamping their farm system with pitching and the future was now going to rely pretty heavily on the development of the “Core 4” and some other guys. Less than three years removed from that draft and we’ve now seen the entirety of the Core 4 make at least one start in a Royals uniform. Only one of those pitchers threw a single pitch at the AAA level before debuting and two never even pitched in AA. Add in Carlos Hernandez, another prominent pitching prospect in this system who never fired a pitch even in A+ before making his big league debut, and the Royals handling of their pitching prospects sure has been interesting.
I want to make sure that I’m clear about this: I am not sounding off any alarms. I am not the least bit concerned with the development of any of these guys. I’ve just found it fascinating at how quickly they are moving some of these youngers arms. Let’s recap really quickly the journey these guys have taken.
- Drafted June 2018
- Did not appear in pro ball that season due to hamstring/workload concerns
- Debuted in A+ in 2019, posted a 1.87 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 10 starts
- Moved to AA in 2019, posted a 3.47 ERA and 3.78 FIP in 16 starts
- Finished 2019 with a 2.54 ERA and 3.16 FIP over his final 13 starts at AA
- Started 2020 in the big leagues when the season began in August, finished with an ERA of 4.06 and a FIP of 4.08 in 12 starts
- Started 2021 in the big leagues, currently has a 4.88 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 12 starts
- Drafted June 2018
- Went straight to A- and made 9 starts in 2018, posting an ERA of 3.42 and a FIP of 4.15
- Promoted to A+ in 2019, made 13 starts with an ERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.60
- Moved to AA to end 2019, posted an ERA of 3.51 and FIP of 3.68 in 13 starts
- Didn’t pitch in 2020 due to COVID, can assume he would’ve started in AAA Omaha
- Started in AAA in 2021, 0.85 ERA and 1.94 FIP in 6 starts
- Made big league debut Monday
- Drafted June 2018
- Pitched in rookie ball that year, 4.03 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 10 starts
- Started 2019 in A-, 2.08 ERA and 2.17 FIP in 9 starts
- Promoted to A+ to end 2019, 2.30 ERA and 2.57 FIP in 17 starts
- Made his big league debut in 2020, 4.32 ERA and 4.75 FIP in 10 starts
- Started 2021 in big league bullpen, has since filled in the rotation, 2.12 ERA and 3.67 FIP in 34 IP
- Drafted June 2018
- Sent to rookie ball that summer, 1.59 ERA and 2.31 FIP in just 3 starts
- Sent to A- and posted an ERA of 1.58 with a 1.90 FIP 9 starts to end the year
- 2019 started in A+, 3.10 ERA and 3.00 FIP there in 15 starts but he spent a bit of time on the IL, also made 5 rehab starts in rookie ball that year
- Did not appear in 2020 due to COVID
- Made his big league debut to begin the 2021 season, 4.89 FIP in 3 starts
- Sent down to AAA and currently has an ERA of 3.92 with a 3.63 FIP in 4 outings in Omaha
- Signed as an international free agent in 2016 (he was 19 years old at the time)
- Spent 2017 in rookie ball as a 20-year old, 5.49 ERA and a 4.89 FIP in 62.1 IP
- Spent 2018 at A-, 3.29 ERA and a 3.57 FIP in 15 starts
- 2019 was between A- and rookie ball and was hurt a bit, 5.31 ERA and 4.21 FIP in 15 total starts
- 2020 makes his big league debut, 4.91 ERA and 6.40 FIP in 14.2 IP
- Started 2021 in the big league bullpen and has since been back and forth between KC and the starting rotation in AAA Omaha, has a 3.40 FIP in 7.2 big league innings and a 5.57 FIP in 5 starts in Omaha
These are five of the best pitching prospects that Kansas City has had since Yordano Ventura made his big league debut. Add in Asa Lacy who started his pro career in A+, Alec Marsh, Jonathan Bowlan, and Austin Cox who are currently in AA, and the Royals have a really steady flow of top-notch pitching prospects to lean on. It is FASCINATING that only two of the Core 4 + Hernandez fired a single pitch at AA before making their big league debuts. Hernandez never even made it to Wilmington!
I understand that there is some needed context for this. The lack of a 2020 season throws a massive wrench into this. Brady Singer almost surely starts a normal 2020 in Omaha. Kris Bubic definitely starts in AA or AAA. Daniel Lynch definitely gets AA or AAA time as well. But they didn’t! The Royals were so confident in their guys that they brought them all the way up to the big leagues without ever having real competition against upper level hitters in the minors. Sure, they got to pitch to hitters in their own organization at that level, but that’s nothing like the grind of a real MiLB season facing other team’s hitters and traveling on buses to every other podunk town and staying in cheap motels, etc. I know some like to dismiss the idea that these kids missed anything important in 2020, but it is CRAZY the kind of jumps they made and sort of held their own in some cases.
Now, the real question: “So what?”
All I ask is that we have some collective patience with this group. I’m not personally the highest on Hernandez, just like some aren’t the highest on Kowar, or Singer, etc. However, given the context of their journeys to date, it’s really quite understandable why we’ve seen some of them struggle to this point. And while we ought to be patient while Hernandez, Lynch, and Kowar make some adjustments, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic currently rank 47th and 61st in FIP, respectively, out of 163 pitchers in all of MLB this season with at least 30 IP. Those two have really held their own so far in the big leagues despite what has been a crazy couple of years.
Here’s an example I’ll leave you with:
Casey Mize, widely regarded as the best RHP prospect in all of MiLB heading into the 2020 season, never got to pitch in AAA because of the 2020 COVID season. He really struggled in 7 big league starts last year, throwing just 28.1 IP and posting an ERA of 6.99 with a 6.47 FIP. This year Mize has lowered his ERA to 3.34 with a 4.72 FIP in 11 starts (64.2 IP). That’s an average of nearly 6 innings per start. Meanwhile, Tarik Skubal, who also had to skip AAA because of the COVID season, has lowered his ERA from 5.63 to 4.33 from 2020 to 2021 and has struck out over 11 batters per 9 IP this year. Both pitchers have made significant strides and look like they could head a rotation that helps pull Detroit up from the cellar in the AL Central next season.
Sometimes it takes guys a season’s worth of starts to make the necessary adjustments to pitch well in the big leagues. The gap between AAA and MLB has only widened in recent years. The big leagues are really hard! The talent on the 30 rosters is insane. Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch are still just 24 years old. They’re going to be fantastic members of this starting rotation for years to come. I know we want the Royals to win every game right now, but remember that development takes time. I can’t help but think about all those times Ned Yost left Alcides Escobar in tight games back in 2012 and 2013. There will be growing pains, but the Royals will be better for it long-term.