Four Royals pitchers who had concerning Springs

So we have looked at the success stories this Spring in Surprise, first starting with the pitchers, and then the position players. However, while the Royals had a decent Cactus League campaign, going 9-9 in the abbreviated season, not everything was positive. There were some players, both from the 40-man and the non-roster invitation list, who did not exactly impress Royals brass this Spring. And because of that, it will be interesting to see what Dayton Moore will do with these “disappointing” players, though that may get delayed since the start of the season is still in limbo due to COVID-19 concerns.

In the fashion of previous posts, I will focus solely on pitchers in this post, and then move onto position players in tomorrow’s post. Full disclosure, some of these pitchers will still be expected to contribute in 2020. This is not a “will they get cut?” piece. However, whether they are on the bubble of making the roster or are solidified for 2020, these four pitchers should be paid attention to not just once the season starts, but also this off-season as Moore and the Royals look to make roster moves.

Scott Blewett, RHP

I already mentioned in a previous post this Spring that the pressure was on Blewett to perform in Surprise. He was absolutely shelled in Omaha as he posted an 8.52 ERA, 1.98 WHIP, 1.22 K/BB ratio, and 2.66 HR/9 in 81 innings of work in Triple-A. While he did better when he was sent down to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, that was the second time he pitched in Double-A, so it’s not surprising that he pitched better in that stint.

Blewett had a good first appearance in the Spring, where he had a 1-2-3 inning. However, things went downhill from there, as he eventually posted a 12.00 ERA over 3 innings of work, which included 5 hits and four runs allowed, with only one strikeout to show for it. While Blewett showed good control (he didn’t allow a walk this Spring), he was just hit too much, and thus it’s not surprising that Blewett didn’t survive the first round of Spring Training cuts.

There is some hope that Blewett may do better if converted to the bullpen full time. But right now, it seems unlikely that he’ll be a full-time contributor at the Major League level. And with Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland likely to be added to 40-man roster, it seems likely that Blewett may be a casualty to make room for those veteran relievers. Granted, there isn’t really a market for Blewett, so if he is released, it is likely that he will make his way back to Kansas City. That being said, Blewett needed to have a strong Spring to justify his spot and unfortunately, that did not happen over the past month.

Jesse Hahn, RHP

Hahn has been an interesting tale ever since he came over to Kansas City from Oakland in a trade that sent Brandon Moss to the Athletics. Hahn had seen some success in Oakland as a middle-of-the-rotation guy, and there was some hope that Hahn could come in and boost the Royals rotation, which had been inconsistent in the wake of their World Series title in 2015.

Unfortunately, injuries have dogged Hahn ever since he arrived in Kansas City. He ended up getting shut down early in Spring Training in 2018 and ended up having surgery and missing the entire 2018 season. Last year, he spent most of the year recovering and rehabbing, though he did make six appearances with the Royals, a positive considering he nearly missed two full seasons of baseball due to injury. That being said, Hahn struggled in his return to the bigs, as he posted a 12.60 ERA and 2.20 WHIP in five innings of work. In Cactus League play, he gave up eight hits, seven runs, which included a home run allowed. While Hahn did strike out three batters, he struggled with his control, as he also allowed three walks as well in the limited stint.

Hahn was non-tendered this off-season but brought back on a team-friendly deal that only cost the Royals $600,000. However, Hahn is out of options, and it seems unlikely that he should get a roster spot in a crowded bullpen, especially with Rosenthal and Holland most likely joining the roster. It’s sad to see because Hahn would be a great success story, and he has some good velocity and could be a good sinker-ball, ground-ball inducing pitcher if healthy. But Hahn didn’t do himself any favors this Spring, and the Royals have much better options available right now in the pen, which makes Hahn’s future with the Royals pretty cloudy at this point.

