“Pitching is the art of instilling fear.” – Sandy Koufax –

Well, if that was true, the Royals would be shit out of luck next year.

Luckily it’s *probably* not true so the Royals have a chance. A slim chance, perhaps, but a chance nonetheless. I’ve been thinking way too much lately about the Royals pitching staff headed into 2023 and so I sent out a few polls on Twitter. I don’t have the time or the energy for regular blogging anymore but I was so intrigued by a few of these questions that I figured I could muster it up for this topic specifically. Really quick, here are those polls I mentioned:

Here’s kind of the point of me writing this: we all know the Royals pitching staff was hot garbage last year. We all know they are capable of being better than that in 2023. We all think the new pitching coach and staff should help in that regard. My question really is, “How much better can a pitching staff really get year-to-year?”

Let’s start out west. In 2019, the San Francisco Giants finished the year in 24th place as a team in fWAR on their pitching staff. In the shortened 2020 season, they ranked 20th as a team with 3.8 fWAR on their pitching staff. In the offseason between 2019 and 2020, the Giants brought in former Royal Brian Bannister as their director of pitching. It took a year, partially due to COVID, but by 2021 the Giants had the 4th most fWAR of any pitching staff in baseball and in 2022 they ranked 6th. So, it is possible for a pitching staff to go from bad to good very quickly, but it takes a pretty special set of circumstances, like paying Carlos Rodon for one of those seasons.

The Royals aren’t going from the 3rd worst pitching staff in baseball to a top-10 system any time soon, but I do think there are a few reasons to be optimistic in the long run. Let’s start with the guys you all voted for in the polls.

Kris Bubic

I personally voted for Jonathan Heasley in this group, but you all overwhelmingly voted for Bubic over Heasley, Carlos Hernandez, and Angel Zerpa. There’s a lot to like about Kris Bubic and I think there are good, evidenced-based reasons to think he could rebound into an effective big league starter rather quickly. Let’s start with a breakdown of his pitch values per FanGraphs.

  • Fastball: -1.87 runs above average per 100 pitches
  • Curveball: -0.02 runs above average per 100 pitches
  • Changeup: -0.51 runs above average per 100 pitches

Among 140 pitchers that threw at least 100 innings last year, those marks rank 135th, 55th, and 63rd, respectively. That’s two above average offspeed pitches and a really shitty fastball. Regarding fastballs in MLB, average is bad. You want to be on one end of most spectrums. Very low spin, or very high. Throw a sinker, or create a rising action. Let it run, or cut it. Straight is bad. Average is bad. Bubic’s vertical movement on his fastball was almost literally the league median last season. He doesn’t spin it great, it doesn’t much horizontal movement, and he doesn’t really command it that well either:

That’s about as close to just throwing the ball down the middle and praying as you can get in the big leagues. If you wanted an example of a pitcher that throws about as hard as Bubic, spins the ball about the same, and has some success with their fastball, here is how Max Fried’s heatmap compares:

Fried throws a little harder, but he doesn’t spin it as well. A big difference between the effectiveness of Bubic’s fastball and Fried’s fastball is how Fried uses it. Bubic’s heatmap is outrageously mediocre. Fried is consistently on the edges of the strike zone and then hammers a particular spot inside the zone when he needs to. Bubic pretty consistently just lays a bad pitch over the plate where any big league hitter could take a good whack at it. Add in the fact that the pitch is getting absolutely ZERO help from his curveball:

You cannot get by long-term by throwing curveballs up in the zone. See that little dot down there in the bottom right part of the screen? That’s where more of those curveballs need to wind up. Like this:

I’m not saying it’s that easy, but, it kind of is? Bubic has some okay stuff. It’s not DRASTICALLY worse than Max Fried’s. Usage, sequencing, tunneling the pitches together…I don’t want to sound like I’m suggesting that Bubic can be a 5-win pitcher but there’s a few glaring reasons his ERA was over 5.00 last season that should be semi-fixable.

In conclusion: Kris Bubic HAS to improve his command if he wants to be a big league starter. His stuff is fine, not great, but it’s not the reason for his failures in the big leagues so far.