Tim Hill, LHP

The left-handed Hill had a breakout of sorts in 2019, especially in the second half, as he and Barlow proved to be solid setup men in the seventh and eighth to help prepare things for Ian Kennedy in the ninth. After posting a 4.50 ERA with a 1.38 WHIP and 1.20 K/BB ratio in 11 appearances in the first half, Hill excelled after the break, posting a 3.41 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 4.13 K/BB ratio in 35 appearances. The solid performance generated some trade talk this off-season around Hill, whom some felt would be better suited on a contender than a rebuilding club.

While Hill finished the year strong, he, unfortunately, did not have the kind of Spring that built on that momentum from the end of 2019. Hill posted a 24.55 ERA and 3.55 WHIP, allowing 10 runs on 9 hits, with 4 walks allowed and only 5 strikeouts generated in 3.2 innings of work. While Spring Training numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt, it is concerning when the numbers are that bad, especially for a guy who has an up and down history of success at the Major League level.

The big question regarding Hill is if he can be more than a LOOGY (left-handed batters only guy) at the Major League level. While he was hit more against right-handers, as right-handed hitters posted a .316 wOBA against him in 2019 (compared to just a .217 wOBA against left-handed hitters), he actually showed better command against left-handed hitters. His K/BB ratio against right-handed hitters was 3.50, nearly 1.30 better than his mark against left-handed ones, according to Fangraphs. So, there is potential for Hill to be exceptional against both, though his HR/9 will have to be better against right-handed hitters (1.59 against RH while 0.00 against LH).

Hill is not in jeopardy of losing his spot as the Royals’ primary left-handed setup man. However, this Spring showed that Hill is not a sure thing by any measure, and his progress at the start of the season needs to be monitored, especially if Randy Rosario continues to build off of his strong Spring.

Brad Keller, RHP

This may catch some Royals fans off-guard. After all, Brad Keller is probably going to be the Royals’ Opening Day starter, as he was last season, though manager Mike Matheny has remained mum on specifically naming a starter for Opening Day. Furthermore, while Keller regressed a little from 2018 in 2019, as his ERA rose from 3.08 to 4.19, and his WHIP rose from 1.30 to 1.36, he was still the Royals’ most dependable starting pitcher a season ago, and is expected to continue that role in 2020.

However, the former Rule 5 success story is such an interesting pitcher, especially when one looks at his metrics. While he posted the highest WAR of any Royals starter who pitched 80 or more innings, he actually had the lowest K-BB ratio of that starting group (1.74), as well as the second-lowest SIERA (5.23), and only the third-best xFIP (4.94). A big issue for Keller is that he is not a strikeout-dependent pitcher, as his K/9 was the second-lowest of those pitchers from a year ago (6.64). And thus, Keller is dependent on his defense, bad contact, and luck in order to generate outs. Those worked out in his favor last year, as his BABIP of .282 was lowest of that bunch, and his strand rate (72.2 percent) was only behind Danny Duffy (73.5 percent).

Keller has seemed to get BABIP and the strand rate to work in his favor in his first two years in Kansas City. Unfortunately, this Spring showed what could happen when those two categories don’t work in his favor. This Spring, in three starts and 6.2 innings of work, Keller posted a 14.85 ERA and 2.40 WHIP, fueled by him giving up 14 hits, 11 runs, and 2 home runs this Spring. Now, Keller did show better command, as he posted a 3.00 K/BB ratio in his Cactus League stint. But the 18.9 H/9 rate demonstrated that Keller’s metrics can take a dive if BABIP isn’t necessarily going his way.

Despite a poor Spring, it was only three starts, so it’s possible that this was just a bad stretch for Keller. Furthermore, established starting pitchers try to work on things in the Spring, and with the improved command, it’s possible that Keller was trying to focus more on throwing strikes with certain pitches than just trying to get outs. That being said, Keller has excelled as the Royals’ No. 1 starter despite not having a No. 1 starter profile the past two seasons. So, it will be interesting to see if that will continue for a third-straight season.

Let’s hope that this Spring was just a fluke and not a sign of things to come for Keller in 2020.

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