Daniel Lynch

I also voted for Daniel Lynch in this poll, along with the majority of you. Lynch, like Bubic, really has to iron out his command if he’s going to have more success as a big league starter.

That’s a lot of center-cut fastballs that don’t really have a clear target or approach. The biggest difference between Lynch and Bubic, however, is how Lynch locates his slider:

That’s truly not a bad heatmap, it just needs more help from the fastball. Lynch’s “stuff” is quite good. He has a fantastic knuckle-slider thing and he really locates his changeup well while mixing it in at a very effective clip. Lynch’s problem seems to be a combination of poor command and an inability to keep his fastball off the barrel of opposing bats. I mentioned this about Carlos Hernandez on Twitter, but I would start having Daniel Lynch throw a 2-seam fastball more often and try to induce more groundballs than he’s currently getting. A 41.5% GB% isn’t awful, but it’s not great either and Lynch doesn’t get enough carry on his 4-seam (at present) to get a ton of whiffs through the top of the zone (where you’d expect a pitcher to generate a bunch of fly balls on contact…). Trying to induce more movement, whether it’s arm side or glove side (in the form of a cutter) could pay dividends for Lynch, even if it doesn’t induce more whiffs.

Like I said earlier, having an average fastball is not good, and Lynch’s fastball is about as average as you can get.

To conclude: command the fastball better and find a way to induce more movement on the pitch, in any direction.

Asa Lacy

I don’t know if desperate is the right word, or maybe it’s okay to call it hopeful, but I was floored by how many of you voted for Lacy on that third poll. I don’t like…strongly disagree, but my goodness. I voted for Marsh personally but…you guys. Whew.

I’ve got nothing in terms of numbers for you here. I would just offer up my personal *opinion* on Asa Lacy:

I don’t believe that any of this is physical. Not a single bit of it. It’s not a command issue, it’s certainly not a “stuff” issue, and I don’t even believe this is a health-related issue. I think 100% of Asa Lacy’s problems in 2022 were mental. The yips are a very real thing and some very talented pitchers have had to deal with them in the past. MacKenzie Gore of the Padres recently dealt with a bout of the yips after being highly regarded as the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. He turned in 70 very productive big league innings this year as a 23-year old before going on the IL, and eventually traded to Washington in the Juan Soto deal. If Gore can recover from his issues (which were admittedly not quiet as bad as Lacy’s), then there’s still time for Lacy to turn into a productive big league arm.

Jonathan Heasley

I really think there’s still a chance for Heasley to be better than most give him credit. I already mentioned that I voted for him in the poll where most voted for Bubic, but Heasley takes the cake for me. I was gonna take a deep dive into Heasley’s issues and what he can fix for 2023, but Marcus beat me to the punch and I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here:

Here’s a quick look at Heasley’s runs above average per 100 pitches on individual pitches from 2022, compared with their usage:

  • Fastball: -1.1, 49.2%
  • Curveball: -0.77, 17%
  • Slider: -0.99, 12.5%
  • Changeup: -1.48, 21.3%

That’s about as Cal Eldred as it gets. I mean, what the fluff, man? “Hey Jon, here’s our recipe for success for you. Your worst two pitches? Yeah. We’re going to throw them all the time.” If you have grey hair, you may want to skip this next bit, but there are no rules that say you have to throw fastballs. Not one! The myth of “establish the fastball” has been engrained in so many of our brains that we Cal Eldred ourselves into creating horribly inefficient strategies for pitchers. Heasley should be throwing way more curveballs and sliders than he did in 2022. He locates them pretty well…

…he spins them pretty well…

…and, frankly, they are by far his best pitches. Why on earth he only throws them 17% and 12.5% of the time, respectively, is absurd and beyond me. Here’s another quick look at Heasley’s arsenal, split in different statistical categories:

Swing & Miss %
– Curveball: 25.6%
– Changeup: 24.6%
– Slider: 21%
– Fastball: 13.9%

Hard Hit %
– Curveball: 57.7%
– Fastball: 45.4%
– Slider: 43.6%
– Changeup: 33.8%

Barrel%
– Fastball: 11.8%
– Curveball: 7.7%
– Changeup: 6.8%
– Slider: 5.5%

xwOBA
– Fastball: .373
– Curveball: .365
– Slider: .330
– Changeup: .297

Chase%
– Slider: 31.6%
– Changeup: 29.6%
– Curveball: 27.7%
– Fastball: 18.1%

The fact that Heasley isn’t throwing his slider double what he is at the moment is freaking criminal and is just another example of how totally inadequate Cal Eldred was at his job. Heasley throws his changeup an appropriate amount, and he could probably trade some curveballs for some sliders in the future, but he has GOT to throw twice as many sliders as he is currently and fewer fastballs. I’ll repeat…there are ZERO rules stating you have to throw your fastball X% of the time. Heasley has some nasty offspeed offerings in his tool belt and he needs to be deploying them at a much higher rate than he is at the moment.

In conclusion: Heasley’s fastball kind of stinks but it’s not because it’s a terrible pitch, necessarily, he just needs to throw it way less than he is. Let that slider cook.

Carlos Hernandez

I’ve never been able to figure this dude out. He got absolutely blistered by right-handed hitters last year, his ERA away from Kauffman Stadium was 9.20, and although he was better in the second half last season, his ERA was still 4.84 in 22.1 IP. He’s got some legitimately decent “stuff”, but it is constantly getting lambasted all over the baseball field despite the fact that he actually does a decent job of locating his pitches?

Honest to goodness, sometimes I think Hernandez must be tipping his pitches the way he’s completely unable to avoid getting shat upon. I was looking at his Baseball Savant page for like…20 minutes before I found something data-driven that may help Hernandez in the future.

Hernandez gets pretty good movement on his 4-seam fastball, both vertical and horizontal. He throws the ball hard, he legitimately spins it pretty well, I really think he could benefit from throwing a sinker as his primary fastball long-term. Look at the run this pitch gets:

Baseball Savant had Hernandez down for just three of what they called “sinkers” in 2022. I’m guessing they were probably just 4-seam fastballs that got off tilt and naturally ran away from left-handed hitters (seeing as all three were to LHH). My thing with that is…if it’s happening naturally, and your 4-seam fastball is already getting good run, lean into it. I know I’ve been very pro-cutter recently, but the trick to a good fastball is just finding ways to be uniquely elite. As I have mentioned several times, average is bad, and Hernandez’ fastball, while being hard, is very average.

Here’s a quick look at Hernandez’ arsenal usage and some key stats around those pitches:

Pitch%
– Fastball: 49.8%
– Curveball: 22.2%
– Slider: 17.5%
– Changeup: 10.2%

Swing and Miss %
– Slider: 34.7%
– Changeup: 30.2%
– Curveball: 23%
– Fastball: 17.8%

Hard Hit %
– Slider: 44.7%
– Fastball: 43.2%
– Curveball: 29.1%
– Changeup: 27.8%

xwOBA
– Fastball: .415
– Slider: .360
– Curveball: .285
– Changeup: .222

One thing I’ll add to this conversation is that Hernandez seems to have a very effective changeup that I believe could pair very well with a sinker. His breaking balls are kind of a mess and I’m not sure how to come to a conclusion regarding what he should do about them, but I think throwing that changeup more and tweaking his fastball into a sinker would be beneficial for Hernandez.

To conclude: I have no idea.

So What?

Truth be told, I don’t even know. The more I look at some of these dudes’ numbers the more concerned I get about their futures. The thing is…I don’t really know how to put into words how BAD the previous regime was in terms of developing pitchers. To be honest, the current talk about “developing them at the major league level” has given me pause as well. The thing I keep falling back on is that these are talented pitchers, with adequate “stuff” and a seeming ability to succeed in spurts. Surely an adequate pitching development team, which they seemed to have put in place at least in part, should be able to draw some immediate success out of these guys. The amount of success is yet to be determined.

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